American Printing House for the Blind History

1839 Frankfort Avenue
P.O. Box 6085
Louisville, Kentucky 40206-0085

Telephone: (502) 895-2405
Toll Free: 800-223-1839
Fax: (502) 899-2274

Nonprofit Company
Incorporated: 1858
Employees: 500
Sales: $16.4 million (1997)
SICs: 2732 Book Printing

Company Perspectives:

The American Printing House for the Blind promotes independence of blind and visually impaired persons by providing special media, tools, and materials needed for education and life.

Company History:

The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) is the oldest company in the United States manufacturing products for blind and visually impaired people. It is also the world's largest such company. APH is nonprofit, and operates by means of donations and an annual appropriation from the U.S. Congress, mandated in 1879. APH collected over $6 million in federal funds in 1998. The company is the official supplier of educational materials for blind students at the pre-college level. APH makes braille, large-type, and electronic textbooks as well as educational guides to help students learn braille. It also provides learning materials for preschool children. Besides making books and texts for students, the company also provides an array of services for visually impaired people of any age. The company is a leading distributor of computer software that makes computers accessible to the blind. It provides voice-activation software, which allows computers to respond to voice commands and to speak to blind users. APH also provides talking software that can be used as texts in classrooms.

APH also operates a recording studio to produce hundreds of talking books each year. APH puts out a recorded version of Newsweek and Reader's Digest. Its recorded magazines are made available to visually impaired consumers at the same time the print version hits the newsstands. The recording studio also produces talking books for the National Library Service for the Blind and Visually Handicapped, covering a wide assortment of fiction and nonfiction.

The company also manufactures or distributes a variety of tools needed by blind people, such as braille slates, special reading lamps, and tactile rulers, as well as paper used by braille writers and special notebooks for storing braille materials.

Early History

The American Printing House for the Blind began as the project of a blind Kentuckian, Morrison Heady. In 1854 Heady commenced collecting donations in order to print a raised letter version of Milton's Paradise Lost. Two years later, Heady inspired a blind man in Mississippi, Dempsey B. Sherrod, to try to raise funds in his state. Sherrod's idea was that a national publishing house for raised print books should be established. The enterprising Sherrod convinced the Mississippi legislature to set aside funds for such a publishing house in 1857. For reasons that are not quite clear, the Mississippian selected Louisville, Kentucky, as the site for the new venture. So with the help of the Mississippi legislature, the American Printing House for the Blind was incorporated in Louisville in 1858. Kentucky's general assembly passed an act establishing the company, and a space for it was set aside in the basement of the Kentucky Institution for the Education of the Blind. It was not until 1860 that APH collected its first funds, an appropriation of $1,000 each from Kentucky and Mississippi. The company used the money to buy an embossing press, but with the advent of the Civil War, APH's funding vanished, and the press did not become active until 1866. The first book APH printed was a raised-letter book called Fables and Tales for Children.

The big boost to the fledgling press came when the U.S. Congress passed an act in 1879 that provided an annual subsidy to APH. The Act to Promote the Education of the Blind selected the firm to receive funds to make embossed books and other materials for blind students. Congress established a perpetual trust fund of $250,000 to be invested in U.S. bonds, and $10,000 was to be spent annually on the manufacture of books and other materials for the blind. The books and materials were to be distributed free of charge to students at state residential schools for the blind. In 1906 the provision was changed to allow for a simple grant of $10,000 annually. This amount went up through the years, to $40,000 in 1919, then to $75,000 in 1927, and on up until 1962, when APH was allowed to ask for the amount it needed, with no ceiling.

With more money, and more students needing services each year, APH grew rapidly. In only a few years the company was too big for the cramped basement of the Kentucky Institution for the Education of the Blind, and it needed to raze its own building. Its federal funds could not be used for that purpose, but APH was able to get money from the state of Kentucky. APH's trustees bought land adjacent to the old site in 1882, and by 1883 the new building was completed. The company produced more books each year. In 1894, its catalog of publications was 15 pages long, but ten years later the catalog had stretched to 100 pages.

Early 20th Century

Though Congress raised the APH appropriation frequently, the cost of printing books for the blind was inordinately expensive. Braille books (or books embossed in other tactile systems) had to be printed on special heavy paper. The books were printed from brass plates, and these too were expensive. Some figures from 1922 show the enormous difference in price between braille and ink books: $.85 for Pilgrim's Progress in ink, versus $21.15 for braille, $1.75 for Huckleberry Finn in ink, compared to $31.10 in braille. Adding to the cost was the size and weight of braille editions: Dickens's David Copperfield in a 1920s braille edition took up six volumes and weighed 32 pounds. APH was receiving $50,000 a year in the early 1920s, but this came out to only $7 per pupil enrolled in a state school for the blind. No funds were available to make books for adult readers. In 1922 a famous advocate for the blind, M. C. Migel, appealed to President Harding for funds to print braille books for the 450 or so veterans blinded in World War I. Migel's emotional appeal brought $100,000 out of the Veteran's Bureau. APH contracted to print the veterans' books, though its mandate up until then had been only to produce books for school children. However, as the largest braille publisher in the country, it was the only company that could handle the large Veteran's Bureau order.

During the 1920s and 1930s, improvements were made in the braille printing process, eventually bringing down the cost of braille book production. APH had turned out books in five different kinds of type in its beginning years. These early printing systems, such as New York Point and Boston Line Type, had their impassioned advocates, but as braille presses and typewriters improved, braille became the preeminent system in use in America by the mid-1920s. The American Printing House was a leader in bringing superior European braille printing tactics to the United States. APH superintendent E. E. Bramlette was a member of a consulting group that toured braille presses in England, France, Germany, and Austria in 1924. The European presses used the interpoint system, where braille characters were printed on both sides of the page. This saved paper and other production costs. But APH's Bramlette was at first against switching over to the new system, because it would increase labor costs. Bramlette feared that the increased costs would not offset the savings. APH did not endorse interpoint printing until another U.S. braille press began to take away orders from it, because it could produce books more cheaply using interpoint. This competition finally swayed APH, and by the end of the 1920s, the company was producing two-sided braille pages at a lower production cost than it had achieved before.

A notable landmark of the 1920s was APH's publication of a braille edition of Reader's Digest. Other news magazines written especially for the blind, such as the Braille Mirror, had been available to blind readers earlier. This, however, was the first general news magazine to be translated into braille. The idea for producing a braille news magazine originated with APH's superintendent Bramlette. He chose Reader's Digest because it covered diverse topics, both news and literary. The magazine's publisher was enthusiastic, agreeing to forego a royalty fee for the material. After a successful national fundraising campaign, the first braille edition of Reader's Digest came out in September 1928. The magazine soon reached over 15,000 blind readers around the world.

The Pratt-Smoot Act of 1931 gave further impetus to the American Printing House's activities. This bill provided a federal appropriation to the Library of Congress to purchase and publish books for the blind. APH, already established as the largest braille publisher in the United States, thus was given contracts to produce more books, especially books for adult readers. APH expanded in other ways, too, in the 1930s. Under the direction of a new superintendent, A. C. Ellis, APH established its own machine shop to manufacture equipment and apparatus needed by the blind. APH machinists designed and built new arithmetic slates, writing frames, and special devices for notating music. In 1936, APH built its own recording studio to record talking books. In 1939, APH extended its publication of Reader's Digest to include a recorded version. APH made monthly recordings of Reader's Digest on long-playing record discs, and distributed them to the 27 regional libraries for the blind. APH raised the money for this venture with the help of the Reader's Digest Fund for the Blind, which had thousands of donors in 50 countries. The recorded Reader's Digest was accepted gratefully by the many people who had gone blind late in life and never learned to read braille.

World War II and After

APH grew rapidly in the 1930s. Staff had grown to more than 80 people, and the company's building had grown too small. American Printing House looked for a new space, but was unable to buy a new building. Instead it leased additional space and set up a fund to pay for remodeling the old building. Nonetheless, all the new products the company had begun in the 1930s were jeopardized when the United States entered World War II. Most of the materials APH used to manufacture braille books, talking books, and the various mechanical apparatus for the blind were on the list of materials critical to the war effort, and so the company had great difficulty getting the supplies it needed. In addition, many employees left, either to join the military or to work in defense-related jobs, which paid better than APH could. The Printing House made do with a smaller staff, who kept the presses going by working longer hours.

After the war was over, business resumed at APH. APH expanded its production of educational aids in the 1950s, making new classroom items such as plastic relief maps and globes. The Printing House also expanded its output of braille magazines. By 1952, it was printing and distributing over 50 different magazines in braille. It also made recorded versions of other magazines. In 1959, the company came out with a talking version of Newsweek. With the help of a special fund from the magazine, APH put out Newsweek on cassette tape every week.

In the 1960s, APH embarked on some ambitious projects. One was the publication of the World Book encyclopedia in braille, called the largest braille project ever undertaken. As in the cases of Reader's Digest and Newsweek, the publisher of World Book was excited about the project and helped raise money for it through a charitable foundation. This, the Field Foundation and Field Educational Enterprises Inc., gave APH $115,000 to pay for the brass printing plates and for the printing and binding of the first 250 copies. It eventually took two years to produce the encyclopedia, which ran to 145 volumes.

APH also began to investigate computer technology in the 1960s. In 1964, IBM donated a computer valued at $2 million to the Printing House. It was used to automate the composition of braille textbooks. This was the beginning of many computer-aided projects at APH.

Staff grew as APH took on more projects. The company built an addition to its administration building in 1970, and planned to expand its manufacturing facilities as well. In addition to braille and recorded books, APH put out many books and educational materials in large type. By 1972, the Printing House was manufacturing around 45,000 copies of large type books annually, comprising close to 500 different titles. That year, the company updated its recording facilities. Instead of LP records, APH started putting its recorded books and magazines on flexible discs and on cassette tapes.

Technological Upgrades in 1980s and 1990s

One of the high points of APH in the 1960s was its publishing of the World Book encyclopedia in braille. In 1981, the American Printing House brought out a new edition of the encyclopedia, this time on cassette tape. The recorded encyclopedia took up 219 tapes, each containing six hours of material. A similarly ambitious project was the 1984 publication of the first voice-indexed dictionary for the blind. APH put out the Concise Heritage Dictionary on 55 cassette tapes, working with a division of the Library of Congress. Besides these large recording projects, APH made advances in braille publication in the 1980s. By that time, computer technology had made braille production much easier. Almost all aspects of the translation of braille books was done on computer at APH, allowing the Printing House to reduce its staff.

APH's computers were also set to work compiling a database of material for visually impaired people. The Printing House had collected a card file on resources for the blind beginning in 1958. In the 1980s, the card file was automated, and became known as Central Automated Resource List, or CARL. CARL gave access to some 40,000 records. CARL was updated in 1993 to include databases from hundreds of other agencies, and it was renamed CARL ET AL. The data base indexed approximately 120,000 titles, and was available to individuals, school systems, libraries, and educators across the United States and Canada. CARL ET AL underwent more changes in the 1990s. In 1996 APH changed the database's name to Louis, for Louis Braille, and the system became available on the Internet with a speech accessible interface. This meant that any visually impaired computer user with the right hook-up could have immediate access to Louis's records, and APH was able to provide free telecommunications software to users.

APH made some managerial changes in the late 1990s, reorganizing its business office in 1997. The company also joined the Center for Quality Management that year, a nonprofit consortium of companies dedicated to employing the latest and best management practices. In the same vein, APH received assistance from the Toyota Corporation to improve the productivity of its manufacturing facilities. The number of officially registered blind students rose to over 56,000 in 1997, and APH had a growing pool of people needing its resources. The Printing House had many plans to serve its clients better, including investigating new developments in electronic media and working on a National Geographic world atlas for the blind.

Further Reading:

  • History of the American Printing House for the Blind, Louisville, Ky.: American Printing House for the Blind, 1998.
  • Koestler, Frances A., The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in the America, New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1976.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 26. St. James Press, 1999.