Ink under the Fingernails: Printing Politics in Nineteenth-Century Mexico

by Corinna Zeltsman, University of California Press, 2021, 350 pp.
Paperback, $34.95 ISBN: 9780520344341

Throughout the long nineteenth century, Mexicans experienced a series of wars, military coups, foreign interventions, and a dictatorship that paved the way for violent revolution. Liberals and conservatives alike produced pages of political propaganda about these conflicts, all of which rolled off Mexico City presses in various printed forms. The authors of these materials are well known because they have either been praised as heroes of the patria or scorned as villains who sold out Mexico to foreigners. But what about the printers who made their publications possible? Ink under the Fingernails: Printing Politics in Nineteenth-Century Mexico is a fascinating study of the role of printing technologies in state formation, one in which political figures and printers are given equal weight. Zeltsman argues that Mexico City printers were central to the debates surrounding press freedom and public speech because governing authorities viewed printing shops as suspicious places to be tightly controlled. 

Ink under the Fingernails covers the history of printing from the Bourbon Reforms to the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. Chapters 1–2 review viceregal efforts to monitor presses through various restrictions and highlight how insurgents harnessed their potential to promote their drive for independence. The next two chapters turn to printing between the 1820s and 1850s by focusing on the growth of printers, the murky lines between authorship and responsibility, the legal framework of press freedom, and the debates around censorship. Chapters 5–6 offer a tour of the printing shop in the national palace, which was used as a tool of governance and nation building during the Second Mexican Empire and the Restored Republic. The final chapter explores some of the new meanings associated with printing during the Porfiriato, specifically how Porfirio Díaz used printing technologies and disciplined printers to further his agenda of progress. 

There are three important ways in which Zeltsman expands our knowledge of nineteenth-century Mexico in Ink under the Fingernails. It is well known that the Mexican army was understaffed, poorly financed, and inadequately equipped. While these aspects of military history are important, Zeltsman claims that printing presses were “weapons in [the] broader struggles over power” in post-independence Mexico (4). She describes how insurgents got their hands dirty with ink as they took portable presses to the countryside and broke the royal monopoly on printing. The national palace was not only the seat of ruling authorities guarded by troops but also the workshop of state printers who prepared official documents to consolidate government control in the wake of multiple regime changes. Beyond rurales bringing order to a rebellious countryside, urban officials also spread Porfirian progress by seizing presses and closing printing shops to silence dissidents. Zeltsman demonstrates how a balanced focus on military and printing technologies leads to a better understanding of the outcomes of Mexico’s external wars and internal struggles. 

Just as printing has often been ignored in military history, it has also been overlooked in intellectual history. Although printers are generally not included in the ranks of the Mexican intelligentsia, Zeltsman depicts them as important public figures, integral members of the lettered city, and proud professionals who glorified their historical links to Gutenberg. She transforms the printing shop from a dull room of craftsmen mindlessly typesetting into a theatre of creative workers, where the lines between manual and intellectual labour are blurred. Printers developed a historical vision of themselves as agents of the Enlightenment and of social transformation, and they became theorists of press freedom by engaging in the political and legal debates of their day. They also established their own identity by defending themselves against negative stereotypes and demonstrating that they were respectable and worthy citizens. In representing printers as “workers of thought,” Zeltsman confirms the need to continually break down many of the well-entrenched divisions between elite and popular cultures in nineteenth-century Mexico. 

Printing has not received the attention it deserves in political history either. Recent scholarship has focused on the ways in which the Mexican state drafted laws, expanded education, and mapped its borders to extend its power and to foster a national identity among a multiethnic and divided society. Zeltsman suggests that what is often forgotten in these narratives of state formation is the “state’s paper presence” (168). Mexican governments—both liberal and conservative—used the national printing shop, or extended contracts to private printers along partisan lines, to produce government gazettes, letterhead, passports, laws, military orders, and even lottery tickets. Printers, then, provided Mexican politicians of all stripes with a powerful tool to educate the populace, to push forward their vision of the nation, and to regulate printed speech in a country with high illiteracy rates and a small consumer market for print for much of the 1800s. Zeltsman’s concentration on the tangible aspects of politics offers a more holistic depiction of the difficulties Mexican governments faced in establishing sovereignty and centralizing its power. 

Ink under the Fingernails will be of interest to scholars of Mexico, state building, censorship, authorship, press laws, and the printing press. The text will also be useful for upper-level courses on Mexican history and specialized courses on archives, special collections, and the history of printing. Zeltsman’s book is beautifully accompanied by 37 images of broadsides, printed letters, decrees, newspapers, and other official documents that reinforce her arguments about printing politics. The book also offers a table breaking down the division of labor in Mexico’s national printing shop in 1870, a helpful resource that nicely charts the historical agency of the worker-intellectuals whose names are largely absent from printed materials. Indeed, Zeltsman’s study is a call to recognize the important role of printers in Mexico’s rocky transition into nationhood. 

Jason Dyck, University of Western Ontario