Hot type and roaring presses

One of the satisfactions of growing older is the knowledge of all the things that I have seen that nobody will ever see again.

The old-time newspaper composing room is one, as I was reminded when my friend David Damico, an expert on graphic design and the history of typography, e-mailed me links to these videos.  They are a documentary of the last night that the New York Times was produced with Linotype machines and hot type.

[Update 9/27/2020 New link replaces original two]

I worked in composing rooms on my college newspaper, The Daily Cardinal at the University of Wisconsin, and on The Daily Mail in Hagerstown, Md., and the Democrat and Chronicle here in Rochester, N.Y.  Nowadays newspaper pages are laid out in the news room on computer screens, and the screen image is sent directly to the press room without any intermediate steps.

In my day, an editor laid out a newspaper page on paper and supervised (or watched) as a compositor put the hot body type, the hand-set headline type and zinc photo engravings in a page form.  One of an editor’s technical skills was to look at a story (article) typewritten on paper and accurately estimate how many column-inches of type of a certain kind, a certain size and a certain width it would take to print it.  And to edit a story to fit the space laid out on a page.  And to know the width of the various letters in certain sizes and kinds of headline type, so that a headline would not exceed the space allotted for it or fall noticeably short.

The page layout was almost never exactly accurate, so the editor and the compositors had to fix things in the composing room – leading out stories (putting thin strips of metal between the lines of type) that were too short and making necessary deletions of stories that were too long.

One of the jokes that newspaper editors played on new reporters was to send them to the composing room to ask for a type-squeezer.  Nowadays, with digital technology, it is actually possible to squeeze type – that is, to reduce its size on a computer screen until it fits.

I had great respect for the typographers and compositors.  They could handle a trays hot type metal (mostly lead with traces of zinc and antimony) without spilling them.  They could do complicated things with great speed without making a mistake.  Most of them had a good eye for layout, and appreciated good page design.

It was truly said that one of a newspaper’s greatest assets was a typesetter with a dirty mind.  There were a number of times when a typesetter or compositor noticed a double meaning in a story or headline that escaped the editor’s notice, but which would be glaringly obvious once it appeared in print.

All the compositors and typographers were members of the International Typographers Union, one of the oldest, strongest and most democratic of American labor unions. The ITU even had its own version of a two-party system.  The members went through an apprenticeship training program, took great pride in their craftsmanship and demanded and got high pay.  I benefited from this because the ITU’s wage contracts put a floor under reporters’ salaries.  It would have looked bad if we white-collar college-educated reporters were paid noticeably less than the blue-collar ITU members.

The ITU contract stated that only a union member could touch type metal.  One of their  favorite things to do, when a novice came into the composing room, was to watch the person out of the corners of their eyes and then, when they idly touched a tray of type or a page form, to abruptly and simultaneously cease all work.  The victim was always as taken aback as they expected.  It was done in fun, but had a serious purpose, too, which was to protect the exclusive right of the union to practice its craft.

One of the complaints against the ITU was its resistance to technological change which would have made their skills obsolete.  There was some truth in this, but I notice that none of the industries that have smashed labor unions, including the newspaper industry, have thereby become more competitive.  On most newspapers, the ITU accepted the new technology in return for golden parachutes; companies couldn’t simply show them the door.  I think this is reasonable, when someone is asked to write off a lifetime investment in perfecting a craft.

Another complaint was that the ITU was a closed corporation, admitting only family and friends of existing ITU members.  That probably was so.  I know I never saw a woman or a black person in a composing room until the advent of the paste-up system; I don’t know for a fact that there weren’t any, but there couldn’t have been many.

The Lintotype in its day was a radical  technology, displacing the 400-year skill of handset moveable type established by Johann Gutenberg.  Paste-up lasted only 10 or 20 years.  Now there is a question of whether the days of the printing industry itself are numbered.  I’m glad I lived when I did.

Tags: , , , ,

One Response to “Hot type and roaring presses”

  1. Anne Tanner Says:

    Well, that brought out the memories! I’m glad I lived then, too.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: