Life in the old print shop

By Bill Kovarik

Imagine, for a moment, the world of the old pre-industrial printing chapel (shop) of the early 1800s.  It’s a world where the scale and pace of life is smaller and slower, and yet to its inhabitants, just as rich with possibilities. It’s a world that has barely changed in the four centuries since Gutenberg’s invention of movable type.

It’s a world of craft printing, and its culture had its own history, legends, lexicon and traditions. Even though most of it is now lost, the printing culture was so important in its time that many of its echoes are still found in 21st century English language, including well-known phrases like:  by the same token, mind your ps and qs, getting pie-eyed, or being ‘on the stick’ to get something done.

Printing companies were called “chapels” until the 20th century, partly because they evolved from the scriptoria where monks had labored to put ink on parchment, and partly because, like a chapel, they often had high ceilings and large windows to help printers see the details of their work.

If you were an apprentice in a printing chapel, you would be called a “printers devil.”  You’d probably find the work itself quite tedious but the working environment rather interesting.  It was a line of work where literacy and intelligence were rewarded, where women often worked with men, where the most interesting people in the city would show up at all hours of the day or night.

Apprentices worked under a system of rules like the other trades. You would start out as a printers devil (apprentice) at an early age, work your way up to journeyman by age 18, and then become a master printer in your late 20s or 30s. If you were enterprising enough, it wouldn’t be that difficult to start your own printing business with a newspaper to publish on the side.

These guys are typesetting (left); pulling the press lever (middle); and preparing ink with two beaters (right). This lithograph also shows the young Benjamin Franklin (center) as a journeyman, working in a London printing establishment in the 1720s. (Charles E. Mills, Library of Congress).

The language and technology of craft printing

Craft printing, like any technology, had its own technical lexicon, some of which is still found in everyday language.  Many common phrases — upper and lower case, out of sorts, by the same token, being on the stick, minding your ps and qs — come from printing culture, as we’ll see going through the printing process.

The first step in making any kind of newspaper or book would be to set the type. Typesetting had to be done by hand, letter by letter, until the adoption of mechanical typesetters in the early 20th century.

To set type, you  would work in front of two cases with dozens of open compartments that held individual metal letters. The capital letters were in the upper case and the small letters would go into the lower case. Both of these terms — upper case and lower case — are still in use today.

Germany.women.typesetting1The cases had larger openings for commonly used letters, such as e, t, and a, and smaller openings for less commonly used letters like x, q and z.   (Its interesting that when Samuel Morse was thinking about how to design telegraph code, he looked at typecases to see how often the different letters were used. )

Hand set type has to be set backwards, since it will read forward in a

The “stick” — a holder for type being set by hand.

mirror-image when it is printed. You would pick the type up and place it into a long holder called a “stick.”

Let’s say you wanted to set the type for the phrase Life in a printing chapel.  You would   start with the letter “L” in the upper case, and place it on the right side of the line (not the left) in the stick. Then place lower case i, f, e, and a quadrat (space), and so on.

So you’d have this:     .lepahc gnitnirp a ni efiL    with the letters all facing backwards too.

This can be confusing at first, and an apprentice typesetter might be told: “mind your ps and qs,” because a “p” would look like a “q” when it went in backwards.  (Ps and Qs were also chalked up as pints and quarts by tavern keepers, and the double entendre for drinking and typesetting only reinforced the use of the phrase).

Usually, typesetters would work from instructions written in longhand on a paper held to the top of the composing case by a spike with a wooden handle ( called a bodkin).  That way it was easy to start setting type at the end of each line on the right side and work towards the beginning on the left.  However, when an experienced writer / typesetter was in a hurry, they might set type while still thinking about what they were writing. This was called writing “on the stick.”  Today being “on the stick” means that you are busy with a pressing task.

The first job you’d get as an apprentice would  involve breaking up the columns of type after they had been used to print a book or newspaper. This is called “distributing” the type.  You’d clean them off and sort the individual pieces of type back into the type cases according to letter, font and size.  Apprentices would have to be sure that each piece of type went back into the right slot and that the cases were ready for the typesetters.  If this cleaning and redistribution took too long, the typesetters might be “out of sorts.” In other words, they would not have the assortment of type of a particular font that they needed. Later, being “out of sorts”  came to have a general meaning for a person who was feeling upset.

Printer arranging columns of handset type on a composing stone. (Library of Congress)

By the time you were a journeyman printer, you could probably set around 1,500 letters per hour, or about 20 words per minute. A column of type might take half the day – five or six hours — to set. Then an apprentice would spend another two hours distributing the type after the pages of a book or the day’s newspaper had been printed.

The printing process

Once type was set, the lines of type from the stick would be assembled in long columns (galleys) on the composing stone and proofed. Once the corrections were made, all of the type would be assembled and then held together inside a frame. The frame would be locked down with little spacers called quoins and other wooden devices generally called  “furniture.” Then the type would be placed on the bed of a press, ready to receive its coat of ink.

The ‘beater” (a skilled pressman or press woman) would carefully distribute ink in a thin, even layer on the surface of the type using two soft leather inking balls. If the ink was too thick it was said to be “fat.” Little smudges of ink on the page were called “monks.”  Neither were acceptable, and the page had to be thrown out.

(By the way, making these beater balls with the softest possible leather involved one of the worst jobs that apprentices had to perform — tanning deer hides in vats of human urine.  Every day, the hides had to be turned over and then agitated by stomping on them with bare feet.  So,  the ink-smeared, evil-smelling apprentices were easy to recognize when they were out in public.  No wonder they were called printers devils. )

Once the ink was on the type, another pressman would place a dampened page of blank paper into a paper holder (called a  frisket) and gently fold it over the frame of inked type. The final stage was to roll the type down the carriageway. The pressman would pull on the long lever, and the paper would be pushed into the inked type to get a crip, even printed page.  Then he would roll the type back, open up the frisket and hang up the page to dry.

A team of two pressmen and an apprentice would usually print a token each hour. A token was usually 258 sheets.  (Today a “ream” is about the same as a token, or 250 sheets).   The expression “by the same token”  meant turning the sheets over once the ink has dried in order to print on the other side of the paper. (Today it’s an expression that means you’re talking about two similar ideas. )

Once the pages were printed, they had to be assembled carefully to make a book. This involved placing, folding and trimming the pages in the right order and then sewing up the back of each “signature” set of pages, which would be from two pages to 16 or 24, depending on the size of the page and the kind of book being produced.

(You can try arranging a simple 8 page signature by folding a piece of paper twice and then labeling each page with a number and an arrow showing which way is up on the page.  Now open the page back up and you’ll see the numbers and arrows facing in different directions.  The is the arrangement of pages  you’d use to print on a single large piece of paper.  It can get pretty complicated when it’s a 16 or 32 page signature, and many early printers manuals have long sections devoted to these signature arrangements).

Playing quadrats and getting a washing

The work could be tedious and exacting. To make the day go by more quickly, one printer might be asked to read aloud from works of literature or the Bible while others worked.

Most printing chapels had fairly strict social rules.  Printers were not allowed to brag, or to whistle in the presence of a lady, or to leave candles burning if they left the room. Breaking any of those rules would result in a punishment, which was called a “solace,” and this could be anything from having to perform a nasty chore to putting money into the “Wayzgoose” fund. The Wayzgoose was the printer’s holiday that took place every Aug. 24th

But printers had some fun too. A typical pass-time was a game called “quadrats.”

Quadrats were square blank type pieces used for spaces between typeset words. Like other pieces of type, each quadrat has a nick, or indentation, on one of its four sides. The game was described in a 1683 book on printing customs:

“They take five or seven Quadrats … and holding their Hand below the Surface of the Correcting Stone, shake them in their Hand, and toss them upon the Stone, and then count how many Nicks upwards each man throws in three times, or any other number of times agreed on: And he that throws most Wins the Bett of all the rest, and stand out free, till the rest have try’d who throws fewest Nicks upward in so many throws; for all the rest are free: and he pays the Bet.” (Moxon, 1683; Savage 1841).

But watch out ! If the sextant (manager) of the chapel caught you playing quadrats, he or she might have to decide on a solace (punishment). This could involve anything from paying into the chapel beer fund to having to sing an embarrassing song at the wayzgoose.

If you or a co-worker were in the habit of telling improbable tales, sometimes other workers would express their disbelief by making loud banging noises on their presses or type cases. When every person in the room did it, the drumming could be deafening. This was called a “washing,” but any prank played on a new apprentice could also be called a “washing.”

If, for some reason, a pressman resisted a solace, and the workers in the chapel were determined to enforce it, then the Spirit of the Chapel was said to be walking in the shop. Whatever mischief is done to the pressman — such as mixing up his pages or getting his type “pied” (mixed up) — could then be blamed on the Spirit of the Chapel.

Benjamin Franklin as a pressman at Watts. His transfer to the composing room meant that he was asked to pay his bien venu ( initiation fee) a second time. When he resisted, the Spirit of the Chapel started Walking, and Franklin found that he had to comply.

Benjamin Franklin described this problem  in his autobiography:   

I left Palmer’s to work at Watts’s, near Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a still greater printing-house. Here I continued all the rest of my stay in London.  At my first admission into this printing-house I took to working at press   [and paid the traditional initiation fee, called a bien venu]  … Watts, after some weeks, desiring to have me in the composing-room, I  left the pressmen; a new bien venu … being five shillings, was demanded of me by the compositors. I thought it an imposition, as I had paid below; the master thought so too, and forbade my paying it. I stood out two or three weeks, was accordingly considered as an excommunicate, and had so many little pieces of private mischief done me, by mixing my sorts, transposing my pages, breaking my matter, etc., etc., if I were ever so little out of the room, and all ascribed to the chappel ghost, which they said ever haunted those not regularly admitted, that, notwithstanding the master’s protection, I found myself oblig’d to comply and pay the money, convinc’d of the folly of being on ill terms with those one is to live with continually.