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Endangered Words

A Letterpress Glossary


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Chase: The metal frame into which the type form was locked.

Color work: Color printing, especially four- color process printing, required great skill and was not easily done on the smaller, less specialized presses found in ordinary job shops. A pressman expert in four-color earned top dollar as well as the respect of his peers.

Compositor: Technically, the term compositor refers to one who sets type rather than the stone man who assembles the forms. In most small shops these two skills were combined.

Father: Someone whose advice must not always be taken at face value.

Flatbed press: A cylinder press in which the form was locked flat onto a "bed" that passes beneath the ink rollers and pressure cylinder. Imagine what that would do to a full-grown cat.

Form: The type and furniture locked into a steel frame (chase) and ready to run.

Furniture: The larger spacing material used to fill out the empty spaces in forms.

Galley: Metal trays used to hold type and type forms. A galley proof was an impression made of the type while it was still in the tray. We still speak of galley proofs even when the type has been set on computers.

Halftone: A photographic image engraved into a zinc plate. Mounted upon wooden blocks, these became part of the type forms and a large headache for anyone who tried to run them on the smaller presses, which did not provide the steady even flow of ink necessary to print large surfaces properly. No boss, it should be pointed out, ever clearly understood this, not even after he took matters into his own hands and tried to run the job himself.

Hellbox: A sturdy little cart into which dead type forms were dumped for remelting. A printer's devil and the hellbox belonged together.

Impression: What the type does to the sheet. Too little impression and the type does not print, too much and it punches through, a characteristic of cut-rate printing.

Job shop: A job shop turns out letterheads, advertising fliers, business cards, tickets, and the like. Anyone who owns a computer can set up job work for himself today and run it off at Kinko's.

Kill: When the job was finished, the type form was referred to as "dead." It then had to be "killed," or broken up, the dead slugs cast into the hellbox to be remelted.

Lockup: The process by which a form was secured in the chase. Many years later, working as a police officer, the author of this piece discovered a different definition of lockup.

Mat: Molds into which metal was cast. There were Linotype mats, Ludlow mats, and stereotype mats.

Metal: The metal used in the Linotype was a lead alloy that had one peculiar property--when it cooled it actually expanded, snugly filling the mold.

Packing: In letterpress printing there must be a cushion between the type and the metal platen or cylinder. A special sheet of hard paper called a tympan is attached. Packing was simply sheets of paper placed beneath the tympan to bring up the impression to where it could be read. A pressman could vary the packing, sometimes using spongy material, sometimes using stiff material, depending upon the results desired.

Pi: Pi was what you got when you spilled a type form. The greatest disaster a compositor could imagine was spilling an entire case of six-point type. Six point type looks something like this.

Planer: Before a type form could be taken to the press, it had to be "planed" down. This was done with a flat block of hardwood (the plane) and a mallet. The idea was to make sure all the lines were at as even a height as possible.

Points: Type is measured in points. You are reading 9.5-point Plantin type. Printers use measurements such as points, picas (12 points make a pica), and ems. A printer's ruler, called a line gauge, reflects this by showing inches on one side, picas and points on the other.

Printer's devil: What we today would call an entry-level position. Not yet knowing the difference between a pica and a point, a printer's devil is the lowest form of life in the shop. If someone pukes, the devil gets to mop it up.

Quad: A piece of spacing material used with hand-set type.

Quoins: Wedge-shaped pieces of metal used to tighten up the forms. They were drawn together with an instrument known as a quoin key.

Quotas: In most white-owned print shops of my memory, the quota for nonwhite people was exactly zero.

Register: In all but the crudest work, each copy was supposed to print in exactly the same place on the sheet as the one before it. A pressman would take a sheet from the top of the pile, pull another further along, and compare them by placing one upon the other and holding them up to the light. Any variation is bad presswork and, in process color work, fatal.

Slugs: A line of Linotype or Ludlow was referred to as a slug. So was a line of spacing.

Spittoon: A brass receptacle tobacco chewers spit at.

Stereotype: A metal plate usually made from a type form. Also a term writers and critics use to attack their rivals.

Stick: A small metal tray a compositor held in his left hand into which he slid type. It was called a stick because it had always been called a stick.

Type cabinet: Type cases were kept in cabinets, actually as drawers, but you had to be careful pulling them out. A single computer disk today can hold more type than would fit into the entire composing room at the Blue Island Publishing Corporation.

Type case: A shallow drawer with compartments for the type, one compartment for each character.

Unions: Union shops were closed to nonunion workers and getting into the union wasn't easy, which is another way of saying it was usually impossible for people who lacked the proper connections. Nepotism is the word that comes to mind. Trade unions of the 40s and 50s took care of their own and seldom looked to expand their membership. If this sounds bitter . . .

Vaudeville: A form of entertainment my father found second only to burlesque.

Women: The print shop was a man's world largely inhabited by men. This is why there are so few women in this article. There were two women who set type on the Linotype at the Blue Island Publishing Corporation when I started, but as both were members of the owners' family and usually worked part time, to mention them might have given a false impression. I will mention them now. Larger shops, I should also mention, made extensive use of women in the binderies, where, of course, they were called "bindery girls" and paid a lot less than men. Some things, at least, are getting better.

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