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Man of Letters: A Printer's Memoir

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1944. My father promised a work permit for my 16th birthday. He always did have a warped sense of humor, but this time he wasn't kidding. Thanks to his small-town connections I found myself employed by the Blue Island Publishing Corporation of Blue Island, Illinois. Sweeping floors. Washing presses. Carrying out the trash. I was a printer's devil.

I, who had always been baffled by mechanical objects, I, who was "ruining my eyes" reading too many books, I, who carefully avoided every shop class offered in high school, and who secretly feared (what boy does not?) that I would never be able to earn a living, wondered what was I doing there. This printing was a complicated, mysterious, even secretive business. I was expected to learn it by asking questions of grown men who spoke their own language. "Clean up around the stereotype." "Empty the hellbox." "Straighten out those galleys." "Pick up those quads."

My father strongly urged me to learn the Linotype. A Linotype operator was set for life! This from a man who was still waiting for vaudeville to return. If you want to see a Linotype today, you probably will have to visit the Museum of Science and Industry.

And yet, if you must choose your son's profession, could you really do worse than enlist him in a craft so ancient and beautiful and charged with history that 50 years later he will still want to sit down and write about it?

Hemingway tells of lying awake at night, fishing his way through the streams of the past, marking each turn and rock and dark place where the big trout lie, and I have found the same trick can be done with printing. I can close my eyes and take myself through the process of setting up a job on the Kluge press and running it, each step so deep recorded I can almost feel it. Say I'm running the weekly bulletin of the Grace Methodist Church, a job I was trusted with for nine consecutive years. Every Thursday morning, just after the Blue Island Sun Standard had been safely sent to press, the Reverend Kelly would arrive with his typewritten copy. Week after week we used the same form, same heading, same setup, simply inserting the fresh lines. After a proof is pulled and corrections made, I slide the form upon the lockup stone, frame it with a steel chase, insert the furniture, tighten the quoins by hand, pound everything down with a mallet and planer, tighten the quoins again, this time with the key, carry it to the press, attach a fresh tympan to the platen. . . Maybe I better go back and start at the beginning.

Before there were computers, before there were photocopiers, before there were offset presses and Sir Speedys on every block, printing was a matter of solid immutable objects, physical and mechanical, a world of gears and levers and dies, of ink and oil and molten metal, a craft engaging eyes and hands and brain and sometimes requiring real physical strength. The process was called letterpress, printing with real metal type; you could pick up the blocks of type in your fingers and feel the physical shape of the words of God.

The development of movable type was a turning point in history, second only to that of written language itself. Early printers, in fact, were sometimes accused of practicing black magic, and this is where the term "printer's devil" originated. They were, of course, remarkable craftsmen, capable of cutting and casting type with their own gifted hands and printing books that were works of art. The carriage gave way to the locomotive, sail to steam, continents were discovered, kingdoms founded and destroyed, great men lived and died, but printing remained a matter of assembling type letter by individual letter, locking it into a frame, coating it with ink, and hammering it against paper for the next 500 years.

Hand-set type was finally becoming obsolete by the time I arrived on the scene. But you couldn't just throw away stuff that beautiful any more than you could throw away the men who set it, or so I liked to think. Maybe that's why my employers kept Old Smitty around. Old Smitty could remember setting entire newspapers by hand, and now I can remember him, standing by the shallow drawers of a wooden type case with a battered spittoon at his feet, a wad of Beech-Nut in his toothless jaws, a sheet of copy before his eyes, patiently setting type, letter by letter, line by line, exactly as Mark Twain and Ben Franklin once had done. I should have been impressed, and I was--once it was established that I would not have to clean that spittoon.

When a compositor like Old Smitty takes a letter from the case, he places it in the stick (a small metal tray he holds in his left hand) without even looking at it--a little notch cut into each piece tells him up from down. He works swiftly, sometimes picking up the letters of an entire word with a single movement, and he obviously expects to find each letter in its proper compartment. For this reason I was not trusted to set or return type to its case. My employers immediately perceived I was the kind of a person who would mix the as in with the os and the ps with the qs, and they were probably right.

Luckily, most type at the Blue Island Publishing Corporation was set by that machine my father so abundantly admired, the Linotype.

When the Linotype was invented in 1886 it was described as the eighth wonder of the world. The legend was that the inventor, Ottmar Mergenthaler, went insane, and it would not be difficult to imagine why, watching one of these machines with its thousands of intricate parts chattering away. The Linotype, I should make clear, did not actually set type in the same sense that Old Smitty set type, piece by individual piece. That's where the first several attempts to invent a typesetting machine went awry; the inventors tried to string together individual bits of type mechanically, leaving the printer with the same old problem--how to get the stuff back into the case after he was done with it. The Linotype solves this problem by casting an entire line of type--hence the name, "line o' type," and hence the expression "hot type," for type that can be remelted and used again, as opposed to "cold type," which we use today.

Laymen--people like my father--think a Linotype operator simply sits before a keyboard and types (a good job for a boy who never got his nose out of a book), but that is only the most visible part of the deal. What actually happens when a Linotype operator touches a key is that he sends a brass matrix, or mat as we called them, sliding down a chute to form, with others, the business side of a mold. These matrices are beautifully machined little rectangles, as bright as coins, with the impression of a letter cut into their sides, and a toothed notch on top to help them find their way back home. Theirs is a constant and intricate journey from magazine to operator to casting pot and back. Watching these little fellows march along the distribution rail, reach their correct slot, and drop back into the magazine, I correctly suspected something a bit more substantial than typing skills would be required to keep order.

After a line was cast it dropped into a tray at the operator's side and was later transferred to another tray called a galley. The galleys were rolled over to the proof press and inked up, then individual proof sheets were pulled. These galley proofs then went to the office where the proofreaders, editors, and layout artists performed the same tasks proofreaders, editors, and layout artists perform today. Performed them well, I should say. Our humble weekly seldom printed a typographical error. This was a matter in which everyone took pride, and when I see a newspaper printed today with the same care and consideration, I know that someone who understands the important things in life is in charge.

Headlines were not set upon a Linotype. Unless the editor wanted something really large, in which case huge wooden hand-set letters were employed, headlines were done on another typesetting machine known as the Ludlow. Like the Linotype, the Ludlow cast entire lines of type from brass matrices, but unlike the Linotype, these matrices were assembled by hand, locked into a metal clamp (called a stick), cast, and returned to the case to be used again. The mats were large and beautifully machined and so smooth you felt a little shiver of pleasure rubbing your thumb over one of them, and the finished slugs made excellent fishing sinkers.

The Ludlow had a companion called the Elrod, which simply cast spacing material in long continuous strips that the compositor later sawed to the correct lengths. In a letterpress form the blank spaces--what designers call white space--are actually filled in with metal slugs. So what appears in print as nothing actually is something, solid and real. The surfaces upon which type forms were assembled were called stones, because they really were stone, smooth dark slabs strong enough to hold the heavy forms. It took two grown men (or one teenage show-off) to carry a full newspaper page from one stone to another.

I was the guy who remelted all those dead Linotype and Ludlow slugs and returned them to the composing room as 30-pound bars of metal called ingots or pigs. These were lowered into the Linotype's metal pot by a chain. To pour a good ingot you had to carefully skim all the impurities from the surface of the metal pot and make certain that the molds were perfectly dry; the slightest moisture in a mold was likely to cause a small explosion. The first pour of the day was always an exciting experience, and I soon learned to dodge molten metal--it's amazing how quickly I learned to do that. Molten lead hardens almost on contact, and the stuff piled up on my trousers, presenting my poor mother with a new complaint against the male sex whenever laundry day rolled around. My father--allow me a digression--was working at this time in a wire factory where acid splashed over his work clothes, dried, and came to life again in the washing machine with astonishing results: patches of shirts and trousers and socks would simply melt away before her eyes. No wonder she sometimes spoke enviously of women whose sons and husbands had "real" jobs.

The actual printing of the Sun Standard was no longer being done at Blue Island Publishing Corporation. There was an old flatbed newspaper press standing at the back of the shop like a decommissioned battleship, still in apparent operating order but no longer in use. The pages of the Sun Standard were sent out to Chicago Heights in the form of papier-mache stereotype mats, there to be cast into curved plates and run upon a rotary press; probably just as well, that big flatbed press had a dangerous look to it. There was a story--you can believe it if you want--of a stray dog that chased a cat through the open alley door, into the pressroom, and on into that press while it was running, with consequences I would rather not imagine, especially knowing I would have been the one who had to clean them up.

A stereotype mat was made by forcing an impression of the completed type form into a papier-mache board. This was done by means of a machine called the mat roller, kind of a slow-moving cylinder press that operated without ink. One by one the pages of the newspaper were placed on its bed and covered with the papier-mache "mat," then with several thick rubberish sheets: a lever was pulled, and the form passed beneath the cylinder at tremendous pressure. Out would come a perfect impression of tomorrow's front page, complete with the latest developments on the Kiwanis charity drive, pressed into the mat. When these mats returned to our shop several days later, they were permanently curved into cylinders, somewhat like a photograph that has been rolled up and secured with a rubber band too long. They had been used to cast curved plates from which the newspaper actually was run, and they would, if untouched, retain that shape forever.

Old stereotype mats were not thrown away, containing, as they did, entire pages of advertising and illustrations which could be used again if necessary. When the task of casting the in-house stereotypes eventually fell to me I was honored. Now when I saw a full-page advertisement picturing the ladies' undergarments on sale at Kline's I could say, "This is my work!"

Stereotype mats entered our composing room in all sizes and shapes. Some would simply be cut out from a full-page newspaper stereotype, others were provided by the advertisers from various sources, much in the manner in which computer clip art is passed around today. Every Tuesday I would be given several handfuls of mats to piece together and cast on our own stereotype, which, unlike its cousin in Chicago Heights, cast everything in the form of a flat rectangular plate.

I soon had my own cubicle where, protected from the rest of the shop by plasterboard partitions, I worked at a compositor's stone, cutting, pasting, and fitting while the stereotype was heating up. When summer arrived, bringing room temperatures over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, I understood why I had been singled out for this important task.

A cast was made by placing flat steel bars along the edges of the mat on the bed of the casting machine, locking everything up tight, and releasing a stream of molten metal into the machine. The finished cast would be a little over a quarter-inch thick, about 12 inches wide, and always the length of the stereotype bed, the upper blank portion, called the tail, to be sawed away later.

I was amazed to learn you could cut metal on a saw just as easily, indeed more easily, than you could cut wood. There were several metal saws at Blue Island Publishing, and my very first task there was to clean up around them. "Did you find any fingers?" my father would ask. Another of his jokes, but in fact I do remember a compositor of that era who sawed off the end of his index finger--and was promptly fired for carelessness. Think about that next Labor Day.

The Blue Island Publishing Corporation had a complete job shop that included a pair of hand-fed platen presses, an automatic Kluge platen press, and a Kelly B cylinder press, all of which I eventually learned to run. Job work was the ordinary commercial printing, stuff like letterheads, envelopes, business cards, advertising fliers, raffle tickets, and church bulletins, that we turned our attention to once the paper went to press. My future as a printer was to be here, not in the composing room or behind a Linotype as my father had hoped. I had no objections. If you were going to be a printer, this was exactly what you ought to be doing, running the presses, producing the final product.

The printing process used in our job shop was fundamentally the same process Johannes Gutenberg used to produce his 15th-century Bible. Gutenberg used a converted wine press to perform this task, slowly. But he would have had no trouble understanding the machinery we used.

Imagine a metal table (called a platen) about 12 by 18 inches covered with a securely anchored sheet of tough shiny brown paper. Imagine a second slab of metal standing at right angles behind it. Imagine the two of them coming together, like jaws. There you have the principle of the platen press. The type form is fastened to the upright section of the press, the paper is fed to the platen, ink rollers run over the type, the platen rises up to meet the form, and thump. The paper is printed.

Simple? Not exactly. No type form, be it Linotype, Ludlow, or hand-set, ever prints 100 percent on the first impression. Any variation in height, often less than the thickness of a sheet of paper, produces a variation in the printed image. Parts of the form will print sharp and clear, other parts barely show, and some parts almost punch through. This, by the way, is how you can tell letterpress from offset printing. With letterpress, the impression can usually be seen simply by turning the sheet over and holding it to the light.

To get a perfect impression, the pressman must first go through a process known as makeready. This involves building up the packing beneath the tympan sheet with layers of tissue paper fastened to a carefully fitted makeready sheet. It's an intricate operation that can test your skill and patience, especially with the boss looking over your shoulder wondering when, if ever, you are going to get the job up and running.

The original platen presses were operated by muscle power. You can still see some of these babies lying around in small-town print shops, or sometimes at antique auctions, selling for more money than I can spare or I would have one. The Gordon presses the Blue Island Publishing Company used were belt-driven and had enormous metal flywheels you could turn by hand when the power was off. These presses were strictly hand-fed, which means the operator picked each individual sheet from a stack on his right, fed it to the guides, watched it print, and removed it with his left hand. If you imagine this as a slow process, you never saw a good pressman knocking out several thousand sheets an hour.

The Kluge press performed the same function by means of a pair of mechanical arms tipped with suction cups--the first carried the sheet to the guides, the second carried it away--a kind of a Rube Goldberg contraption that was a continual delight to watch. With a heavy form locked in place the Kluge almost seemed to talk to me. The rollers, running over the type form, would create a rhythmic ripping sound that eventually began to sound like words. "Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up," the press would say, or sometimes "Go to hell, go to hell, go to hell," and one time, just as Reverend Kelly walked in to check his church bulletin, it distinctly said, "Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you."

But perhaps the reverend heard, "Bless you, bless you."

The flagship of our shop was a Kelly B cylinder press. This used a large metal cylinder to bring the sheet to the form, which was locked into a horizontal position. The printed sheets were carried away by a system of pulleys and belts that took them over a gas flame intended to dry the ink. Visitors to the shop would always ask questions about that flame. Everybody in Blue Island, from Mayor Hart to Circus Freddy Wolf, who wandered up and down Western Avenue talking about circuses, eventually walked into our shop. "Do you ever burn up the sheets?" More frequently than we cared to think about.

In this respect, printing presses have not changed much over the years. They are still subject to a variety of blood-chilling disasters. The scary thing about any mechanical work, understand, is the sheer potential the average worker is given for destruction. Human error, as they say when two railroad trains collide or an oil tanker piles up on the coast.

Unlike the Linotype operator or compositor, whose errors could be corrected, the pressman got to see his go into the wastebasket, and sometimes his job with them. Jobs would run light on ink, spacing material would work up and print, type would fill in and become unreadable, the ink would become too heavy and stick everything together, sheets would suddenly turn sideways and get devoured by the rollers, and of course those flames were always waiting.

Even worse, it was possible to start up a Kelly without first locking in the form. After the resulting crash, which usually could be heard clear out in the front office, the pressman could begin a new career, and even become a legend, like the young man who fell asleep during a long run and woke up to find out that everything had burned--the job, the floorboards, the soles of his shoes, his future.

The Blue Island Publishing Corporation was a family-owned business employing about a dozen shop workers, a small office staff, and five members of the family who had inherited their status from a pioneering father. Job security at the Blue Island Publishing Corporation was a matter between master and man. The owners did not believe in unions. Each employee made his own deal and was expected not to discuss the terms with his fellow workers, and none of them did.

The men I worked with at the Blue Island Publishing Corporation were, like my father, shaped by the Great Depression. They were conservative and unadventurous workers who carefully avoided tension and exhibited little intellectual curiosity. You would not catch them reading a book, or discussing the meaning of life. A man like Old Smitty, who could read a page of newspaper type upside down and backward, seemed no better informed about the state of the world than my uncle Ray, cutting lumber in the dark woods of upper Michigan. If you were a pressman you concentrated upon the impression, on the ink, on the register, and if you were a compositor you followed copy even if, as the saying went, it took you out the window. The average Linotype operator, after setting the equivalent of a small library, was no better educated than when he began.

As the war receded a few younger workers appeared and with them occasional talk of a union, but nothing came of that. If you wanted a better life, there were other jobs; if you were satisfied with your work, why change? To grow up whole and escape the wars, to marry your girl, to father your kids, to work hard and honestly and save and buy your home and bowl every Friday night, to live as a man in a world that honored men, and someday, in a future so distant you could hardly imagine it, to grow old and rest, this did not seem much to ask.

It was a lot to ask. The world was changing. For some reason this caught me by surprise. Jet planes were overhead, television sets in almost every home, but printing, a craft I had mastered as much as a chronically inept young man dared expect, surely printing was something that could be counted upon.

By the mid-1950s, I was already becoming acquainted with that feeling of being on the wrong side of some steadily developing fissure in history. Orders for job printing gradually diminished; overtime dried up, busywork increased, and one by one the old-timers, those tobacco-chewing veterans of the days of movable type, disappeared.

People who have worked dying technologies know the feeling. Of course printing wasn't dying, it was being reborn. It was about to flourish as never before, but without those clattering Linotypes, without that hot metal that had congealed on my trouser legs, and without the Kluge, Kelly, and Miller presses I had learned to run so well--without, in fact, anyone who failed to learn the new technology.

After Blue Island there were several other print shops--an ad-book printer on Cottage Grove Avenue, a job shop in the Loop, a calendar manufacturer in Melrose Park, each offering more money and less security, until finally I was sharing my lunch break with an older man who had been a four-color pressman in one of Chicago's largest shops and was now stamping bras and panties on the naked calendar girls so they could be legally sent through the mail. He was waiting, as I was waiting, to be laid off on the day after Christmas.

The world changes. But so do we. Ten years later I found myself teaching writing at a Chicago college I will not name. It was a heady experience; I didn't even have a degree. Maybe that's why I volunteered to help out when the student who ran the basement print shop disappeared just before the holidays.

They had a little A.B. Dick 360, a press that is still in general use, one that uses the offset process rather than my old craft, letterpress. This was the press that had put me out of business.

My colleagues had a large run of Christmas cards they wanted in the mail before the holidays. Could I print them? Sure, I said. Wasn't I a pressman? As soon as I was alone, and thank God they left me alone, I dug out the manual and set out to teach myself something I probably should have learned years before. The manual showed a young woman, dressed for the office, running this machine.

The offset process is, well, even after seeing it work I still do not understand it. There is no type, only a thin sheet of metal with the image etched into it. Somehow, by applying ink and water simultaneously, the image is transferred onto a rubber plate and then onto the sheet. Happily, I no longer felt I had to understand something in order to use it. It took a couple of hours. After all those missing years, I was running an offset press.

I made a fine job out of that Christmas card. I remembered my training at the Blue Island Publishing Corporation. I saw to it that the ink flowed evenly, that the sheets registered perfectly, that the image was sharp and clear and professional. I watched that little press run with considerable pride, thinking, well, gee, if this teaching racket doesn't work out maybe I can go back to the old trade. There is something so very satisfying about putting ink on paper.

You couldn't really blame me for what went wrong. I had slipped back into my printer's role. I watched the ink and not the words, I studied the image, not the message. It took someone else to discover that we'd printed 10,000 Christmas cards with the word "college" spelled wrong. Which is why, of course, I won't mention the name of the school. Why embarrass a place that gave me a chance to prove to myself that I could run an offset press just as well as any office worker?

And to remind me why I really didn't want to be a printer again after all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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