Typesetting

Whenever you spot a typographical error in TNDP’s 19th century newspapers, spare a thought for the compositors who laboriously composed the text by hand. Until the introduction of the linotype machine to the US in the 1880s (more on that later), newspaper text had to be pieced together one letter at a time. As if that wasn’t painstaking enough, the letter on each tiny block was reversed and the text had to be compiled upside down, with the beginning of the text at the bottom. Confused?! No wonder so many b’s and d’s appear as p’s and q’s in those old papers. Blocks of text were created and locked into position. These blocks were then fitted together to form the page.

Manual typesetting - composing stick. By Wilhei (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Manual typesetting – composing stick.
By Wilhei (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

If that whole process wasn’t tedious enough, imagine being the poor soul who had to dismantle it all after printing was complete, and return each letter to the correct case and section.

Although manual typesetting hasn’t been in general use for over a century, several phrases still used in everyday speech have their roots in the printing process. These include:

Stereotype and cliché – to printers, both these words referred to “a solid plate of type-metal, cast from a papier-mâché or plaster mould taken from the surface of a forme of type.” (OED)

Upper/lower case letters – capital letters were stored in the upper case and small letters in the lower case (see photo below).

For more printers’ vocabulary, take a look at this wonderful book, available at the Internet Archive: The Printers’ Vocabulary; a collection of some 2500 technical terms, phrases, abbreviations and other expressions mostly relating to letterpress printing, many of which have been in use since the time of Caxton (1888)

Technical High School Vocational printing. Location: Fall River, Massachusetts / Lewis W. Hine.

Technical High School Vocational printing. Location: Fall River, Massachusetts / Lewis W. Hine. (Library of Congress)