Typesetting is a topic close to the hearts of many DPers, and the foundation on which the books we work on were built.

I learnt typewriting on a manual typewriter when I was at school. A classmate secured a job as an editor with a magazine based on the skills she learnt in the course we were doing. I was so envious! Editor on a magazine, with no work experience, and no qualification. A few years earlier, when asked by a teacher what I wanted to be, I replied I wanted to be a journalist, not because I wanted to be a writer, but because I wanted to work on newspapers, with those monstrous printing presses and the glorious smell of ink, and fiddly bits of lead.

I did manage to become a journalist and editor, but the huge presses were ageing, and typesetting was becoming regarded as no more than wordprocessing on a computer. I remember being chastised for the miles of galley paper that spewed out of the printer one time when I forgot to close off the heading command properly and ended up with a whole article in 72-point Times, a somewhat expensive mistake as rolls of galley proof paper were not cheap.

setting type

Working on the book, Typesetting, by A. A. Stewart, for Project Gutenberg, I couldn’t help but reflect and wish I could have been an apprentice hand compositor and daydream about what the publishing industry must have been like when each character had to be manually placed in the composing stick; when the characters of each font were housed in separate type cases; when measurements for line lengths, page sizes, and margins, had to be mentally calculated quickly and accurately; when justification of lines was achieved by manually placing a mix of different space widths characters (and even resorting to “pieces of paper or thin card” if metal thin spaces were not at hand).

type case

Imagine being able to set type and be able to read the text upside down; to have the dexterity to take a piece of type from the case and place it in the case; to proofread the lines of type and correct mistakes before justifying the lines.

upside down

How arduous the correction process, where “Simple errors like the exchanging of one type for another of the same width, the turning of an inverted character, or the transposition of letters or words, are corrected by pressing the line at both ends to lift it up about one-third of its height and picking out the wrong types with the finger and thumb. The line is then dropped in place and the right types put in.”

Not to mention having to wash the type and placing each character back into the proper slots in the proper cases, so that the type pieces could be used over and over.

Sitting at my computer, selecting fonts, messing about with HTML and CSS coding, I still want to be an apprentice hand compositor. “Typesetting, a primer of information about working at the case, justifying, spacing, correcting, making-up, and other operations employed in setting type by hand”, is an excellent training manual that gives me an insight into what I would have been doing had I been able to achieve my dream.

This post was contributed by a DP volunteer.

4 Responses to Typesetting

  1. Aah! Those old skills are being lost, rather like endangered species, due to modernisation.

  2. genknit says:

    One of my husband’s mentors from his youth was a typesetter. He started out with actual type, but eventually had to learn linotype. He’s the only person left in Lansing, Michigan, who knows how to operate the LinoType machine in the printing museum there!

    I’ve always been fascinated by moveable type, too. Thanks for the great review of the book.

  3. HI,
    Just a note that I learned to type on a manual typewriter which was my Dad’s portable and no electricity and at the same time I had a class in High School using electric typewriters. OH My, how computer word processing is so much easier, though there was more control for envelopes and such with a typewriter.
    As an aside, I saw the moon as it was coming out of eclipse mode, and it is still shining through some clouds, with dawns early light approaching.

  4. readbueno says:

    hi all, A most enjoyable read of what was a very important trade in it’s day the apprenticeship was not a fixed time period as in many other trades and often lasted many years!

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