"As exciting as watching paint dry" is proverbial. If watching paint dry does not excite you, how about watching typesetters set type competitively? Before you start yawning, realize that there were racers who set type, just as now there are racers who bicycle, and crowds paid to watch them and cheered and bet on the outcome. There must have been something not-so-dull about the contests, and there is nothing dull about _The Swifts: Printers in the Age of Typesetting Races_ (University of Virginia Press) by Walker Rumble. Partly this is because of his strange subject; the Swifts were the typesetters who were so good at their craft they could race against others, and they were colorful characters involved in an eccentric sport. Also, Rumble, a historian who has worked as a printer, has included a great deal about printing technology, printing unions, and the place of women in the trade.
Typesetting was the last printing task to be given over to machines. It was the working realm of the fellows called "typos" or "comps" (compositors). The really fast typos were the Swifts, who picked out letters from cases, set them into their sticks, justified, put in hyphens, and so on at an unbelievably fast pace, their pistonlike arms going back and forth more than once a second. There were shop races for beers, and in 1886 there was a series of highly publicized typesetting races. They did not happen on the shopfloors where the typographers customarily worked, but in the public arenas known as "dime museums," where the competition would be one of a number of attractions including animal displays and stage shows. Challenges were extended, and appreciative crowds wondered at the capacity of the Swifts to bring down type into comprehensible lines. Cash prizes could be $1,000 (when a top compositor made $30 a week). The promoter who had been responsible for P. T. Barnum's celebrated Jumbo the Elephant offered to put the competing Swifts on tour, and to Chicago, Boston, and other cities the competition traveled, often with a hometown champion thrown into the fray. Victors could endorse products, like the types forged by a particular firm. One of them performed a specialty piece where he composed with the upper and lower cases reversed, and then he composed blindfolded, and then he composed with the reversal and the blindfold in place. The crowds loved it.
It was a short-lived sport. Part of the problem was that after the competition in Boston, there was a novelty added after the men had raced: women typesetters. That would not have been so bad, but the women were faster than the men. The men sniffed that "as much latitude was allowed the ladies in the matter of time and proofs, their scores cannot take rank as genuine records." However, there isn't any evidence that the women had special latitude given at all. But of course the big problem was not that the men were being shown up by women. The year of 1886 was not only the one for the typesetting race frenzy, it was the year that the _New York Tribune_ inaugurated its brand-new Linotype composing machines. The machines, dirty, noisy, and laborious to operate, knocked women out of the typesetting business, to be sure, but they knocked the Swifts out as well. A linotype operator was supposed to live a clean life, he was stuck to his machine and could not travel from one workplace to another, and he could be expected to average a rate more than twice the speed of the fastest Swift. As one of the champions remarked in 1895, "The glory of the composing room is gone forever, and soon will be but a reminiscence..." It was not even a reminiscence, with hot metal Linotypes themselves eventually giving way to phototypesetting and digital typography, until Walker Rumble reminded us of it in this surprising and detailed examination of a strange facet of American history.
on April 7, 2015
Very interesting story of the manual typesetters of the middle to late 1880's. Typesetting was a laborious, boring, difficult job in the days before machinery was devised to set type. This is the story of the very swift typesetters - those who left the rank and file in the dust. If you would like to read about the background of typesetting, and the speed contests among the very fastest manual typesetters, this one is for you.
on December 6, 2015
I have a longstanding interest in the history of typesetting, and this book filled a gap in my knowledge. So I'm glad I bought it and read it. But it does not live up to its billing or its back cover copy. Rumble is compared in that copy with Dava Sobel, among others, but, um, no. The writing is ham-fisted, with a great deal of repetition of facts, phrases, sentences, and longer passages, The editing, if the author permitted any editing of his death-wish prose, was somewhere between inadequate and godawful. (I do wonder whether the author is an academic prima donna with such a high opinion of his own writing that he rejects good editorial advice. Good writers generally mention their editors in the acknowledgments. Poor writers rarely do. There is no mention in the acknowledgments of anyone at the press, so there's that.) The interior book design is all right but not great. In any case, it is not credited, which strikes me as odd for a university press book about the typesetting trade. (The single production credit in the entire book is for the mediocre cover design.) The composition is mediocre too. Similarly, there is no colophon page about the type used in the book, which I'd have expected, given the subject matter and the likely audience. Okay, it's not a new book, and this review isn't going to affect the publisher or author one way or the other, but I still think it's worth noting how mediocre the book is in terms of writing, editing, and publishing values.