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The Making of Making Printers’ Type

Sometimes, what the sideline reporter cooks up is more interesting than the football game being broadcast. Hopefully, that’s not the case here. Instead, consider this “the rest of the story,”—behind-the-scenes information on the book Making Printers’ Type: Man’s 500 Year Quest to Develop Better Methods, which I published in 2020.

Dust Jacket.

That project  began when I received a copy of the Journal of the Printing Historical Society, New Series Number 24, 2016. It featured an article by my friend Stephen O. Saxe titled “The Bruce Pivotal Typecaster and Its Influence on Nineteenth Century Typography.” 

(In case you didn’t know, I’m a nut when it comes to typecasting and long ago learned that Steve Saxe was a master at this kind of research.) The piece opened my eyes to several details regarding the Bruce machine and, among other things, cleared up the oft-mis-reported identity of the man, David Bruce Jr., who was responsible for development of the machine. It bothered me that the article had been published in England and immediately contacted Steve, proposing that we republish the article in the U. S. so that it could get proper exposure in the United States. 

Steve was anxious that this be done because some incorrect alterations had crept into the original  and he welcomed the opportunity to set the record straight. So Steve and I began the process of getting permission from [JPHS] editor Paul Nash (and others, where permission might be considered advisable). That done, we quickly began work. But then I thought, “the importance of this machine will not be evident to many prospective readers. Maybe we need to broaden the scope and also report on what went before the Bruce pivotal caster was introduced, as well as what has gone on since its introduction. 

The Bruce Pivotal Caster as shown in J. Luther Ringwalt’s American Encyclopaedia of Printing. Philadelphia, Menamin & Ringwalt, 1871. page 477. This drawing appears in countless other publications but I think the Ringwalt book is the “original.” It does appear in the 500 Years on page 60.

Suddenly the project was much larger and I needed help. That help came from Steve himself, who participated in all aspects of its development. Stan Nelson and David MacMillan agreed to take on the “before and after” aspects of the project. There was a long road ahead, but the goal was simple: to make a book which would help the beginner—a communications teacher or perhaps a history professor—get a good grasp of type development from reading this one book. A secondary goal was mine alone: I wanted it to be a “picture book,” well illustrated to make it more interesting. 

I chose these guys because I knew they were “hands-on” reporters. They were passionate about their subjects to the extreme of being intimately involved as practitioners themselves. Stan, for example, is nuts about the hand mold and has devoted his life to chasing the subject all across museums in Europe, studying the historic ssspecimens, and becoming a master “mold maker” himself in the process. His job was tough. He had to boil down everything he knew, though the subject remained relatively stable for 400 years. 

You ask, “What finally broke this long period of dominance by the hand mold?” The Bruce Pivotal Typecaster. That’s where Steve Saxe comes in, with his excellent story. His service to APHA goes back to its beginning and he has several wonderful printing-related books to his credit. And yes, he had a pretty nice collection of type fonts and letterpress equipment, which he often used.

David McMillan, among his friends, is called “Doctor Documento.” He does have a PhD, so it’s legitimate. His quest to document stuff is well represented by his website He has lots of reference material (paper and digital) to back all that you see there, and out back he has a modern barn full of typecasting equipment in various states of operation and/or repair. Interacting with me,  he managed to introduce me to myself. 

It occurred when he asked me if I knew anything about Paul Hayden Duensing. Well, Paul and I had known each other for 40 years and I had a filing cabinet full of stuff Paul had sent to me over the years. David was ecstatic and came to Terra Alta and spent three days scanning stuff and asking questions, and who know? Maybe we even cast some type. But what he did was make me aware that I possessed a huge variety of resources which pertain to the history of printing and typefounding. 

When I started as a young assistant professor at the West Virginia University Journalism School around 1964, the dean discovered he finally had a pigeonhole (my “in” box) for incoming promotional material from the printing and typefounding industries. The School had a typography department with a Linotype and Heidelberg and a Vandercook, and that put us on everyone’s mailing list. When stuff came in, I got it and I saved it. I have one filing cabinet drawer full of promotional fliers from the various European typefounders hawking their wonderful fonts from the 1950–1970 era. Same for information about the developing “cold type” era. How about the IBM Magnetic Tape Selectric Composer system? Long gone now, but  I have material from when it was introduced.

BM Magnetic Tape Selectric Composer

 It seems things which happen in your own time often are the most difficult to explain or illustrate. I had no idea why I felt compelled to save all that stuff, but I did. David MacMillan, who has a mother-lode of info and equipment himself, made me aware of just what I have gathered. Those resources were invaluable especially when we built the third section of Making Printers’ Type.

Now a little bit of info about the physical aspects of the book. I made the decision a landscape format was necessary to handle small illustrations, side notes and footnotes properly, but I also had a thousand slipcases on hand—stuff which gathered from 45 years of running a commercial printing company. (The bindery made an order  “too small” to fit the book we were doing and had to re-make them all. What do do with the rejected slipcases? They said “keep them.”) I was obsessed with the idea of getting rid of  them with/for this project. A slipcase is perhaps a third of the cost of a book and it serves well to protect the book on the shelf. Library shelves are plagued with landscape books which “don’t quite fit” the shelves, so I went ahead with my idea. To my surprise of the many sales already received, there never has been a negative comment about the portrait slipcases.

Design/typesetting: The font use is digital Bell. I love the way Bell handles figures and it’s a solid, historic design. A matte-coated sheet was used to enhance the illustrations, I insisted on stochastic screening on all the photos because many were copyshots of screened originals with the potential of moiré.  And I love that “felt” coating on the dust jacket. Yep! I chose to put a dust jacket on the book, even though it was to go into a slipcase.

Finally, I get around to my second objective I had in planning this book: to do the absolute very best I could to assure the illustrative portion of the book was well presented. I am a designer, among other things, and have developed a modest familiarity with Photoshop and long ago learned how to coax the very best renderings out of old pictures.  Getting hold of “original” artwork was a daunting task. In many instances I was forced to use screened originals.

Finally, I have two “neat” stories:

The tenacity of Steve Saxe’s research effort is demonstrated by a wonderful full-color illustration of pivotal typecasters (men and machines) in use at the Boston Type Foundry, shown on page 64 of the book. In looking over advertising by the foundry in the era, Steve came across the black-and-white line drawing show herewith. The average researcher would be content with this illustration,  but Steve noted a signature at the bottom, “Wm. A. Robinson, 1879.” Steve went on a genealogy search for the man and ultimately discovered his great granddaughter, Lois Elling. She related that Robinson had not only done the line drawing shown herewith,  but also did a much finer colorized version which she provided to Steve. Prior to that, it had not been published. Furthermore, she related that Robinson had depicted himself. He was the machine operator on the left side. 

Boston Type Foundry. Illustrator’s signature at the bottom right: “Wm. A. Robinson, 1879.”

My research indicated that a very thorough review of type manufacturing had been carried in the April 17, 1880, edition of Scientific American. Internet search provided scans of the complete, story, and it included excellent drawings of the large facility  at the Farmer, Little & Co. foundry in New York. I downloaded the PDF but concluded it was inadequate. So I sought the original newsprint edition. Internet research revealed six libraries had the volume. It caught my eye that University of Virginia was one of them and it happened that my granddaughter was a student there at the time.  An email went off to Beth, she went to the library, was able to check out the volume, and took it to the reproduction room at the library where she used an oversized scanner (the edition was tabloid size), and within hours I had 1200 dpi scans of the pertinent document. The magnificent reproductions on page 68 and 69 are the result. No matter whom I would have contacted otherwise, I am sure I would have been tied up with paperwork and expense in obtaining the illustrations.

Printing and binding of the book was done by Jostens, which is best known for high school yearbook publishing. It was a most difficult time getting the book finished because the Covid Pandemic was in full swing. Jostens was operating with a skeleton staff and I had great difficulty convincing them I really wanted to put my landscape book in a portrait slipcase. Nevertheless, I am quite pleased with their work.

Sales, by the way, are still possible via my website Hill & Dale Press.

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