"CBS Sunday Morning" recently highlighted a Colorado weekly newspaper publisher who reportedly is the last to print his paper "the old fashioned way." It sure brought back memories.
I was born into such an environment. Back then, 1939, my folks printed The Slater News with exactly the same "old fashioned" equipment. The difference being that back then it was considered modern. Those were the days of letterpress printing – hot metal and foundry type tightly snuggled into steel forms comprising each page of the newspaper. Before the 1970s, most small towns boasted a weekly newspaper; they were an important part of Main Street.
My father, Phil, set copy (type) on a Linotype machine while my mother, Mary, set the foundry type by hand and "built" the forms (pages). Dad lifted each finished form (approximately 90 pounds) from the composing stones to the back of the old flatbed printing press. Dad would "feed" paper, one sheet at a time, into the press, which slowly printed the paper. The printed pages were then hand- gathered, folded, labeled with subscribers’ names and transported to the local post office.
I grew up "handpicking" foundry type, a letter at a time, from the many little sections of a drawer called a California job case. Finally, I reached the age when my father began teaching me the intricacies of operating the Linotype. I believe I was about 14 years old when he sat me down on his special Linotype chair and said, "Once you learn this, you’ll never have to worry about finding a job."
Mastering the Linotype wasn’t an easy or speedy undertaking. Back then, the requirement to gain an International Typographical Union journeyman’s card was a minimum of six years of on-the-job experience. The ITU card was important because it was unquestioned proof of your ability and was eagerly accepted by newspapers across the United States.
Even a newspaper as small as The Slater News sometimes had need for another experienced Linotype operator. Along with publishing a newspaper, Mom and Dad had a job shop and did custom printing. They printed everything from business cards and letterheads to sales bills and books. Every week was busy; some weeks were complete chaos.
I remember many crazy times, but one particularly wild one took place when a rush cookbook job came in while the job presses were tied up with a telephone book. Dad needed to get off the Linotype and operate one of the presses, but I was still too young to take over on the Linotype.
As fate would have it, a "tramp printer" came rolling into town in an empty boxcar. Back then, tramp printers often rode the rails from state to state without any desire to spend more than a few days in one particular place. They only looked for work when they needed money. Their only resumé was an ITU card.
Dad hired Orville on the spot and turned him loose on our Linotype. It was a good move. Orville worked day and night until he turned bedlam into calm.
Early one morning Dad paid Orville, including a nice bonus. Orville thanked him and immediately walked next door to the local tavern. That was the last we ever saw of Orville.
Today, nearly all newspapers are set and composed on computers and printed on offset presses. The backbreaking work has long disappeared. Although printing is still a complicated process, six years on the job experience is not required.
As an afterthought, I must mention Lafayette Langland, the publisher of the Cambridge Leader for many years. Although he owned a Linotype, he set his newspaper, a letter at a time, from a California job case. It was an unbelievably long and laborious task.
One devastating week Laf spilled (pied) the front page as he was carrying it to the press. With his entire front page lying disintegrated in a huge pile on the floor, he printed a short front page apology to his subscribers that week. He then began the unimaginable task of picking up each letter, placing it back in the proper drawers and then resetting the entire page for the next week’s paper.
Such were the good old days of printing.
(Ed Rood is the former publisher of Tri-County Times. He and his wife, Sharon, live outside of Cambridge.)