In ‘But There Is No Sound’, published in the New Yorker in 1941, Joseph Mitchell wrote about a visit to the Union League of the Deaf, an exclusively-deaf social club in Manhattan. His letter of introduction to the society’s historian had been provided by an acquaintance who was a member, a Linotype operator. The printing trade was among the most common professions in the Union League: most big newspaper printing plants – noisy workplaces where a high level of literacy was vital, the spoken word less so – employed deaf workers. In Farewell etaion shrdlu, a documentary made for the New York Times almost 40 years later, an exchange in sign language between two printers shows that this tradition continued to the end of the age of hot metal printing in what was then the world’s biggest newspaper print works.
The film was shot on 1 July 1978, the last night that text was set for the Times using some of the 60 remaining Linotype linecasting machines (80 had already been removed, replaced by CRT terminals for the new system of photocomposition). It was written, directed and edited by David Loeb Weiss, then a proofreader at the paper, and narrated by its technical consultant, Carl Schlesinger, a Linotype operator there. It’s unlikely that filmmakers who weren’t also on the staff of the paper would have been able to so coherently condense the mass of procedural detail it contains into the less than 30-minutes running time. But the film is almost as much about a societal shift as it is about a technological one. Only one woman appears (a page editor, not a printer), and the battened-down emotions of the men whose professional expertise was made redundant that night is evident. A sequence at the end showing the former printers reassigned to computer terminals and paste-up boards, much less specialised jobs than they were used to, makes it clear that the influence of the print unions was over.
About half way through the film we get to see a few seconds of the making stereotype matrices, known in the jargon of the industry as flongs. These were engineered-paper moulds taken from the flat setting of pages which had been composed on the printers’ stones. After they had taken an impression of a page, the moulds were precisely curved and cast in lead, making the semi-cylindracal stereotypes to be mounted on rotary presses. At the New York Times type composition, stereotyping and printing were all done in the paper’s own printing plant. Other newspapers would have been struggled to maintain rotary presses for their own exclusive use. In London in the 1970s and 1980s there were marriages of convenience : the composing rooms of the Guardian and the Sunday Times were effectively flong factories, where matrices were made before being sent to a shared printing works.
There are still working Linotype machines, but stereotyping is now all but extinct. Glenn Fleischman’s essay ‘Flong time no see’ is, on the web at least, a peerless history of the technology, and of its afterlife in the realm of collectable ephemera. Flongs of full pages of newspaper are rare. Some which have survived would have been run off not for making printing plates but as souvenirs of historical moments (the front page of the Washington Post of 9 August 1974 headlined ‘Nixon Resigns’ is shown in Fleischman’s article) but most would have been discarded as soon as they had been used for casting. Smaller pieces, like the ad shown below, are more common and easier to come by on eBay, but catch them while you can.
Founded in 1979 the London Review of Books post-dated the age of hot metal. At its inception it was laid out for offset printing from photocomposition. Marked-up typescripts were sent to a repro house, and the typeset copy was returned as bromides – sheets of galleys reproduced on photosensitive paper. If there were errors or infelicities in the copy and there wasn’t time to get the text reset, corrections had to be made with scalpel and Cow Gum. In 2019 Anthony Wilks made a short film called The Lost Art of Paste-Up, in which Bryony Dalefield, the paper’s paste-up artist, recreated this painstaking process. As the film shows, the art is not yet lost, but the artefacts are. We thought it would be nice to show a page of the original typesetting in the film, and a search of the LRB’s archive was initiated. Not a single camera-ready layout has survived.
After eleven years of outsourcing typesetting, the LRB came to desktop publishing in 1990. For a time the pages were output as PostScript files and sent for imagesetting, but a 600 dpi laser printer and heavy Mellotex paper turned out to produced artwork good enough for offset on newsprint. For the past 15 years printing of the LRB, like that of almost all newspapers and magazines, has been a digital enterprise, and nothing material goes to the printers. Completed layouts are made into PDFs which our printers output directly to plates. But that isn’t to say that there is no longer anything to lose. Digital archiving – keeping copies of page layout files – didn’t start at the LRB until 2000. When the full-text archive of the paper was created in 2009, the text for every issue of the paper’s first twenty years had to be scanned and converted to a digital format. About half of these would have been available from the files we had diligently deleted once each issue had been published.
¶ Notes. The title Farewell etaoin shrdlu is derived from the nonsense phrase that results from entering the first two columns of characters on a Linotype keyboard, more or less the equivalent of typing ‘1qaz 2wsx’ on a QWERTY one. In Britain, Cow Gum was the genericised brand of contact adhesive: Brits have been known to bemuse North American colleagues by referring to rubber cement thus. I began working at the London Review of Books in the early 1990s and have been on the staff since 2000. ¶ Sources. ‘A Reporter at Large: But There Is No Sound’ by Joseph Mitchell (New Yorker, 20 September 1941); ‘The end of hot metal printing’ by Elli Narewska (the Guardian, 3 March 2015); ‘Flong Time No See’ by Glenn Fleischman (Medium, 25 April 2019); Farewell etaoin shrdlu and The Lost Art of Paste-Up can be seen on Vimeo. ¶ Images. With the exception of video, any images included in this post may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license.