Chapels, Beer and Case-dust
by Patrick Baglee
Members of the printing profession and their allied trades (compositors, machine minders, etc.) were the first tradesmen to form structured self-representational bodies. They appeared first as guilds, then as Chapels, and finally as unions. They tried to govern pay, they campaigned for better working conditions, and they trained generations of apprentices.
From the outset, printers constituted a rare educated section of the working class, and they used this superior knowledge to rise up in opposition to their masters. This strength grew over time, as the number and types of unions blossomed and the degrees of militancy varied. In the late 20th century, the unions, through the strength of the closed-shop system, had a stranglehold over employers and the majority of typesetting that was executed in or around newspapers. But today, the position of unions, and of those they represent seems confused at best, and faces regular challenge. What brought the unions to this point? And where might they go in order to survive?
The growth of the printing industry in Europe was restricted by governments made paranoid by the risk of the production of illicit religious and political propaganda. In 1586, virtually every regional printing press in England was closed down, except for the University presses and those printers within the city of London. Demand for print from a poorly educated public remained low, and it wasn’t until at least 1725 that most decent-sized towns in England had a printing press. The state remained in control; infant trade organizations were punished, under the common law of conspiracy, and so were forced to meet in secret.
From the 17th century onwards, as the size of printing offices grew, larger groups of men were able to coordinate their activities more effectively. Joseph Moxon in Mechanick Exercises (1693) refers to Chappel as a body within individual presses governed by self-imposed rules. The term Chapel is though to date to William Caxton, who set up the first printing office in the British Isles at Westminster Abbey. Within these fledgling professional groups, penalties were developed against swearing, fighting, abusive language, and dropping composing sticks. And punishment was delivered with enthusiasm. If they couldn’t pay their fine (usually a few pennies), offenders would be spread over the correcting stone and given a severe beating. These and many other traditions remained, in one form or another, well into the 20th century.
In Britain, a catalyst in the growth of union activity was beer. Apprentices’ initiation ceremonies included anointment with strong ale. Benjamin Franklin, employed in the London printing industry in 1725, was fascinated by his colleagues’ propensity for beer: runners were employed to purchase beer both before and with breakfast, as well as at six o’clock and at home time. The close proximity of two or three printing offices to a public house would lead to organized meetings usually on weekends. The London Society of Compositors, formed in 1845, listed the Globe, the Three Herrings, the George, and the Falcon tavern among its early meeting places. Similarly, in the USA, the “drifter typesetters,” traveling from town to town in search of work, had developed a reputation as well-read, hard-drinking craftsmen.
The concerns of the unions as they began to grow more organized centered on rates of pay, which they negotiated and protected on behalf of their members, and on working conditions. Anonymous books from the 1850s described most offices as “little better than ruins:” shored up with timber against the weight of the presses. Late into the 19th century, it was found the commonest cause of death among printers was tuberculosis and consumption. Poisoning by breathing in “case-dust” (with its arsenic, lead and antimony), along with poor ventilation hastened the demise of many a union member. The death rate among printers was 47% higher than in the main population. Through the unions’ effort, the average age of death of printers rose from 42 in 1884 to 51 in 1914.
Evidence of this sort of vigilance can be found in Compositors’ and Printers’ Handbook, published in 1919 by the London Society of Compositors. It was produced as a “work of reference for printing men, working in the “art preservative of all arts.” So the same technology that was denounced for destroying the quality of typesetting also hastened the demise of the print union as a coordinated entity. As craft people retreated into isolation and work forces were decimated, even the basic activities of the Chapel system, a survivor of several hundred years of change, seemed in mortal danger. The early 1890s recession hit the printing industry very hard. People who were laid off simply left the industry.
Despite the increasing sense of isolation craftspeople feel (or enforce on themselves), there are many seeking new opportunities and new skills. Only after the recession, the Amalgamated Lithographers of America became concerned because they were unable to find and train enough members to fill the vacancies that began to appear. In New York, the ALA, with 3200 members current and 3200 retired, started to run schools for those who needed to learn new skills in HTML [hypertext markup language] programming or in digital press techniques. It felt there had been a growth in interest in union representation, and an increased desire to protect and improve wages and conditions. And the GCIU (Graphics Communication International Union) participates in similar activities. Each group feels sure that there has been enough growth in union representation, and an increased desire to protect and improve wages and conditions, fighting what they regard as a fat-cat culture.
So if this growth is genuine, will unions choose to remain relevant as we head towards the 21st century? The lessons of the past, and the wax and wane in union membership, suggest that they will continue to be important advocates on behalf of the workers in spite of themselves. What remains less clear is the ability of a union to understand and respond to such exponential changes as have been seen in the typesetting and printing industry. History has shown that change was resisted before it was adapted to – by which time it was almost always too late. Setting up retraining programs is one thing, but preparing for and anticipating change is where unions must focus their efforts, as they see notions of craft die and technologies almost entirely liberated. In an uncertain world, the idea of brother-and sisterhood has rarely felt so welcoming or been so important.
Patrick Baglee wrote this article for C&lc (now a defunct publication in favor of an International Typeface Corporation Web page) a number of years ago. He was (and may still be) chairman of the Typographical Circle in London and a Design Editor at Real Time Studios.
A few comments from the editor of Campane, a member of the International Typographical Union from 1946 to the early 1990s. I was, for a time, vice-president of the Trenton, N. J. Local #71. Can you picture three typeslinger dubkas sitting across the table trying to outmaneuver the publisher and his two lawyers? Union responsibilities took much of my Campane time. I endured two walkouts, one as chairman of a daily newspaper strike in which we won the settlement but lost the war. The ITU was a great democratic union, elections were honest, officers worked side-by-side with members and there were no signs of distrust of payoffs. The union was older than the NAPA. But technology spelled ITU’s doom. Gone were the banks of handset type, the Linotype and Ludlow, the matrix maker, the stereotype, the darkroom, the Compuwriter, the PhotoTypositor, the waxers. What’s left? Appropriately enough it’s the Printers’ Home in Colorado Springs. All absorbed by the Communications Workers of America.
A Critic on Critiquing
by Merry Harris
It has been my pleasure and my privilege to serve as United Amateur Press critic for three years, and National Amateur Press Association critic for two. In both cases I never really wanted to hold office in any group. But when asked to serve as critic, I felt it was my duty – my reasonable service in repayment for 58 years of pleasure and learning that amateur journalism has brought into my solitary, isolated life. Amateur journalism has been my window to the world outside my home, and the source of my most fulfilling friendships.
Now, as illness ravages me and my second term as NAPA critic has ended, I want to share with you a few last words on critiquing.
First, let me say there is a dark side to serving as critic. It can be a thankless job, or almost so. No matter how gently, how diplomatically once can express an opinion which implies that a work is less than perfect, he may incur the everlasting enmity of the person whose work he has examined. As an example:
Over 20 years ago in a UAP critique, I had the audacity to suggest that, even if considering it as a space-saving measure, patterned poetry should not be compressed into rectangular prose-like form. I explained that patterned poetry can be correctly read only if the poem is presented with the lines breaking as the poet indicates.
A publisher who regularly compressed patterned poetry into this rectangular form took violent exception to my statement. It earned for me venomous wrath, and eventually her acts drove me from that association.
A critic needs the stability and thick skin of a rhinoceros to withstand such reaction. He, or she, should be insensitive toward criticism directed at him, but perceptive in critiquing others.
* * * *
Are quaint urns.
To catch the morning dew,
The nectar which,
Adds a lilt
To elfin laughter
To faery dance.
This poem, written for my three older children fifty years ago, is an example of a patterned poem. Notice how it loses its impact when published in rectangular form:
Tulips are quaint urns. Each upturns to catch the morning dew, the nectar which, perchance, adds a lilt to elfin laughter and abandon to faery dance. – MH.
* * * *
The great unwritten law of amateur journalism criticism is: Offer no adverse criticism to offend the person whose work is under examination, lest he drop out of the organization. If the critic comments one word used for padding, the writer may take umbrage. So the critic dares not suggest how a work could be improved. This, of course, reduces the validity and the value of what is designed to be an analytical report, intended to help members improve their work. The critique becomes nothing more than commentary on the contents of the bundle.
The best that a critic can do under such circumstances is to pass over lightly mundane, flawed works and devote the critique to holding up exemplary works for study. Thus the critic can maintain his integrity, which is lost when mediocre matter is lauded.
The worst error a critic can make, other than trying to build up his own ego by putting others down, is to give praise where none is deserved. This is dishonest; it impinges upon his qualifications. Worse, it encourages the wannabees to believe they are gifted. It also encourages them to continue at a low level of achievement.
The critic should never use his comment as a means of self-empowerment or self-aggrandizement. He must remember a critique is meant to enlighten members, and represents only one person’s conception. Above all, he should never use his comments as a display case for his eruditeness, cleverness or caustic wit.
My commentary is also addressed to future presidents concerning the appointment of a critic.
The critic should be appointed as soon as possible after the election to ensure a smooth transition. The delay in the appointment may result in missed or delayed reports. The official editor is also affected by a delay.
The president at the time of appointment should give the new critic the name and address of the new editor. This would prevent further frustration and delay.
Before the appointment, the president should determine the qualifications needed for the position. This should not be a political plum nor an appointment made out of friendship.
The critic supplies most of the feedback which publishers and writers will receive. The president should look for these qualifications:
The critic should know the techniques needed for his position. For the sake of the writers whose work he will be reviewing, he should have a literary background and know the elements of writing in various types of prose and poetry.
It is a definite plus if he has some knowledge of printing. If the president cannot find a potential candidate who is versed in both crafts, he should center his attention on the writer. Publishers critique each other’s works, but writers get only minimal feedback from other writers.
Other qualifications to seek should include:
– stability of character
– self-assurance without conceit, no need to elevate himself at the expense of others
– good communication skills
– the ability to write clearly and concisely
– gentle wit (never directed at others as disparagement or be caustic nor hurtful).
The critic should give encouragement and inspiration, always accentuating the positive and willing to go another mile to serve his fellow writers to the utmost. He also must do what he can to make the official editor’s job easier by meeting deadlines promptly.
Concerned About Letterpress?
by Harold Segal
This is an open response to a recent Helen Wesson letter. With good intentions, she has set up a trust for the survival of letterpress. She is very concerned about its future.
She doesn’t need to be concerned. Letterpress is dead, except for some hardy souls who enjoy it as a hobby or perhaps as an adjunct for some almost extinct minor portion of their business. Check the decline of photo-engraving at Owosso Engraving Company, Owosso, Michigan (which the NAPA convention visited in 1998). They were forced to branch out (and luckily it worked for them) to other parts of the litho printing service business.
The only places where letterpress is being taught (as an approach to present day graphic arts) is in colleges and universities that maintain a few cabinets of type and a Vandercook proof press. I think it is foolish – I use that word cautiously – and a waste of effort to try to teach young people the art that occupied so much of our youth. From the aspect of the Amalgamated Printers Association their outlook looks good because they can maintain a membership of 150 with a half-dozen or so on the waiting list. There are still a number of hobbyists or quasi-professionals who fiddle with handset type and prefer to print odd bits of ephemera. They can thrive on $25 dues and income from a profitable Wayzgoose auction where donors add to their treasury to accommodate the tremendous mailing costs.
For amateur journalism, the AAPA and NAPA recruiting of live letterpress applicants is low, or in NAPA’s case nonexistent. Most of the few new members are computer-oriented or writers. The premise of these two new organizations is amateur journalism (perhaps that term is now an anachronism): the production of amateur journals. That requires publications to carry essays, fiction, poetry and comment, the affairs of these groups, or whatever a publisher/editor wishes. Where do we find that today? Handset publications are few, and small, many merely leaflets, single sheets printed both sides, some with a bare backside.
The recruiting of computer users interested in the hobby are few. Despite brave efforts to create Internet Web pages, many of those who we entice to join, rarely re-up for the second year. Writers, in this “new digital economy,” should be plentiful. There are hundreds of writer groups on the Web. Unfortunately and unwisely, they want to write for money, and are reluctant to train their skills in what they consider the “minor league” of amateur journalism. They are turned off, foolishly, by anything suggesting amateur.
You cannot pour money into any existing medium that is encouraging a revival of letterpress. There are none. Mark Barbour and his Buena Park, California, Museum of Printing is doing a fine job in demonstrating to youngsters how printing was done before the advent of computers. But can you entice any youngster to seriously embrace letterpress? I do not think so. The world moves at a faster pace. Setting hand type, adjusting makeready and distribution is too slow.
There are people today who worry about the future of print. All kinds of print. In an article in the March 2000 American Printer, an executive of a Fort Lee, New Jersey, communications company, said, in an article entitled The Future of Print: “I believe… all forms of printing are dead. Finished. Over. Perhaps not in my professional lifetime, but certainly in the younger people. Remove the question mark and change the title of this article, ‘The death of print.’ Full stop.” His remarks are debatable, but, Helen, the world has changed. It is going at top speed. We might not like it, but that is the way things work. Change will always be with us.
Too bad. But supporting letterpress is like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Helen, you are Donna Quixote.
Campane has been published since 1941 in the interest of amateur journalism, the National Amateur Press Association and the fascination of hobby printing (both letterpress and electronic). Harold Segal, editor and publisher, Philadelphia, Penna. 19115-4503. Type is computer generated Baskerville 353. This issue, as usual, printed on a H-P LasterJet 5L. Critiques, articles and anecdotes about printing, writing or research into the history of the pastime are solicited. All manuscripts should be typewritten and at least 1000 words.