- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 30, 2003


By Walker Rumble

University of Virginia Press, $30, 233 pages


A few years after Tom Edison invented the electric light and a few years before Henry Ford’s Model T ran the buggy whip manufacturers out of

business a man named Ottmar Merganthaler invented a type-setting machine that ended centuries of setting type by hand.

Now another man, Walker Rumble, has written a nostalgic book about printers and the printers trade in the post-Civil War l800s, before Merganthaler’s Linotype machine changed the industry forever.

Sounds pretty dull, doesn’t it? Surprisingly it isn’t. And it isn’t because it’s not just a book about printers, it’s a book about a special breed of printer, the swift. And it’s also about the rise of the International Typographers Union, about the place of women in the trade and most of all about the long defunct sport of typesetting racing.

If you never heard of typesetting racing you are not alone. Neither has anyone else who is not interested in the esoteric history of printing or who hasn’t read Mr. Rumble’s “The Swifts.”

Typesetting racing came on the scene after the Civil War, hung around for 20 or so years and disappeared into the musty annals of sports history coincidental with the advent of Mr. Merganthaler’s Linotype. But for a little period it drew crowds of thousands and warranted serious newspaper coverage. Helping speed its demise was the belated discovery that in this male-dominated, woman-belittling sport women, when given a chance, were faster than men. The men couldn’t have that so, abetted by the arrival of the Linotype, they merely abandoned the sport.

Mr. Rumble’s book takes its title from the nickname given the printing industry’s fastest hand typesetters before the invention of the Linotype. The fact that it would become obsolete in little more than 75 years is a story that does not concern “The Swifts.” Although Mr. Rumble devotes a chapter to it and its effect on the industry he is concerned only briefly in an Afterward with its disappearance.

The last time I saw a working Linotype was in 1976 at the Manchester, N.H., Union Leader which had not yet completely switched to offset printing. This was just 90 years after Whitelaw Reid installed the first Linotypes at the New York Herald Tribune. In those days, by the way, a composing room smelled of men, sweat and hot metal. In contrast, the last composing room I was in had the acidy smell of a photographer’s dark room. Progress brings all sorts of changes, even changes in smell.

The Linotype is a tremendously complicated piece of machinery and at one time there was a story told in composing rooms, very likely apocryphal, that inventing it had driven its inventor mad. Regardless, Mr. Rumble takes care to note the tremendous impact it made on the printing industry. He writes: “Between l886 and l899 hot metal Linotypes rearranged a world of printing.”

A little more than half a century later photocomposition had begun rearranging it again and in the process had brought about the demise of the machines that had brought an end to the need for journeyman compositors. Moveable metal type, the invention that made possible the printing of newspapers and books, is generally thought to be — although nobody is quite sure — the brainchild of a German, Johann Gutenberg, around 1436.

Four hundred years later, during the period about which Mr. Rumble writes, compositors were still setting type by hand, one letter at a time. In fact, as recently as 1950 when I first went to work on a newspaper, some specialty type was still hand set.

In those days the International Typographers Union reigned supreme in the composing rooms of the printing industry. Almost every newspaper’s composing room was unionized and woe unto any non-printer, usually a makeup editor, who thoughtlessly or out of ignorance dared move or even touch a piece of type. At that moment whistles blew, work stopped and a chapel (chapter) meeting was called to determine what actions should be taken to insure that such violations never again occurred. And to heck with meeting that day’s deadline.

In those days the ITU was strong, tough and militant and went to great lengths to combat non-union shops especially, those in newspapers. Strikes were only one of its weapons. At one period in the 1950s and 60s it went so far as to start newspapers in direct competition with a town’s non-union paper. The effort, the dying gasp of a trade union that had no idea it was dying, failed.

And not long afterward it did die. By the mid-70s when newspapers and the printing industry in general had switched from hot type to photocomposition and offset printing the ITU was all but defunct. By 1986 it had been decertified and its few remaining members subsumed into the Communications Workers union. But in the heyday of the swifts the ITU reigned supreme and swifts almost without exception were union members.

Swifts were given their name because they were exactly that — swift and accurate.. They were the fastest type setters and Mr. Rumble is fascinated by them. He describes in great and loving detail who these men were, from whence they came, the places where they worked—they moved from place to place and job to job as the mood struck them.

Most of them, like most journeyman printers of the time, died young, often before reaching 40, often of consumption. It was an occupational hazard brought about by vile working conditions, air befouled with the stink of unsanitary toilets, the sweat and body odor of unbathed men and tobacco smoke, hard drinking and long hours. The ITU in those days apparently cared little about working conditions and was primarily interested in wages and in keeping women out of the composing room.

In this latter effort it failed; for the most part it could keep them out of the union but not out of the composing rooms, largely those of job shops and book publishers. While women were always scarce in the back shops of newspapers, one, Freddy Brown, worked for years as a proof reader at the Burbank, Calif., Daily Review. She had three daughters, one of whom, Angie Dickinson, went on to star in movies and on television.

You can’t write about the swifts without mentioning the great ones, the Babe Ruths, or Joe Louises or Jesse Owenses of their peculiar sport. In every sport there are three or four unforgettable figures. Among swifts there was the legendary George Arensberg, known as the Velocipede because of his speed.

Others, including the Irishman Joe McCann, Bill Barnes and Alexander Duguid, broke his record just as others have broken Ruth’s. But still, Arensberg is acknowledged to be the first of the truly great ones. When he died he was an old man of 37.

No printing history of that period would be complete without mentioning women, who strove, largely in vain, to find a significant place in the ITU. For a while in the late l800s they made gains under the dynamic leadership of a young woman named Augusta Lewis. But eventually Augusta went off and got married and not long afterward the drive by women printers for equality with men within the printers union pretty much petered out.

But even as it did, three non-union women racing among themselves (the men wouldn’t stoop to racing with them) beat the records of the best men. And for all practical purposes that event, along with the coming of the Linotype, brought to an end the sport of typesetting speed racing, although it was not officially banned by the ITU until 1900. It was the only time women competed in recognized races.

That was in 1886. The place was Austen and Stone’s dime museum in Boston. Races were six-day affairs with printers setting identical straight matter — nothing fancy — and with time off between relatively short bursts of activity.

Both speed and accuracy were essential.

The women’s race followed on the heels of a men’s race which had been won by a swift named George Graham. Three of the four women, all using phony names set more type than Graham had been able to.

And that seems to have been that because afterward, as Mr. Rumble notes, something funny happened, or rather didn’t happen. Typesetting racing didn’t die a lingering death, it just stopped. Cold. And then came close to being forgotten entirely. But for Walker Rumble that likely is what would have happened.

Mr. Rumble surely deserves a kudo or two for digging up and bringing back, fittingly in print, a unique bit of 19th-century Americana. True, typesetting races probably would not excite today’s amusement saturated public, (although sports cable will televise just about anything that smacks of a contest) but for a little while the swifts romanticized their trade while providing what for then was an exciting new sport for the entertainment of the American public.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was a political advisor to President Ronald Reagan.



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