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Jason,  this was written for a newsletter about 10 years ago.
-Michael Moore ( and .org)

Fonts of Youth

When I was a boy of about eleven, my father had been laid off
from his machinist's job at a missile plant in Michigan where
we had just moved.  This would have been in the late sixties,
and skilled trade work was not easy to come by.  He decided to 
look for work at some local Detroit printers.  His father had 
owned a printery called the Letterkraft Press just before the 
depression, and my father tells many stories about how that trade 
taught him the very basics of work ethics.   A framed sign hung
in our garage, printed using 128 point block wood type:
"There's no fun like work."

I remember going with him to the shop where he worked at, witnessing
a big Heidleburg press.  The Heidleburg was a platen press, meaning
that the paper was situated against a heavy platen while inked type
set in a form was pressed against it.  There were at least two
innovations about this wonderful machine that completely transfixed
my young mind.  One, its platen was cylindrical instead of flat,
meaning that only one small horizontal section of the type form was
in contact with the paper at any given moment.  This provided a time 
savings by eliminating the "make-ready" phase that flat-platen
printers had to meticulously attend to, to make sure the type hit the
page at an even pressure.  Second, the machine was rather frantically self
feeding, thanks to a wild windmill-like contraption that used suction
cups to keep the pages in place.  I still recall the speed control
would drive that maniacal machine to print some 7500 impressions per
hour. Some shops still use these presses today, although typically for
specialized jobs such as gold foil stamping.  Letterpress printing,
where the inked metal type actually presses onto the paper, has almost
entirely been replaced by offset printing, where a metal plate containing
a reverse image of what is to be printed is first impressed onto a rubber
sheet, which is in turn transferred to paper or card stock.

The little shop he worked in was on the West side, in a rather seedy 
neighborhood, as I recall.  The thing I remember most about that shop was
its general condition of utter chaos.  There were stacks and stacks of
paper situated on every square foot of counter space, and over much of
the floor as well.  Now that I think back on this, I don't remember ever
being in a print shop that wasn't like this.
After awhile, my father's uncle Lornie, had decided to sell him his entire 
print shop, if we would have it.  As it turned out, we would, and I fully 
supported this decision.  Keep in mind - I was not yet a teen, yet the power 
of the printed word was not lost on me even then, and it seemed somehow a 
magical perquisite to be able to compose, edit, typeset and print a body of 
work from scratch!

This I wanted to do, and I conspired to learn this trade to the point where
I think I must have wore out Dad with all of my questions.  It seems trite
now, for now we have machines and software that would spin old Gutenburg
around in his seat!

Moving even a small press was an enormous undertaking. The cast iron
platen base alone probably weighed a hundred pounds or more.  There
were cabinets of moveable type, wood cuts, a heavy imposing stone to
plane whole forms of type to an exactly level state, an electric folder
and a paper cutter.  More equipment and ink was eventually purchased
from a warehouse in Detroit that was near one of the last type foundries
in America.  Once, father took me to this foundry, where we saw some of
the last Linotype machines, which were used after World War II to set
type for newspapers and books.  The Linotype machine would set a line
of molds for each letter.  Once a line was assembled, the machine in-
jected hot type metal into the molds, and out popped a type-high slug
that was assembled onto massive brass trays called galleys.  It was
eventually set into a form called a chase, planed evenly on an
imposing stone, then set into the massive maw of the press. Linotype
machines were summarily relieved of duty at the onset of the information
age.  They were antiquated almost overnight by the advent of
offset printing, and their value plummeted so rapidly that they were
typically sold at scrap metal prices.

Within a day, all was moved to our meager garage.  Almost immediately,
we had problems with the cold weather and had to coax an old kerosene
heater into production to keep the ink and latex rollers at the right
consistency and tack.  Even so, to a letterpress printer, rollers are
everything, as they transfer ink to the type.  My father soon invested
in some kind of synthetic polymer rollers that would not expand and
contract as much with the weather and humidity.  I learned the letterpress
trade, not knowing nor caring that it was to become extinct over the next
decade, and in many respects was already extinct.  Offset printing was
faster, cheaper, and most of all, lent itself to the digital age.  What 
could be made into a negative, could be offset printed, and even in the 
early seventies, newspapers and book printers were fairly frantic with 
buying into technology that could move the printed page on a reporter's 
word processor directly to the rotogravure plate, with nothing but a 
camera and a vat of chemicals in between.  

Contrast this to the meticulous setting of type, one letter or symbol
at a time, laboriously composing, imposing, galley-proofing, proof-
reading, making-ready, and then production,  often fed manually, one sheet
at a time.

Awhile back I had occasion to buy a digital font from Adobe's font server,
and though I always love the nuances of beautiful type fonts, I decry the
lost vocabulary of fonts, and that there will no longer be such a joy of
unwrapping a font and distributing the tiny bright-silver ingots to their
respective slots in the California Job case, which can now be seen
adorning walls at your local flea market.  Gone are ligatures, which
were glommed-together letters that, if set separately, would not fit
due to their flying appendages.  They were ff, ffi, fi and several
others, including, for reasons still obscure to me, ct.  We no longer
marvel at fonts - for example, no one cares that a real, metal font's
number of letters had to correspond to a scientific appraisal of just
how many 'e's were needed for a given style of writing.  All we need
in a digital font is one of everything, we can just make more as they are
needed.  We don't see the tiny mark on the beard of the capital M that
indicates what foundry batch it came from.  And when building forms with
vertical lines, we point and click our way through it today, but back
then, we spent hours mortising out tiny little V-shaped nicks in our
horizontal rules, then installing vertical lines using copper wires
specifically designed for the purpose.  I feel oddly blessed to know
that type-high is 0.918 inch, and that an EM is a space consisting
of the same width that it is tall, as if I am the repository for
some ancient secret trade.

I feel sad about the downfall of a one hundred year old process,
until I go home to Detroit, and then it is all there again.  Oh,
my father has modernized a little.  He did purchase a fax machine.
But the ink I remember congealing in cans on top of his typecase is
still there, and still congealed.  Crack open the hardened skin,
and the linseed oil aroma cradles me in memories.  We talk about
the Church program that only made it to its grand initiation by
the Grace of God.  We remember the process my dad invented to produce
rainbow colored bars on business cards and letterheads, and how it
gave his fledgling business a real shot in the arm.  We remember
how it was, and most of us still print one page at a time.  In
its simplicity, modern-day desktop publishing has become stripped
of its history.  

Michael Moore


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