I remember the smell. It must be more than 20 years since I last experienced it, but it lingers in my nostrils still. It was sharp and strong, a scent reminiscent of petrol or turpentine in its pungency: thick, chemical, and unmistakably bad for you. It was called Cow Gum, and I loved it.
It was not, disappointingly, made of actual cow. Cow Gum was a rubber-based adhesive that my journalist mum used to do the paste-up, a long-forgotten task that must once have been the bane of editors’ lives. Mum ran a monthly magazine for women, all about rural life, agriculture, and home baking. I do not know why.
My mum lived in cities her entire life. She rarely baked, and I have no evidence that she could tell one end of a pig from another. How she came to spend the last 20 years of her life working on a rural journal may well have been as much of a mystery to her as it is to me.
Each month, Mum would sit down at the kitchen table with all of the articles for the next edition. They had been cut out to appear exactly as they would in the magazine: some were long and thin, some short and wide. Mum would paste each one onto a sheet of paper, ready to go to the printers. It must have been massively frustrating: You entered a profession because you loved words and language. But you ended up sticking a scrapbook together, scraping glue instead of ink from your fingers.
Words were what my mum did. She wrote on a blue typewriter, fingers battering the keys faster than anyone else I’d ever seen. Later, she typed on a computer keyboard just as quickly, but somehow it was never as thrilling as the clackety noise of the typewriter.
Growing up in a wordy family
In fact, words were the backbone of our family: my dad was a compositor, or typesetter as they are now more commonly called. Trained in the 1950s, Dad served a thorough and lengthy apprenticeship. It required six years of on-the-job training, attendance at college, and thrice-weekly night-school classes. Dad was trained to spot and correct mistakes before they were committed to type, engendering a lifelong devotion to correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Growing up in a house so enamored with words and language had an effect on my childhood. I was never short of something to read, since publishers regularly sent my mum children’s books for review. But we were never allowed to “read and run”: the privilege of receiving a free book had to be paid for by writing a review, meaning that both my brother and I were published writers before we reached double figures.
And my goodness, those reviews had better be grammatically perfect. In our house, being below the age of 10 was not an acceptable excuse for poor spelling or — horror of horrors — an incorrectly deployed apostrophe. You might have written a story with a plot to rival Tolstoy’s, but if you hadn’t punctuated it accurately, you would be brutally mocked.
A compositor’s training
Dad’s training began when he was 15 and started work at an Edinburgh printing firm. He was allocated menial jobs until a place for an apprentice became free, as the unions had negotiated strict limits on the number of these junior workers that could be taken on at any one time. This protected the jobs of qualified union members by preventing firms from replacing them with cheaper trainees.
Once his apprenticeship was complete, my dad was officially a “journeyman,” so called because in the past qualified tradesmen would travel in search of work. The language of the printing trade is dense and hard to follow: when I interviewed Dad for this piece, I had to constantly ask for translations. Many of its phrases have their origins in religious orders, reflecting a time when monks were the custodians of the written word.
For example, when Dad served as the chief officer of his company’s trade union branch, he was not, as he would have been anywhere else, a shop steward. Instead he was the father of the chapel, a phrase which baffled me as a child: I confusedly imagined him in a cassock, hearing the confessions of his workmates in between typesetting pages.
When Dad began his working life, the main form of printing was letterpress: the process of pressing inked hot metal type against paper. Although mechanical methods were already well established, compositors still had occasion to handset type, in the manner invented by Gutenberg in the 15th century. (Handsetting involved assembling metal letters in a composing stick to make words in a line.)
Each of these letters was stored in its own shallow drawer in a case, so the first task for an apprentice was to learn which drawer each letter was stored in. This was known as “learning the case.” Some cases contained only lowercase letters, with the capital letters stored in another — from which the words “lowercase” and “uppercase” came.1 Once the compositor had made up a complete page, it would be placed in a chase — similar to a photo frame — before going to press.
Until Dad retired in the late 1990s, his career changed in line with the industry’s innovations. Initially he’d worked on a Monotype machine when not handsetting. Invented in the late 19th century, Monotype allowed much quicker typesetting, using perforations in paper to tell a separate casting machine which letters were required. (Such paper-tape systems were used to automate telegraphy with the invention of the Baudot code in the late 1800s, and then later to enter programs via a teletypewriter.)
But shortly after Dad qualified, Monotype and the similar Linotype machines — which allowed entry and casting of an entire line of text on a single machine — began to fall out of favor due to the advancement of photocomposition and lithographic offset printing.
The former exposed letters from glass plates onto film and then onto photosensitive paper, which was cut up for paste-up. The latter involved flexible printing plates (exposed from film negatives taken of the pasted-up type and halftoned images) which could be wrapped around a cylinder on a press, transferring the inked text and images first to rubber and then to paper.
The changing world
For both Mum and Dad, the irresistible advance of automation really began in the late 1980s. First the electronic typewriter replaced Mum’s manual one that had juddered on our kitchen table for years. Soon afterward came the first personal computers with their desktop publishing packages, and suddenly the monthly paste-up was an anachronism. For a tiny magazine like Mum’s, this new technology allowed work to be done more efficiently without affecting staffing levels, simply because only three people worked there in the first place: there wasn’t any dead wood to cut.
Things were different for Dad. Printing had been a highly individual and labor-intensive business. Once letters could be transferred to paper simply by depressing a few keys, whole battalions of proud and skilled journeymen became redundant, both conceptually and literally.
For my dad, now working at a national newspaper, it was clear that this was a game-changer. Dad’s job shifted from laying out print using skills passed down over the centuries to simply pasting up pieces of paper, much as Mum used to do. Salaries were cut, and finally the paper’s compositors were let go.
When Dad entered the printing trade in the middle of last century, his family confidently expected it to provide him with reliable employment all the way to retirement. Technological advances shattered those expectations and sent Dad back to night school at the age of 58 to learn how to use a Mac.
You’d expect Dad to be bitter about the computers that robbed him of his profession. He is not. My 76-year-old dad uses Twitter to get updates on the condition of his local golf course, regularly Skypes my brother in Australia, and comments on photos of my baby daughter on Facebook.
No Luddite, he says that Macs actually returned some of the skill to the job of typesetting, allowing text to be formatted and manipulated in ways reminiscent of the old hot-metal days. He told me,
It is incredible now, looking back, to know that all the fonts, typecases, and chases (not forgetting the Monotype machines and casters used to do the typesetting) once found in those caserooms are all contained in one Apple Mac.
Looking back and looking forward
On a recent trip to the National Museum of Scotland, Dad and I came across an exhibit in the main hall. It was a printing press of the kind on which Dad had created proofs for checking over six decades ago. It was a very visual reminder that the skills he learned back in the 1950s have literally passed into history.
In the basement of the grand newspaper offices where Dad once worked, the massive thundering printing presses fell silent long ago. The unions, once belligerent and powerful, were broken and discarded by Rupert Murdoch in the decisive Wapping battles. The days of the kitchen-table publisher like my mum and the dedicated specialist like my dad have tumbled into antiquity.
So should we mourn their passing or give thanks for their obliteration? Print in Mum and Dad’s day was a messy, dirty, tiring business. Today’s technology is far more efficient and has opened up the world of publishing to anyone with a laptop and something to say.
What’s more, in the days before tablets I’d never have seen a publication like The Magazine. It’s produced in the United States, I’m all the way in Scotland, and our paths would likely never have crossed. Now I can read whatever interests me, regardless of where it is created.2
But I can’t help being nostalgic for the old days. There is no longer much physical work associated with the printing process. The children of today’s journalists and printers don’t watch magazines being assembled by hand or conjure fanciful images of paper being branded by metal type blazing with heat. They’ll never hear the terrifying roar of a room full of printing presses. And nevermore will children grow up with an unhealthy love for the smell of Cow Gum.
Illustration by Jacob Souva.3
In America, upper- and lowercase letters were mixed in a California Job Case, an American invention for easier transportation of type to different locations. ↩
We are largely produced in a basement in a home office located directly beneath a kitchen table on the main floor. —Editor ↩
Jacob Souva has created illustrations and performed design work for Cornell University, Cameron Moll, and Mooncake Foods in NYC. He also launched a kid’s app for iOS called “Puzzld!” Jacob lives in the small, rural town of Cincinnatus, New York, with his wife and two boys. ↩
Carolyn Roberts lives in Scotland and works in mental health. Her work has previously appeared in Oh Comely magazine and on BBC Radio Scotland. Currently she spends most of her time making silly faces at her new baby daughter.