Front-page banner of Progress, before it was taken over by the State Labor Party. (Original held at National Library of Australia.)
Paul runs a little paper for the unemployed, called Progress, which he has to set by hand. He assembles his own words, letter by letter, on a short metal gadget he holds in one hand. Printers call this thing a stick. He takes the characters from two cases, each divided into little boxes, that contain the alphabet and every thought we shall imagine. [RED, page 162]
This episode makes a little more sense with some knowledge of letterpress typesetting by hand.
In hand-set type, each letter or “character” is a separate piece of metal, parts of which are called the face, the beard, the shoulder, belly, back and feet. Some of the parts are named in this diagram:
Letters are added to form words on a metal “stick” (left). The typesetter learns to read the type back-to-front and upside-down (right and below):
This kind of typesetting was labour-intensive and highly skilled, requiring a long apprenticeship. In many ways the procedures differed little from how type was set in the fifteenth century.
A page of type is “made up” in an iron frame called a forme:
In the forme pieces of wood or metal are added where blank space is to appear. These pieces are below the height of the letters so they can’t be printed. All of these loose items (“spaces” and type) are then fixed in place by tightening the quoins (the four pieces with small holes) using a simple key. (This example was assembled by a compositor at the Penrith Printing Museum, which is “set up as a 1940s print shop”.)
After printing, the quoins are loosened and the individual types are “distributed” back to where they came from — these wooden cases:
The “capital letters” in the upper case are arranged alphabetically. The lower case is filled with the other letters in this arrangement, with the most frequently used letters in the centre:
We still talk of “upper case” and “lower case” letters, although of course these beautifully handmade wooden cases, heavy when filled with lead type, are now found only in museums, specialty letterpress printers, and private collections. What was once an industry is now seen as a craft or hobby.
(Line drawings are from Wm. Atkins (ed.), The Art and Practice of Printing. A Work in Six Volumes. Pitman, 1932, vol. i, pp. 13, 38, 68; and Theodore Low de Vinne, Modern Methods of Book Composition, The Century Company, 1904, p. 12.)