Book Nostalgia Trip: How a Book Used to Be Made

Oh my goodness. For a word fetishist like me, this 1947 video from Encyclopedia Britannica is enough to bring tears of ... I'm not sure what: nostalgia? Not really--it was a pain in the neck to make a book this way. Maybe just wonder, at all the obsolete ingenuity of it, and at how physical the process was: lead, wax, copper, wood, and all those intricate machines and burly hands. And for some reason I find it equally affecting that all that labor and attention would go into printing ephemeral crap, just as it did for more immortal 1947 releases like Under the Volcano or The Diary of a Young Girl. (From Book Patrol, via Maud)

--Tom

Update: Many thanks to Timothy Sandefur in the comments for tracking down what the type actually reads, in the most visible shot:

Another interesting sign of the times in which this was made: at 1:06, you can read a sentence that's being typeset. That sentence is from an article called "Lynching And The Status Quo" by Oliver Cromwell Cox, and it reads (in its entirety) "To Negroes it [i.e., lynching] involves a challenge and a setting at naught of all that they might have held as rights to integrity of person and property, while to whites it is a demonstration and reaffirmation of white dominance."

Further bibliographic digging reveals that the article is from the Journal of Negro Education from Autumn 1945. (See more on Cox.) Sign of the times indeed: that the abstract, schoolboy-sounding "story" that the author at the beginning of the clip "would like many people to read" is actually a scholarly analysis of one of the century's great horrors. (It makes a surprising footnote to Toni Morrison's argument in Playing in the Dark about the hidden "Africanist presence" in American literature...)

I'm not enough of a pixel sleuth to decipher any of the other pages shown in the printing process (are they all from the JNE?), but if anybody spots anything else, please shout. I love when the details of history erupt out of something like this.


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Another interesting sign of the times in which this was made: at 1:06, you can read a sentence that's being typeset. That sentence is from an article called "Lynching And The Status Quo" by Oliver Cromwell Cox, and it reads (in its entirety) "To Negroes it [i.e., lynching] involves a challenge and a setting at naught of all that they might have held as rights to integrity of person and property, while to whites it is a demonstration and reaffirmation of white dominance."

Posted by: Timothy Sandefur | Thursday February 25, 2010 at 12:51 PM

Fascinating--thank you! See update above.

Posted by: Tom | Thursday February 25, 2010 at 1:32 PM

Did you notice that this was narrated by none other than Ronald Reagan?

Posted by: Markw | Thursday February 25, 2010 at 1:59 PM

When I first started working, one of my accounts was a book manufacturer in upstate New York. They had a floor that was filled with linotype, or hot metal, machines. They were quite an engineering feat as the operator typed on a qwerty keyboard, the correct type was released and inserted into the line. As I recall, getting the type back in its correct rack on the machine took a lot of engineering.

They were also moving to computer based type setting and at the time used piles of paper tape that had to be run through a paper tape reader that was forever jamming.

Posted by: Rick Caird | Thursday February 25, 2010 at 2:50 PM

My first job as a typesetter was working in an Atex typehouse that had just acquired Harper's Bazaar from the last lead type house in New York.

My second job as a programmer was working on XML for a financial publishing house. The inner door to my office opened into the press room. I could program all morning, and have my lunch with the smell of printer's ink wafting in the air.

I was in heaven. Been in publishing, either print, electronic, or web, my entire career.

Posted by: Meryl Yourish | Thursday February 25, 2010 at 3:43 PM

The Linotype did not use the qwerty keyboard. Most had a 90 character main keyboard, requiring separate keys for upper and lower case (no shift key) and punctuation marks, numerals and specific spacing. It was truly a mechanical marvel, with all functions driven by nine separate and unique cams. The drive motor was electrical, but even the clutch trip which began the machine's cycle was mechanical.

Posted by: Ed Anderson | Thursday February 25, 2010 at 4:36 PM

What a great period piece. Some more good touches: all the women are "girls" and only appear in the bindery, outside the office the only place they really worked. How about the little bow ties on the compositors? Could have been my father, a Big 6 compositor, he would have been in a composing room at the time this film was made. I consider this era, from after the war until the takeover of offset printing starting in the 60s as a kind of golden age of commercial letterpress. The linotype was operated by what amounted to three keyboards end to end, and had the silkiest touch you can imagine, there were no switches to click over, just levers that dropped the mats. Great film, thanks for the find.

Posted by: Joel Friedlander | Friday February 26, 2010 at 12:46 PM

A decent overview but misses several critical steps in the manufacture of a real book. No mention of rounding, lining-up, etc.
Alas, current practice misses all the critical steps in the manufacture of a real book.
Note the incredibly sexist division of labor for the various binding tasks. This was not an accident. Women had very little to do with book manufacturing in the bindery before the gathering / sewing stage of manufacture. Alas the sewing stage is but a fond memory these days but the rest of the manufacturing process has been somewhat democratized.
A nostalgic piece. Thanks for the find.

Posted by: David Nettles | Tuesday May 17, 2011 at 8:38 PM

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