Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Typo: A Monthly Newspaper and Literary Review, Volume 1

The Printer of the Past

page 13

The Printer of the Past.

The following humorous and characteristic speech was delivered by Mark Twain at a recent dinner of the New York Typothetæ:—

The chairman's historical reminiscent remarks about Caxton, and Mr Bailey's about Franklin and his early printer's life have caused me to fall into reminiscences, for I myself am somewhat of an antiquity. All things change in the procession of years, and it may be that I am among strangers. It may be that the Printer of to day is not the Printer of thirty five years ago. I was no stranger to him. I knew him well. I built his fire for him in the winter mornings; I brought his water from the village pump; I swept out his office; I picked up his type from under his stand; and, if he was there to see, I put the good type in his case and the broken ones among the « hell-matter; » and if he wasn't there to see, well, I dumped it with the « pie » on the imposing stone—for that was the furtive fashion of the cub, and I was a cub. I wetted down the paper Saturdays, I turned it Sundays—for this was a country weekly. I rolled. I washed the rollers. I washed the forms. I folded the papers. I carried them around in the disagreeable dawn, and that was an occupation for you. Why the carrier was the enduring target of all the vicious dogs of the village. There was always a procession of them at his heels. I wish I had a nickel for every dog-bite I have on me. I could give Monsieur Pasteur business for a year. I enveloped the papers that were for the mail—we had a hundred town subscribers and three hundred and fifty country ones when we were prosperous; the town subscribers paid in groceries and grumblings and the country ones in cabbages and cordwood— when they paid at all, which was merely sometimes, and then we always stated the fact in the paper, and gave them a puff. If we forgot it they stopped the paper. Every man on the town list helped edit the thing; that is, he gave orders as to how it was to be edited; projected its opinions, marked out its course of procedure for it, and every time the boss failed to connect, he stopped his paper. We were just infested with critics and advisers, and we tried to satisfy them all. So we led a life of change; always changing from one fence to another and never getting a rest on solid ground. We had one subscriber who paid cash, and he was more trouble to us than all the rest. He bought us once a year, body and soul, for two dollars, and he paid a fancy price for us too. He used to modify our politics every way, and he made us change our religion four times in five years. If we ever tried to reason with him he would threaten to stop his paper. That closed the discussion, for it simply meant bankruptcy and destruction. That man used to write articles a column and a half long, leaded long primer, and signed them « Junius, » or « Veritas » or « Vox Populi, » or some other high sounding rot. He did not know the meaning of it. He would have signed the name of this association or would have died trying to pronounce it. And then, after it was set up, he would come in and say he had changed his mind—which was a gilded figure of speech, because he hadn't any—and order it to be left out. We couldn't stand such a waste as that—we couldn't afford « bogus » in that office; so we always took the leads out, altered the signature, credited the article to the rival paper in the next village, and put it in. It was rough on the other paper. It eventually destroyed it, but we had to take care of ourselves. Well, we did have one or two kinds of « bogus. » Whenever there was a barbecue, or circus, or baptising, or any of the ordinary social displays of that region, we knocked off for half a day; and then to make up for short matter we would « turn over ads »—turn over the whole page and duplicate it. The other « bogus » was deep philosophical stuff, which we judged nobody ever read; so we kept a galley of it standing, and every now and then we shovelled in a lot of that, and kept on shovelling the same old batches of it in till it got dangerous. Also in the early days of the telegraph we used to economise on the news. We picked out the items that were pointless and barren of information— that kind of an item you did not know whether you read it or not—and stood them on a galley, and changed the dates and localities and used them over and over again till the public interest in them was worn to the bone. We marked the ads, but we seldom paid any attention to the marks afterward; so the life of a « td » ad and a « tf » ad was equally eternal. I have seen a « td » notice of a sheriff's sale still booming serenely along two years after the sale was over, the sheriff dead, and the whole circumstance become ancient history. Most of the yearly ads were patent medicine stereotypes, and we used to fence with them after we had worn out the column rules. I suppose I must be coming to a very solemn part of my speech, because I don't remember what it was I was going to say. Life was easy to us. If we pied a form we suspended till next week, and we always suspended every now and then when the fishing was good, and explained it by the illness of the editor—a paltry excuse, because that kind of a paper was just as well off with a sick editor as a well one, and better off with a dead one than either of them. And the editor of that ancient time—he was full of blessed egotism and placid self-importance, but he didn't know as much as a 3-em quad. He never set any type, except in the rush of the last day, and then he would smouch all the poetry, and leave the rest to « jeff » for the solid takes. He wrote with impressive flatulence and soaring confidence upon the vastest subjects. There was no subject too big for him to tackle, although puffing alms, gifts of wedding cake, salty ice cream, abnormal water melons, and sweet potatoes the size of your leg, was his best hold. He was always a poet—a kind of a poet of the Carrier's Address breed—and whenever his intellect suppurated, and he read the result to the Printers and asked for their opinion, they were very frank and straightforward about it. They generally scraped their rules on the boxes all the time he was reading, and then called it « hog-wash » when he got through. They were very frank and candid people. All this was thirty-five years ago, when the man who could set seven hundred an hour* could put on just as many airs as he wanted to; and if these New York men, who recently on a wager set two thousand an hour solid minion, for four hours on a stretch, had appeared in that office, they would have been received as accomplishers of the supremely impossible. I can see that Printing Office of prehistoric times yet, with its horse-bills on the wall, its « d » boxes clogged with tallow, because we always stood the candle in the « k » box nights, its towel, which was not considered soiled until it could stand alone, and other signs and symbols that marked the establishment of that kind in the Mississippi Valley; and I can see also the tramping « jour » who flitted by in the summer and tarried a day, with his wallet stuffed with one shirt and a hatful of handbills; for if he couldn't get any type to set he would do a temperance lecture. His way of life was simple, his needs not complex; all he wanted was plate, and bed, and money enough to get drunk on, and he was satisfied. But it may be, as I have said, that I am among strangers, and sing the glories of a forgotten age to unfamiliar ears, so I will « make even » and stop.

* As the American printers count by ems, these figures have to be doubled to represent a similar amount in English reckoning.