April 14

A series of letters, one of which was dated April 14, 1920, were written between a boy employed as a printer’s “devil” and the well-known printer of Salt Lake City, C.H. Porte. In them the numerous problems of the beginner in a printing office were discussed. The boy’s questions were plaintive, and the answers he received were expressed in the platitudes of the times. It is doubtful, in fact, whether a contemporary youngster would accept them at face value. Most boys now seeking employment as printers have at least high school behind them and are sophisticated to a degree unknown to the kids who used to start work at the age of twelve.

In his letter of April 14, the boy wrote in part:

“. . . I am still taking proofs around and delivering packages, and not doing much else, except sweeping out and doing as I have for the last three months. I am wondering when I am going to learn the business. I want to be a printer, and am trying to be one, but Mr. Penrose doesn’t seem to be in any hurry about it.”

The reply, one of a series entitled Letters to a Printer’s Devil, could have been a treatise on “How to Succeed, Though Young and Green.” It would also have been quite acceptable as the basic plot of a book by Horatio Alger.

The very term, “devil,” has now passed on. Its origin has never been exact, but for centuries the boy at the pre-apprentice level who worked for a printer was called the devil. Joseph Moxon, writing in 1683, defined him in this way: “The Press-man sometimes has a Week-boy to Take Sheets, as they are Printed off the Tympan: These boys do in a Printing-House, commonly black and Dawb themselves; whence the Workmen do Jocosely call them Devils; and sometimes Spirits, and sometimes Flies.”

One account attributes the term to the name of one of the fast printers, Johann Fust, or Faustus, a partner of Gutenberg. As printing was supposedly a black art, the boys who worked for him were called devils. Aldus Manutius, the great Venetian printer, is involved in a similar story. He had a small Negro boy as a slave who was known in Venice as a little black devil. When the superstition spread that Aldus was invoking the aid of the black art with the help of the boy, Aldus brought his slave to church with him one day and stated:

“Be it known to Venice, that I, Aldus Manutius, printer to the Holy Church and Doge, have this day made public exposure of the printer’s devil. All those who think he is not flesh and blood, may come and pinch him.”

Still another legend concerning the origin of the word was that William Caxton, England’s fast printer, employed as his fast errand boy the son of a man named De Ville or Deville, which is of course a much more innocent derivation than the necromantic attribution generally used.

The term has been pretty well relegated to the past and is now just one of scores of similar terms which have outlived their usefulness and remain only as an indication of the romantic past of the printing craft.

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