April 21

H.M. Leydenberg, Director of the New York Public Library wrote, on this day in 1936, to the printing historian and editor, John Clyde Oswald:

“Let me thank you for your note of April 20th about the forlorn widow as the printer recognizes her. The question came up as a routine matter some time ago, and our efforts to run it down led to appeals to various sources. Recently we wrote to half-a-dozen of the outstanding printers in the country, you among them, and we plan to set forth in our Bulletin the results of these efforts. We are grateful for your help, and we shall see that a copy of the statement is sent you when it is printed.”

The “note” to which Dr. Leydenberg was referring contained Oswald’s attempts to explain the typographic widow, in which he stated:

“I have to confess that I have no definition of a widow. You ask, ‘Does the lady appear only at the top of a page, or would she be so tagged if at the bottom? According to my understanding, a typographic widow appears only at the top, just as would any other widow, no matter what situation she might find herself in.

“I have delayed answering your letter of the 10 ins. in order to spend some time in research. I have gone over the books in my library in which some references to widows might appear, but find nothing on this subject.

“It is the rule in American printing offices to do away with typographic widows by some sort of surgery, although I have noticed that Mr. Updike must consider the practice an affectation because he does not, himself, observe it, and I think I have seen the same thing in books done by Mr. Rogers and Mr. Rollins.

“Widows are to be found occasionally in the work of the early master printers. I am not sufficiently familiar with the best work done abroad at the present to be able to speak authoritatively about them.

“Regretting that I cannot answer your question more definitely, I am Very Sincerely, John Clyde Oswald.”

Mr. Oswald shouldn’t have apologized, as none of the other outstanding printers were any more knowledgeable about the matter. While it is recognized by many printers that a widow is a short line, such as a paragraph ending, which occurs at the top of a new page or column, this explanation is by no means agreed upon. Dr. Leydenberg soon found out that his “experts” were of mixed opinions concerning the lady. Almost in unison, however, they rushed to the typographic shelves of their libraries in order to consult with the masters—all with no positive result. David Pottinger, of Harvard University Press, went through all the printer’s manuals from Moxon to the present, and couldn’t even find the term listed.

Carl P. Rollins, Printer to Yale University, became intrigued. Gathering together a gaggle of typographers he “combed the Grolier Club Library for information, and the result was NIL.” Daniel B. Updike agreed with Leydenberg on the general definition, but admitted he didn’t know the origin of it.

William A. Kittredge, the Chicago typographer made the most sensible suggestion when he wrote, “Merry widow! Grass widow! College widow! I think we should ask them about their sister.”

One Comment

  1. Mike Day says:

    Dear Terrence,

    We have exchanged a few emails. You are still young so you may remember. I am a firm believer in the phrase “being in the right place at the right time”. From my perspective you have and I haven’t. But I just discovered this blog yesterday and will read all of it so I can endeavor to catch up. Thanks you for all you research and posting it.

    Mike Day

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