August 12

Thomas MacKellar, printer, typefounder, author, and poet, was born this day in New York City in the year 1812. He is remembered today primarily as the author of The American Printer: A Manual of Typography, first published in 1866 and so popular that it went into eighteen editions. At $1.50 the text was a real bargain, and there was scarcely a journeyman printer on the continent by 1900 who wasn’t familiar with it.

MacKellar admitted in his preface that the work was intended to be more useful than original, and in this statement he was following the tradition of the printer’s manual. Since Joseph Moxon published his famous Mechanick Exercises in 1683, each succeeding manual had borrowed from all the rest. The first American manual issued in 1818 was The Printer’s Guide by C.S. Van Winkle. It is most informative in its description of the equipment and procedures of the printing offices of the period. The only other American text prior to that of MacKellar was Typographia by Thomas F. Adams, published in three editions—1837, 1845, and 1866. Adams was almost completely dependent upon the English books of the same title published by Johnson and by Hansard in 1824 and 1825 respectively.

The more sophisticated apprentices now serving their time would of course laugh their heads off at mid-19th century MacKellar when he says in the chapter on composition, “Experience proves that the apprentice foreshadows the workman, just as surely as the bend of the twig foretells the inclination of the tree. The upright, obedient, industrious lad will become a steady, skillful, and capable man, as unmistakably as the perverse, idling, careless boy will ripen into a lazy, dissolute, and worthless fellow. . . .

“When a lad who possesses these qualities proposes to learn the art and mystery of printing, it should be inquired of him, Has he had a fair common-school education? Is he a perfect speller? Has he a turn for reading? A true affirmative answer to all these queries will entitle him to a position of reading and errand-boy. He is told the, hours at which he is to come and go, and a strict punctuality is enjoined upon him. He sweeps the room,—he sorts out the pi,—he learns the position of the various letters in the case. A year spent in this way is an excellent preparative for ‘going to case,’ or learning the art of composing type.”

MacKellar was read and admired because such statements typified the simple virtues expected of teenagers during the period. At times, though, MacKellar’s constant attempts to inject humor into his text result in his being too “cute,” for modem readers. Since there is so little accurate information concerning the procedures of American typefounding during the last century, it would have been most valuable to have had from one of the best founders of his time a straight forward account of how type was made. MacKellar’s chapter on that subject begins, “Mr. Typograph, how are you, sir? Glad to see you. How is business with you? Plenty to do, and customers paying up?. . .”The tone is thus set, and it is with difficulty that the contemporary reader maintains his interest in what really went on in the foundry.

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