December 13

Under the heading of “A Year’s Work,” the Troy, New York Daily Press published on December 13, 1873 the following item:

“Fred W. Schneider, a compositor employed on this paper, in the year ending today set and distributed, in 312 days, 10 hours per day, 3,234,203 ems, an average of 10,366 ems per day; highest day’s work, 17,485; in 38 consecutive days he set an average of 12,000 ems per day, and for five weeks he averaged 70,000 ems per week. He had no department, and his work was straight matter from the hook.”

Such items were fairly common in the period, when newspapers tended to boast about the typesetting speeds of their compositors. While typo Schneider’s year of fast type-sticking seems prodigious to present-day compositors, it was not uncommon a hundred years ago. During the latter half of the 19th century, notices of typesetting feats became so regular that a spirit of competition was engendered, resulting first in challenges between the fastest comps, then matches in which newspapers competed with one another, and finally in the middle Eighties in full-sue tournaments with large cash prizes and national honors.

Three of the record-holders—William Barnes, Joseph McCann, and Alexander Duguid—published a book on fast typesetting in 1887 which was a compilation of the matches and tournaments and short biographies of the comps who engaged in them. In the introduction they wrote:

“It is a fact that the compositors of to-day work at a greater speed than did the printers of thirty years ago. It is also true that the surroundings of the compositor of to-day are entirely different from those which then environed printers. In using the words ‘compositor of to-day and printer of thirty years ago,’ we have a purpose. We do not mean to apologize for the printer of those days. He has no need of the services of an apologist. He was in every way superior as a workman to the compositor of to-day. He could set type, impose forms and do presswork. He was what his title implies—a printer.

“To-day, the demands of modern journalism demand a subdivision of the printers’ trade, and the matter of speed in each department has become the requisite of prime importance. As a consequence, we have compositors, pressmen, make ups, and few of them printers. This will explain why the compositors of to-day can handle type more swiftly than the printers of the ante-bellum days. Forty years ago the printer who could set 1,200 ems per hour was deemed a fairly quick hand; at 1,400 he was fast; at 1,700, wonderful, and 2,000 ems per hour was considered among the physical impossibilities. Yet within sixteen years at least seven compositors have in public contests succeeded in surpassing 2,000 ems per hour.”

At the exact moment when the typesetting tournaments were most popular, the speed typo was being relegated to the museum. It was in July, 1886 that Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine received its initial trial in the office of the New York Tribune. In the first week of May in 1889 thirty-one compositors set on Linotype machines 2,777,000 ems, exactly double the production of the same number of comps in 1885, the last year of total handset composition on the Tribune.

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