July 28

In the office of the Washington Republican, a typesetting contest was held on this day in 1874. The first prize was a gold composing stick, with a silver stick to be presented for second. It is to be doubted, however, that the successful type stickers actually put their gold and silver sticks to actual use, probably preferring to prop them up proudly in the family dining room china closet.

The composing stick has a long history as a primary printer’s tool, but that history is not very well documented. The writers of many of the earlier manuals apparently took the stick for granted and rarely mentioned it other than in a description of typesetting procedures.

Johann Gutenberg must have had to devise such a tool, just as he had to conceive the press with which to impress his types, but there is no mention of the composing stick in the accounts of his printing office. The earliest known illustration of a stick was printed in Lyons, France in 1499 in the Dance of Death. The stick shown appears to be approximately the same length as its contemporary model—about ten inches—and was constructed of wood, from which, no doubt, came the name of the tool.

During the next two centuries there were other illustrations of compositors at work, but until the publication of the Mechanick Exercises of Joseph Moxon in 1683, there was no actual description of the composing stick. Moxon states that the sticks of his period were made of iron plate, ten inches long, and were perforated with several holes in order to adjust them to various measures. It is not known when the adjustable stick was adopted. The earliest sticks were cut to accommodate but one single measure. Until the 20th century such sticks were still available.

A good compositor insists that his composing stick be accurate. Two hundred years ago the comp was also concerned about this factor. Moxon notes: “Compositors commonly examine the Truth of the Stick by applying the head of the Sliding-Measure to the inside of the Head of the Stick; and if they comply, they think they are square and true made.” The stick described by Moxon was in use with few variations until the 19th century. One of the modifications was a slot along the side of the stick for adjustment in place of the holes. Another innovation was the substitution of a thumb screw for the slotted screw which required a screw driver for adjustment.

The year 1810 saw the introduction of the first known steel stick. fitted with a slotted side and a thumb screw for adjustment. In 1855 Oliver Grover, of Middleton, Connecticut, patented the first stick with a knee-action clamp which became extremely popular with the swifts of the period and which is still the most widely used style of composing stick. In 1860 a Syracuse, New York printer named Steve Brown invented a stick which was marketed by the A. and B. Newbury Company and which was called the Newbury. When the firm went out of business the stick was adopted by English printers and was no longer available in the United States. About thirty years later a comp traveling in Europe saw a Newbury, and so admired it that he brought it home. With a few changes he had it patented under the name of Buckeye stick. It is still in fairly common use.

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