November 16

A printer from Princeton, Indiana, named Donald McDowell Keys, wrote in a letter under this date in 1891 saying in part:

“I am an ardent admirer of typographical beauty and excellence wherever seen, and especially so in newspaper work, because of its comparative variety in this line. There may be handsomer sheets than the great dailies of Chicago (but they don’t come into the hands of the writer), but let us concede the Herald and the Tribune the handsomest papers in America, in point of general typographical excellence, in quality of paper used, clearness of impression, cleanly appearance, neatness of display in advertisements, and the systematic, always well-arranged ‘makeup’ of the reading and all the other matter. Why is there such a marked difference in the general appearance of these papers, which are a delight to the eye, and the muddy, murky, slurred and (in many cases) illy made-up, shovelled-together-appearing of the other great dailies, say of Cincinnati, St. Louis, Boston, Washington and New York? Is the excellence of the Chicago papers maintained through the employment of better skilled labor and machinery than other papers? Are they produced at a higher cost than other papers of proportionate size and circulation? Are they printed as rapidly as the average presses turn out the morning papers of the country? What are the material causes for their excellence in appearance as compared with others mentioned? The Chicago papers always have the same neat, clean looks, while, sometimes, the dailies of the other cities are neatly printed, when they get a new dress for instance, and then in a short time their plates do not have a clean face; but they never equal the productions of the City of Wind and altitudinous architecture.”

Printer Keys aroused a considerable controversy among the printers who worked for newspapers. The compositors of the period spent a great deal of time being concerned with the appearance of newspapers and were possessed of great loyalty for their own sheets. Mr. Mergenthaler’s machine had not yet come along to displace the thousands of compositors who daily set up and distributed every word printed in every paper across the land. Their extra-curricular outlets were not the golf, bowling, and TV watching of their modern counterparts, but found expression instead in speed-typesetting contests, beer-drinking bouts, and of course long arguments about typographical skill.

There were so many competing newspapers that the spirit of competition ran high from the publisher down through the ranks in every office. It is doubtful today whether a compositor on the New York Times would take the slightest umbrage should a make-up man from another sheet tell him that the Times was a typographical monstrosity put together by three-fingered comps who didn’t know an em quad from a shooting stick. In fact, the Times man would probably consider the other comp to be a screwball.

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