September 12

Born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 12, 1880 was Henry Louis Mencken, one of the great American men of letters of our time. No matter how fine a reputation Mencken enjoyed as a writer, critic, philologist, he was most content to consider himself a newspaperman. As such he always had an affinity for printers, particularly those he knew during the early years of his career, the first decade of the century. Toward the end of his life when he had been incapacitated by a stroke, he was asked his opinion of present-day printers. He stated that they were not the same breed he had earlier worked with, and remarked that he had recently heard that printers now played golf. “This is almost obscene,” he remarked.

Of course whenever printers are discussed professionally, their capacity for alcohol becomes an item of the conversation. In the second volume of his autobiography, Newspaper Days, Mencken describes some of these attributes on the part of the printers and newspaper people of the day.

“Between 1899 and 1904 there was only one reporter south of the Mason & Dixon Line who did not drink at all, and he was considered insane. In New York, so far as I could make out, there was not even one. On my first Christmas Eve on the Herald but two sober persons were to be found in the office—one of them a Seventh Day Adventist office-boy in the editorial rooms, and the other a superannuated stereotyper who sold lunches to printers in the composing room. There was a printer on the payroll who was reputed to be a teetotaler—indeed his singularity gave him the nickname of the Moral Element—, but Christmas Eve happened to be his night off. All of the rest were full of what they called hand-set whiskey. This powerful drug was sold in a saloon next door to the Herald office, and was reputed to be made in the cellar by the proprietor in person—of wood alcohol, snuff, tabasco sauce, and coffin varnish. The printers liked it, and got down a great many shots of it. On the Christmas Eve I speak of its effects were such that more than half the Linotype machines in the composing room broke down, and one of the apprentices ran his shirt-tail through the proof press. Down in the press room four or five pressmen got hurt, and the city edition was nearly an hour late.”

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“The hero of the Herald composing room in those days was a fat printer named Bill, who was reputed to be the champion beer drinker of the Western Hemisphere. Bill was a first-rate Linotype operator, and never resorted to his avocation in working-hours, but the instant his time was up he would hustle on his coat and go to a beerhouse in the neighborhood, and there give what he called a setting. He made no charge for admission, but the spectators, of course, were supposed to pay for the beer. One night in 1902 I saw him get down thirty-two bottles in a row. Perhaps, in your wanderings, you have seen the same—but have you ever heard of a champion who could do it without once retiring from his place at the bar? Well, that is what Bill did, and on another occasion when I was not present, he reached forty. Physiologists tell me that these prodigies must have been optical delusions, for there is not room enough in the coils and recesses of a man for so much liquid, but I can only reply Pfui to that, for a record is a record. Bill avoided the door marked ‘Gents’ as diligently as if he had been a debutante of the era, or the sign on it had been ‘For Ladies Only!’ He would have been humiliated beyond endurance if anyone had ever seen him slink through it.”

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