September 8

“The British compositor is wedded to a very unhealthy practice,” stated a memorandum of the British Master Printers’ Federation, dated this day in 1907, “and with few exceptions, in nearly every office, one of the boxes in the upper case is filled with snuff from which frequent pinches are taken. Lately a feeling has arisen against this practice, and the Master Printers’ Federation has issued a notice forbidding snuffing and chewing tobacco as habits conducive to lead poisoning, an industrial disease that renders the employees liable under the new Compensation Act if the worker is laid up through it.”

Here was a new twist, aside from the unique use of one of the boxes in the upper case not generally described in the printing manuals. During the long history of poor working conditions in the printing offices of both Europe and the United States, the workers became addicted to snuff, tobacco, and of course alcohol, in order to seek refuge from such disorders as lead poisoning and tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases.

As late as 1865 the London compositors were requesting that the length of the work week be limited to fifty-eight hours, and that overtime be additionally compensated. At that time it was not unusual for a printer to be called upon to work for sixteen straight hours with not the slightest additional pay. When requesting the reduction of hours, the compositors cited the statistical information that, according to the report of a Royal Commission, “the death rate of printers is 47 percent higher than that of the whole community, and that 70 percent of the deaths occurring are ascribable to some form of chest disease.”

Refuge in tobacco or alcohol was a simple route to escape the despair of working conditions during much of the 19th century. Charles M. Smith wrote of the mid-century printing offices and found it necessary to publish his remarks anonymously:

“The house in which I found myself located bore the stamp of antiquity and dirt, both to a degree perhaps unrivalled in London. . . . Everything like comfort, order, economy, and even decent workmanship, was sacrificed to the paramount object of dispatch—the turning out of the greatest possible quantity of work in the shortest time. . . .”

Describing the scene after he had worked all night long all of the previous day, Smith wrote:

“Morning, dank, misty and foggy, looks in upon the hot, smoky and reeking den. By this time, the atmosphere of the series of black caverns in which business is carried on is becoming disgustingly nauseous, as well as stiflingly hot. Notwithstanding the cold and raw weather without, the perspiration streams from every face within. The entire building is one huge vapour-bath of dismal stenches, from the rank steam of which the soot-black walls and ceilings glisten with moisture. The most severe and inveterate catarrh is sweated out of the system, to be renewed with increasing intensity, at the first contact with the outdoor air. As the dull, wintry light steals on by slow degrees, the candles one by one disappear, and now a few hands who, from feeble health or advanced age, have been allowed to escape the nightwork, reoccupy their frames. Coming in from the fresh air, they are struck aghast with the horrible odour which prevails, and make some attempts at ventilation, which, being clamourously resisted by the majority, they are compelled to relinquish. . . . By eleven o’clock comes the Ganymade again, with his bunches of clean pots, but the same unwashed face as yesterday. ‘Beer’ gentlemen!—gentlemen, beer!’ meets the same ready response as usual.”

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