When I was in high school, I had to learn how to hand set type. Back then we didn't use litho presses yet, but we did use letterpresses, sometimes called platen presses, to print business cards or anything that our teenage minds could think of (many of which our instructor had to tell us to toss in the trash, due to their dubious content!). We learned about camera work and litho film, stripping, platemaking, and running a simple press. But hand setting type stuck with me. We had to learn the California Job Case, where each letter, space and line leading was, so we could hand set the type quickly. From the Chinese, who invented movable type blocks from wood, to Johannes Gutenberg, who developed the first printing press, and up until the 19th century, type was set by hand and run through letterpresses. You would select a font and size in a specific case or drawer, and select each letter one at a time, placing them into what was called a composing stick. You would add m-spaces, or n-spaces, and various line leadings to either flush left, flush right or justify the copy. When you had a section done, you placed them in a frame called a chase, and using blocks of wood, locked it into place with a quoin lock. The chase was then placed into the platen or letterpress, and you'd print away. A bit of trivia: lowercase letters were kept in the "lower" case, and upper case letters were kept in the "upper" case. Copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were done by setting the type by hand. I think it'd be interesting to find a copy that has a typo - something that I think was quite common in the mid-18th century.
HOT METAL TYPESETTING
During the 19th century the process of setting type took a major step forward with the invention of hot metal typesetting. The process used a keyboard, like the typewriter, where the operator (or what we'd call a typesetter) could produce the desired text. In the 1880s, the Linotype machine used the same process to create what were called "casting matrices”, which could cast an entire line of type. This way, instead of hand-setting one letter or space at a time, the entire line was created as a single piece of lead. They still needed to put the line into a chase and secure it with quoins, but the laborious step of hand-setting each letter was now supplanted by this more "automated" method.
In the 1960s, as astronauts orbited the earth and the Vietnam War started, phototypesetting became the preferred way to set type, and the hot metal and Linotype machines became obsolete. The process used either glass or thick plastic discs (which eventually became strips of film) containing the fonts you wished to use. These would spin rapidly in front of a light source, exposing photo-sensitive paper, which could be processed and then pasted onto art boards. To switch fonts, the typesetter simply opened up the machine, and removed the disc or strip, replacing it with a new font. Typesetting was a great skill, since the typesetter needed to be able to determine font size, leading, spacing, kerning, tracking, and returns in order to fit the desired space called out for by the graphic artist. They may have had visuals that would require them to measure the area so they could configure the type. This was still much faster than hand-set or hot metal typesetting, but it still required skill and knowledge to make sure the type fit the desired space and formatted around photographs or illustrations.
During the 1980s, while Ronald Reagan was helping with the collapse of the Soviet Union, two guys in the San Francisco Bay area created the Apple Macintosh, and desktop publishing became the new way to set type. It wasn't just setting type, though. It was assisted by the creation of programs such as PageMaker and Quark Express, which allowed a typesetter to now become a graphic artist.
Typesetters could select fonts and manipulate size, kerning, spacing, tracking, or leading to wrap around graphic elements on the screen. They could create blends or vignettes, drop in screens, and scan photos and place them on the page with the type wrapping around the image. Eventually, Adobe established the suite of programs that we know today as the Creative Suite, which allowed for integration across all the programs. And graphic artists, once limited by artboards and rubylith, now had the freedom to design works of great artistry and intricacy which had never been attainable with handset type, or even typesetting machines.
Typesetting has made significant changes over the decades, and is quickly becoming a lost art. However, with the resurgence of letterpress, many artisans are returning to hand-set type as a means of creativity and self-expression. Look for some of these on Instagram – it’s worth it.
by John Prothero