The Fearless Compositor

What do you mean I need to wait a week? I want the news NOW!

Hold your horses! The year is 1852, and even though movable type was invented in 1440, the linograph won’t be invented until 1884. You know what that means? Yup, every single page of the newspaper is being laid out letter-by-letter, piece-by-piece, and all by hand.

Welcome to the inaugural post in our series on 19th and early 20th century typesetting. Here you will be given a window into the lives of the people who helped put ink to paper.

The people doing the hard work of manual typesetting were called compositors. Compositors played a role of vital importance in 19th century American society as the public wouldn’t have access to every-day information without them. Think of compositors as the infrastructure through which news and all other information was disseminated.

So who was a compositor? Well for starters they were most likely young men about 20 years of age, but often no older than 30. A compositor is not only dexterous, but literate, and educated.  An aspiring compositor begins their career as a printer’s apprentice in their early teen years. After proving themselves, the apprentice will ascend to journeyman status; usually around 18 years of age. This title allows a compositor to work with greater autonomy in the print shop. The final rung in the hierarchy of print shop laborers is that of master printer. A master printer is an experienced compositor at the head of a print shop. Because of the time necessary to fully master the profession, a compositor will become a master printer in their late 20s or 30s.

As a compositor’s skill increased, so did their speed. An experienced compositor averaged setting between 700-1,500 characters per hour. Recognized for their speed, the fastest among them were dubbed “swifts”. The best of the swifts would often go head to head in print shop races. This friendly in-house pastime evolved into a competitive spectator sport with big money on the line. Competitive typesetting was a thrill for participants and onlookers alike. Compositors needed to keep a fast, yet steady hand despite the looming presence of the hawkeyed proofreaders and the roar of the large crowds around them. Spectators placed bets while compositors rushed to fill their page before their opponent. Competitions could last for hours at a time, but it was time well spent as prizes could range from $50 to as high as $1,000. Not too shabby considering the average weekly pay was around $30.

If you weren’t already aware there are quite a few famous American compositors. One you might have heard of is Benjamin Franklin. You may know him better as an inventor, writer, and American Founding Father, but as a youth Ben Franklin worked in a print shop. At age 12 Franklin began an apprenticeship under his older brother James Franklin. Together they published the New-England Courant, the second newspaper to be printed and circulated in America.

Another famous compositor is Walt Whitman. Long before penning classic works such as Leaves of Grass, O Captain! My Captain!, and Songs of Myself, Whitman had a storied career in the newspaper industry. In 1832, he started as an apprentice in the  print offices of the Long Island Patriot at age 12. A year later, Whitman apprenticed for another paper called the Long Island Star. After a disappointing 5-year teaching career, Whitman found himself back again setting type for The New World in 1841. Seven years later in 1848 Whitman went on to create the short-lived Brooklyn Weekly Freeman. Throughout his life Whitman was a compositor or editor for approximately 15 different newspapers.

Thanks for reading and never miss a new post by subscribing to the NJDNP Blog! Stay tuned for our next entry about life in the print office.

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4 comments for “The Fearless Compositor

  1. EL
    September 25, 2018 at 2:10 pm

    Whitman had a storied career in the newspaper industry. In 1932, he started as an apprentice in the print offices of the Long Island Patriot at age 12.


    • Caryn Radick
      September 25, 2018 at 3:13 pm

      Thanks for pointing this out! The Internet still allows opportunities for typos (but the 19 has become 18).

  2. GA
    September 25, 2018 at 2:40 pm

    My father-in-law was a compositor for a Cape May newspaper until the 1970s, when ill health forced him to retire. He was an avid reader and a really good writer. I suspect you would have to be both to do really well in this position.

  3. Warren Grady
    January 2, 2019 at 1:00 pm

    My Granndfather was ahead of the printing dept of the Hudson Observer.
    Edn\mund Joseph Grady b.28mar1855 Hoboken d.jan 1916

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