Hand and Machine Composition.

Composing or Typesetting as a skilled trade originated in the Renaissance.
The Compositor was solely responsible for the appearance of every page. The wonderful vagaries of hyphenation, particularly in the English language, were entirely in the Compositor’s control.
Every special feature: dropped capitals, hyphenation, accented characters, mathematical formulas and equations, rules, tables, indents, footnotes, running heads, ligatures, etc. depended on the skill and aesthetic judgment of the Compositor.
Such was the attention to detail and pride in the appearance of a well composed page they would occasionally rewrite bits of text to improve the appearance of the page.
This greatly annoyed the American author Mark Twain (who began his own career as a Typesetter) and encouraged him to invest heavily in an early, and unsuccessful, attempt to produce a keyboard-driven typesetting machine that wouldn’t edit his words.
There was a romantic tradition, in this country at least, of the drifter Typesetters, who were good enough at the craft to find work wherever they traveled.
They’d work in one town until they wanted a change and then drift on.
They had a reputation for being well read, occasionally hard drinking, strong union men who enjoyed an independence particularly rare in the 19th century.


Typesetting was a skilled and respected trade even after the keyboard-driven typesetting machines were introduced, around the 1890s.
These machines typically produced lead slugs for each line of type, which were placed in a chase, proofed (the type was of course backward), and locked into columns or pages.
Extra space between lines was supplied with thin strips of lead, inserted between lines.


by Unknown photographer (scanned by and courtesy of Derzsi Elekes Andor).
Pages such as price lists and directories would be kept as “standing type” and edited by adding and removing individual lines of type.
Large type in headings, etc., was likely to be set by hand and combined with the machine set lines.
Read more via Graphion Museum: Old Phototypesetter Tales

2 thoughts on “Hand and Machine Composition.

  1. I just love your old comp photos!
    Composing was (is) a REAL art and I loved my time as a comp.
    To try and explain to the new “non-tradespeople typesetters, who wouldn’t know about getting their hands dirty” how you made up a job is nigh on impossible and, generally, gets a shrug of disinterest.
    Ah well, they don’t know what they missed.

    Liked by 1 person

Please Leave A Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.