Bogus Copy and Baseline Standards

I keep coming across interesting side topics that inform the whole of what I’m writing about in Six Centuries of Type & Printing, the book that will accompany the Tiny Type Museum & Time Capsule, and available for separate purchase in letterpress and ebook editions.

Two recent ones related to “bogus copy” and how type foundries handled baselines. I wound up writing quite a few words about both topics.

Bogus! When Typesetters Were Paid To Set Copy That Was Thrown Away: “Bogus” or “bogus copy” was effectively the result of a mid-1800s conflict between typesetters and management about how to pay for time standing around. Typesetters were paid piecework (by the “em,” as I explain in the article) for well into the 20th century, when hourly and other wages were routine.

But for compositors who were effectively employees, they rejected not being paid when there was no copy to be set. The job was often unionized, but even when not, it came with a lot of leverage, as typesetters were always in demand. The union demanded a “standing“ payment when there was no copy to set equivalent to 1,000 ems an hour, a standard expected rate.

Bosses didn’t like paying people for no work, so they gave them “bogus copy,” which were items to be typeset that would then be distributed (put back into type cases) or, later with hot-metal systems, melted down. In both cases, it was never used. Typesetters setting bogus would be compensated at the regular piece rates. It was a bit of pique on the part of publishers and foremen.

A 1907 report on factory inspection explained just a fraction of the piece rate and minimum labor, including how bogus was paid for.

A 1907 report on factory inspection explained just a fraction of the piece rate and minimum labor, including how bogus was paid for.

However, it was later turned against owners when more material started coming into job shops and newspapers that was already typeset and delivered as a mold or engraving. Unions established a right to re-set all copy that came into the shop in this fashion (with some very carefully delineated exceptions), even though that re-set copy would be discarded. This became the new definition of “bogus.”

Read the article for more insight into how this all developed—and how it lasted a century!

Aligning a Rocky Road: a History of Baselines: My friend Marcin asked me to do some research and review to help the underpinnings of this post at Figma, a company that makes design and prototyping software for apps. Figma is changing how it works with baselines, the invisible line on which the bottoms of lower case letters, periods, and other punctuation rests. I think the choices are very good!

But this research let me deep into the past, as I had a question I couldn’t answer: how did type foundries keep the baseline standard among different fonts? And how did foundries manage across the whole industry? Well—they didn’t! It took until the late 1800s for three different standards to coalesce that led to a normalization across type and typesetting.

Point sizes, unit-based widths of characters, and the baseline all came together to allow better intermingling of type, and a lot better efficiency! I describe much more in my article.