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.

Explaining Flong and Stereotypes: How Newspapers Grew in Size and Volume

I’ve been working on this for a while, and finally assembled all the primary sources and material I needed to write it. I explain in some great detail about flongs and stereotypes, a method of effectively duplicating typeset material and engraved images and halftones photographs that was required for rotary presses to make any sense.

A flong is a paper mold made from something that would otherwise be printed on a letterpress (in relief printing). The stereotype is the solid metal cast plate (flat or curved) cast from it. For newspapers and high-volume printing, the curved plate paired with the rotary press, allowing super-fast continuous printing fed from large rolls of continuously made paper.

Making paper in rolls, rotary presses, the Linotype, and the largely forgotten flong/stereotype process together allowed periodicals to expand in size (number of pages) and volume (number of copies per volume). Newspapers benefitted most, but the plate-making technique was used for standard commercial work (job printing), book publishing, magazines, and other specialized purposes.

I wrote this article in part because there was no authoritative modern source that tracked the scope of flongs and stereotypes. Now there is!

Chunks of this research will feed into the Six Centuries of Type & Printing book. I have a far better and deeper understanding from those primary, contemporary sources of how printing took an incredible leap across the 1800s right at the start of the century and all the way through the end. While printing and typesetting changed multiple times in the 20th century, the 19th century had just as many revolutions, if not more.

Type Artifacts, Assemble!

As I pursue all artifacts I’ll need to assemble in quantity for tiny type museums, I’m also gathering unique ones that I can document and use to better understand through first-hand experience and research how they fit into printing history.

In the previous post, I posted pictures of flong sheets I’d acquired for the museums. These paper molds were made from metal, wood, and etchings, and then themselves would be cast into metal for printing.

But sometimes people did odder things, like insulate the side of a house with them or use them to bind a book. While I haven’t been able to find out more about that house, I did purchase an affordable copy of the 1904 book, Fairy Tales Up To Now by Wallace Irwin. To my knowledge, it’s unique in having a binding made of dry flong, which had only been introduced a few years before to speed up newspaper production. The book is a set of stories in verse that are modern renditions of fairy tales typeset in columns like a newspaper!

It’s odd and fun.

Flongs pair with stereotypes, the metal plates cast from flongs. These are in short supply, because they were rarely retained—they were typically made for newspapers (usually entire pages) and melted down. Sometimes, a stereotype was made for advertising and used for printing or to send out to newspapers for local ads or to have flongs made.

Through eBay I tracked down my first and only stereotype so far. Sadly, it’s a coupon for cigarettes, and quite recent—from the early 1970s. The Raleigh brand was apparently profligate with coupons. This stereotype pair is the front and back black plates. A red plate was also used as you can see in an image of the coupon that I found online.

In 1852, not many years after the invention of photography, until the rise of offset lithographic printing in the mid-20th century, photographs had to be reproduced by the halftone process. A fine screen interposed between a high-contrast photographic medium—one that recorded only blacks—and a projected photographic image produced concentrations of black dots or squares of varying sizes which fool the eye into seeing shades of gray.

To reproduce these in the days of letterpress printing, printers first created a halftone negative by photographing the original through a screen, then exposed the negative on a prepared metal plate (typically copper) coated with a light-sensitive resist. Areas that received light hardened, while the rest remained in its original state. Put into a chemical bath, the unhardened areas would etch away, leaving a positive relief (raised) halftone image.

I’ve rarely handled halftone plates, and again found a high-quality newspaper plate mounted on wood—likely a souvenir for someone in decades past—so I could examine it first hand.

I also recently tracked down a “don’t worry”/”good luck” coin for Linotype operators. These coins were common in the 1910s to 1930s, apparently—they seem to have been created for a lot of organizations and companies. The coins had typically custom illustrations on the front, and the back a mix of unique elements and common good-luck charms, like horse shoes, four-leaf clovers, wishbones, and…er…swastikas.

The swastika only became associated with fascism when the Nazi Party in Germany appropriated it in the 1930s. Prior to that, it was used commonly for good luck—the word derives from the Sanskrit for “auspicious”—although it was a bit of cultural appropriation that led to its widespread use in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

Fortunately, the Linotype coin uses a friendly horseshoe. (A horseshoe has religious and mystical associations, too, but nobody uses it for hatred.)

Photos of Flong and a Brief History

Every Tiny Type Museum & Time Capsule will have a piece of flong, a kind of letterpress-era mimeograph transfer sheet, only for metal. I haven’t written about flong comprehensively yet, but I’m preparing to, both as a freestanding article and as part of Six Centuries of Type & Printing, the book I’m writing that will be part of the museum project and available separately.

In brief, flong was a paper mold. Perfected in France in the late 1700s and then used increasingly extensively through the 19th century, flong allowed printers to set a portion of page of type and engravings, and press (or beat) a kind of paste-infused paper into the surface. Flong originally was a form of papier-mâché. When dried, the flong could be lifted off and then be used as a mold to create a metal printing plate, known as a stereotype (or, in France, a cliché).

Flong and stereotypes were critical in advancing the speed of printing and the scale of newspapers. They went hand in hand with the development of rotary presses, in which paper was fed through and a plate cylinder rolled in place over it. Eventually, continuous rolls of papers (known now as “webs”) could be fed into high-speed rotary presses for extremely fast production. Flong allowed stereotypes, which were bent into to shape to fit neatly on a printing cylinder.

Most flong was destroyed after use, either in the process of making a metal plate or because it had no value at all—it was largely used in the 20th century for printing perishable stuff, like newspapers. It was discarded or burned. What I’ve found so far that’s survived are “ad mats,” where mat is short for “matrix,” a term in the printing world for a mold.

Ad mats would be sent by national and regional advertisers to newspapers in the same way photostats and PDFs were later used. National brands would send retailers or partners ad mats (or send them directly to the paper) so that the local paper would just set in metal the name, address, and phone number of a store selling, say, GE products, but the ad was otherwise all ready to go.

I have some ad mats, but also acquired several large sheets of a related product: clip art, but in flong format. Pictures below.

I’ll be writing much more about flong and the ecosystem that required it and thrived as a result.