Caxton, 1477 edition of Canterbury Tales

New York City public schools in the 1940s subscribed to an idea that boys should have, in addition to reading and writing and doing sums, some skill in a traditional craft. The year I attended Dewey Junior High School, aged eleven—I was there only for the seventh grade—I took both woodworking and printing.

Printing was taught by Mr. Holbert, a tweedy, soft-spoken artisan of a vanished breed, who presided over a fully equipped letterpress operation, with great cabinets of lead type arranged in typecases, according to font and point sizes. The methods and the tools would have been recognisable to Gutenberg and Caxton. Slugs and leading, furniture and quoins, composing sticks, a small hand-cranked platen press for proofs, a big motor-driven one (ker-plunk, ker-plunk) for print runs, our school-boy hands learning to set type without looking, flying back and forth to the sorts in the typecase, fingers sensitive to the notch on the tiny bits of type that told you which end was up.

Typecase with lead type.

After locking composed sections of text up in a chase or frame, enhanced sometimes with linoleum block illustrations we made ourselves, came the proofing. Letters upside down or broken, widows and orphans, “rivers”—which were fortuitous alignments of blank space across a page—all had to be repaired, under the stern gaze of Mr. Holbert.

It made no difference that letterpress was an obsolete industrial skill, already then long replaced by linotype and offset printing. Mr. Holbert, like others of his type, believed his true calling was moral instruction. Finishing a job once begun, everything done in order—to be sure. But also standards of etiquette peculiar to this work, such as accurately replacing the type after a job, a chore every bit as demanding of attention as the composing itself had been, lest the next boy struggle with a dog’s breakfast in the typecases.

We were encouraged in Mr. Holbert’s shop to write our own copy for printing. Stories, poems, announcements, news sheets. He would read these things at the proof stage. He did not tolerate anything slipshod or dashed off, there were no excuses for bad writing any more than for bad typesetting, and his response to any vulgarity whatsoever was swift and withering.

He is with me yet, Mr. Holbert, shaking his head slowly, sending me back to try again, when I have written anything not quite up to the effort or the dignity of type.