I’d been trying for ages to find a short film titled “Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu”, but I never had any success in various library catalogs. This film documents the very last day, 1 July 1978, that the New York Times was set by the hot type process called Linotype. Recently I found the full length video on the Internet Archive – should have looked there first!
First some background: Back in college I was introduced by a friend, Sarah Z, to the Bow and Arrow Press, a letterpress studio hidden behind an inconspicuous door in the basement of one of the residential houses. It was/is equipped with a mechanical proof press and drawers of second-hand type, that had to be set by hand on a composing stick. It was a pleasant way to spend free evenings (under the benevolent eye of our pressmasters Zach and Ted): picking out the letters one by one and setting them upside-down and back-to-front was almost like meditation. And even doggerel limericks look profound when printed on letterpress.
So that’s how I got interested in printing. Newspapers (and books, and everything) used to be set with metal (lead) type, and by the 1880s this also became mechanized, with typesetting machines slotting the individual metal letters in place as an operator keyed in the text at a keyboard. Linotype was one of the main manufacturers of such machines. Today the company still exists, selling fonts for computer publishing systems.
Many things in the film brought back memories of my casual letterpress days, but at industrial scale: those metal frames that had to be screwed in at each side to hold the composed type in place; slotting in the blank spacer pieces to make all the type fit together in the frame. Although the main columns of text were typeset by Linotype, the headlines were still set by hand, so some elements of letterpress were on display, like the tray used to keep pieces of type at hand for composing, called a California case.
For a documentary about industrial machinery, the mood is unexpectedly emotional, although the “farewell” in the title should have given that away. The writer and narrator were both long-time workers at the Times, as a proofreader and typesetter respectively. They interview colleagues who give their thoughts on the passing of an era, and follow the typesetting and printing process from keying in the text to the papers rolling off the press and off to distribution.
The other part of the title, “etaoin shrdlu”, represents the first two rows of the Linotype keyboard (they are the most commonly-used letters in the English language, more or less). Typesetters would run their fingers glissando down these two rows if there was an error in a line, to indicate that it should be discarded.
Printing is literally putting thoughts to paper, and it is fitting to see what a physical and demanding job it is. There’s always a loud sound of machinery in the background, printers regularly wield hammers and saws, all surfaces are dark, metallic, covered either in grease or ink, and the entire workshop is calmly working against the clock late into the night (deadlines at 9 pm and 11 pm) in crowded, windowless workshops. I could almost smell the ink and machine oil. Also, almost everyone in the film is male (the only woman in the film is a layout editor going over the pages before they get sent out to get cast). It’s clear that these men take pride in their jobs. One interviewee speaks proudly about the years he’s spent in printing (“six years an apprentice, and twenty a journeyman”) but then switches to cautious optimism about being retrained for the new, electronic printing process.
In the second act the film shows what was then the state-of-the-art electronic typesetting at the Times. It’s a stark contrast for both eye and ear – the new workshop has white walls, bright fluorescent lighting, and is quiet. The keyboards are plastic, there is no clang of brass, and no hot lead being poured, but the same men are sitting behind them keying away. The effect is jarring, and not just aesthetically. One is used to seeing pictures from that era of women typists sitting behind rows of typewriters or computer consoles, but while the men were still seated at their large mechanical Linotype machines in the loud workshop it still looked like a traditional “man’s job”.
There are nonetheless parts of the electronic typesetting process which are now charmingly old-school: although the columns are set electronically and, they are printed out in long reams of paper which still had to be cut and pasted onto the final layout by hand. This was then photographically transferred to plastic plates for printing.
Somewhere in the old Linotype workshop, they film someone chalking on a board: “it was good while it lasted / crying won’t help.” Then, as now, dealing with change in uncertain times….