Categories
History of Lettering Thoughts on lettering

‘Metalfounders who cast the slugs for Baskerville’s elegant type died paralysed with lead poisoning…’

So writes Robert Hughes [The Fatal Shore, 1988, Pan Books, p.21].* This got me thinking about the foundry process since, without the metal there is no type, and without type nothing else is possible. I turned to my books and scanned those lovely, ‘sanitised’ early prints of printing workshops.

printing-office
Engraving by Abraham von Werdt (flourished 1640-80), taken from Printing To-day by John C Tarr. OUP, 1945, p.23.

They look so orderly, so clean, so hygienic. Then I turn again to Joseph Moxon and his Mechanick Exercises… [Dover Publications, NY, 1978, edited by Davis, H & Carter, H] which has sections Of setting up the Furnace and  Of making Metal [pp162-167].

Moxon describes in elaborate detail how the foundry is made and the type of ingredients used: ‘…for every three Pound of Iron, about five and twenty pounds of Lead‘. Moxon concludes: ‘Now (according to Custom) is Half a Pint of Sack mingled with Sallad Oil, provided for each Workman to Drink; intended for an Antidote against the Poisonous Fumes of the Antimony, and to restore the Spirits that so Violent a Fire and Hard Labour have exhausted’. There you are.

la-grant-danse-macabre
La grant danse macabre dated 1499 and printed in Lyon, purporting to be the earliest image of a printing workshop

It was an ugly job, and may well explain why those cadavers are inserted in the 1499 image of a printers office.

  • But there is no source given by Hughes to this statement. Does anyone know where he may have gleaned this information?
pouring-the-mould
‘A caster at the furnace using a hand mould’. From Printing and the Mind of Man, 1963, being a catalogue of the Exhibition at the BM and Earls Court. This may be Sidney Squires of the OUP, who is shown in Moxon, p.406.
printing-mind-of-man-back-cover
From back cover of the Printing and the Mind of Man catalogue, 1963.

3 replies on “‘Metalfounders who cast the slugs for Baskerville’s elegant type died paralysed with lead poisoning…’”

It is so wonderful to learn something hazard and yet nourishing to both of our mind and body, and I’m grateful to those laborers who worked diligently to bring the matters that happened near and far into prints to us.

Books are indispensable, I presume, no matter how digital devices could offer to us but you could always feel those authors are right beside you to bring you inspiration and guidance, which is not electronic books would do.

Thank you, John.

On Mon, Jan 9, 2017 at 2:40 AM, ALL ABOUT LETTERING wrote:

> john pitt posted: “So writes Robert Hughes [The Fatal Shore, 1988, Pan > Books, p.21]. This got me to thinking about the foundry process since > without the metal there is no type and without type nothing else is > possible. I turned to my books and scanned those lovely, ‘sanitis” >

There is a lot of spurious speculation about the dangers of casting type using lead alloys. There are no lead fumes involved: the vapour pressure of lead (or indeed antimony or tin) at the temperatures used is nil. Such dangers as there are come from ‘ingesting’ (i.e. eating) dust etc. and from burns from hot metal. Ordinary precautions of washing hands before eating etc. are entirely sufficient to prevent poisoning. I suspect the confusion comes from the use of organic lead compounds, particularly lead tetraethyl, which was the additive in leaded petrol (gasoline). This is nasty as it can get through your skin barrier into your bloodstream (mechanics using leaded petrol to degrease car parts would suffer). In cars (automobiles) it also gives rise to finely divided lead dust from the exhaust that accumulates around roads: poorer people who ended up living near busy roads would show lead contamination and health problems. Is there also confusion with mercury used by hat-makers (the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland)?

Leave a Reply

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