Newspapers Thoughts on lettering

In honour of a decade: number 7

Nearly 10 years ago [December 2010], so not long after I commenced this blog, I wrote about the demise of the printed newspaper [see here]. I forecast that the print media did not have long to go, maybe 5 years [I was wrong], at the most 10. Here in Australia, the end of June 2020 saw a swathe of publications, most community-based, many with heritage spanning some 100 years, fall silent.

In my part of the world the print edition of the Tweed Daily News ended. Though the masthead proclaimed ‘daily’ to the bitter end, the paid-for print edition had been weekly [Saturday] for many years, with a free community weekly also hitting the front lawn on a Wednesday.

Tweed Daily News
Tweed Daily News

The end of print was longer coming than I first thought in 2010, but inevitable. I source my news mainly from the online edition of The Guardian where [still for free] I can read the latest from the UK, US and anywhere in the world, and access informed comment [if often not impartial].

Do I miss print? Hell yes – I was brought up on it, the smell and the sound of it, and for many years ran my own letterpress print workshop. But reflect more on the content of journalism today, than the production. Fewer news outlets, and the concentration of those in the hands of managements pushing a bias [which news ownership has ever been] can/does lead to misleading and inflammatory editorialising. Be mindful in the twists and turns of digital.

Elements of Lettering Thoughts on lettering

George Orwell, the mystery of 2+2= , stereotyping and the Chicago Tribune

I read Dennis Glover’s wonderful The Last Man in Europe during the Australian summer break [Christmas to mid-January 2018], which, if you haven’t come across go immediately to purchase. last man in europeOf course, it helps to have a long-standing interest in the works of George Orwell [aka Eric Blair]. I first read 1984 as a teenager, perhaps in 1973 or thereabouts, with that frightening year a decade distant. [In the 70s there was still a fear of nuclear war between the US and USSR, so 1984 was deeply relevant. I still remember instructions being broadcast of what to do in the eventuality of conflict: crawl under a table.]

Finishing Glover I was set to re-read the classic. Fortunately, Glover has edited a new edition, also published by Black Inc, complete with an introduction. Orwell 1984

This takes up a question he raised in his novel. Put briefly, the US editions end the famous sentence that begins, Almost unconsciously he traced with his finger in the dust on the table, as 2+2=5

However, the British and Commonwealth editions, published by Secker & Warburg offer variants. Yes, the first edition, first impression of June 1949 also prints 2+2=5. Yet the second impression, published in March 1950, reveals, as demonstrated by Glover, an amendment: 2+2= .

In other words the 5 is missing. A crucial difference, says Glover, since the absence of the 5 illustrates that the novel’s protagonist, Winston, no longer has free thought: he has been totally subsumed by the Party. Placing the 5 as the sum subtly affirms that Winston maintains freedom of thought.

Glover asks how the 5 may have dropped out of sight, and this leads to an interesting typographic adventure. Scholars have suggested the 5 ‘fell out’ of the forme, a plausible explanation to those who know about letterpress. [I will not go into the fascinating complexities here of how a dying Orwell may have contacted his agent or copyeditor between the printing of the first and re-set second editions: for this see Glover.] Except for the fact that, writes Glover: ‘The second impression used the stereotype plates made from the original type set for the first edition…’ I’ll return to stereotype plates in a moment.

eric blair tombstoneWhat Glover concludes, helped by expert assistance from Carolyn Fraser of the State Library of Victoria, who has the benefit of also being a letterpress printer, is that ‘…the ‘5’ [in the second impression] was intentionally bashed flat by the compositor after the standing type had been stereotyped (cast in metal), and the flattening job had been done inexpertly, slightly damaging the ‘=’. In the pre-digital age, when printing was a costly and time-consuming mechanical process, any opportunity to make corrections without having to make a new stereotype would have been gladly taken up’.

Now, I do not know enough about stereotyping to assert this is what did happen, and neither can Glover categorically assert this is true. This premise is based on knowledge of the printing industry around the 1950s, intimate knowledge now largely extinct as the practitioners have now passed. If there is a reader of this blog who might be able to throw further light on this thesis please make contact.

In the meantime, enjoy this video I discovered while trawling the web for information on stereotyping. It’s a wonderful historical document in its own right and I am much indebted to Jeff Quitney for making it publicly available. The clip shows how the Chicago Tribune was put to press in the 1930s.


alphabet Elements of Lettering History of Lettering lettering Thoughts on lettering

Geofroy Tory, the Apostrophe and the letter S

Simon Griffin, writing in Fucking Apostrophes, [Icon Books, London, 2016] observes that ‘Geoffroy [sic] Tory is considered one of the people responsible for introducing it [the apostrophe] to the French language in the 15th century’ (p.16).

the S
The letter S as drawn by Geofroy Troy in his Champ Fleury

A disputable claim given that Tory’s Champ Fleury wasn’t published until 1529. Nevertheless, turning to that volume, Tory himself writes: ‘…if it should happen that one has occasion to write in Attic letters such verses, wherein the S should disappear, one may write them clearly & wittingly without putting the said letter S where it might be lost, and put an apostrophe over the place where the S should be. This apostrophe, being above the line at the end of a word, signifies that some vowel or an S has been dropped because of the metrical quantity of the vowel that follows it in the next syllable or word’ (trans. George B Ives, Dover edition, 1967, p.138).

the S by Catich
Hand drawn S by Catich from The Origin of the Serif

Tory elaborates on the letter S itself, noting its Greek origin and that it makes ‘a hissingsound, of the same quality that red-hot iron makes when it is dipped in water’ (ibid, p.139). He goes on to note how a letter S (sigma in ancient Greek) represents silence ‘…for which reason the ancients often wrote it alone above the door of the place where they ate and drank with their good friends; in order to put it before their eyes that such words as they should speak at table must be spoken soberly & listened to in silence; which cannot be if there be excess in eating and drinking, which are things not meet for decency at table & for pleasant company’ (ibid, p.139).

Note: For an earlier piece on Tory go here and for more on Catich and The Origin of the Serif here