Hand-setting metal type—placing individual letters one by one into a composing stick to form words, then sentences, paragraphs, and pages—sounds an unlikely spectator sport. But in 1886, a craze for typesetting races swept the United States, fanned by dime museum promoters who introduced a class of compositor-printers to the general public and made them famous. These men were known in the trade as Swifts—compositors capable of amazing feats of speed and accuracy. They had been racing each other on shopfloors, in union halls and saloons since the advent of industrialisation. Long shifts, alcohol, stimulant use, braggadocio and pride drove compositors to compete with each other for money, prizes and acclaim.  Gambling on the outcome of races gave every man on the floor a stake in the game. In his book, The Swifts: Printers in the Age of Typesetting Races, Walker Rumble writes “By the mid 1880s, journeymen Swifts resembled mythic Irish elks and modern athletes. They had become the best ever on earth at what was becoming irrelevant.”

The rapid growth of industrialised cities saw a proliferation of newspaper titles and book production houses. Typesetters formed a working class elite protected by strong union representation and by a working culture that fostered independence and mobility. A tramping journeyman with a union card could be assured of employment in any city he cared to make his temporary home. Reputations spread nationally, and the best of the best toured the country to race against hometown talent. The most famous of these Swifts was George “The Velocipede” Arensberg, who, on 19 February 1870, set 2064 emsof solid minion type in a single hour. (In this era, 700 ems an hour was considered average.) Money was a primary motivator: a winning Swift could pocket a kitty of $500 or even $1000 at a time when wages might be $30 per week.  But prestige and honour were equally important. Rumble notes that type-racing awards of the late nineteenth century were as “outrageously rococo as […] printing’s beloved circus-poster typography”. Engraved solid silver composing sticks, trophies, gold watches, print encyclopaedias and medallions featuring Benjamin Franklin were common prizes. One third-prize winner, he notes, was awarded a thermometer. Thomas Rooker, an ace compositor at the New York Tribune, wore diamond-studded shirtfronts, presumably the spoils of his success at the case.

What made the year 1886 unique in the history of type-racing was that it saw the sport enter the public arena in a blaze of publicity, thanks to entertainment promoters and dime museums. The dime museum was not an institution of professional scholarship or curatorial rigour. They combined public edification with sensationalist amusement—an educational model of a gynaecological office, for instance, alongside a sideshow act involving a tattooed man wrapped in snakes. It was a product of an emerging mass culture of consumption, a culture with an increasingly insatiable appetite for amusements. Walker Rumble writes, “Printers who considered themselves a working-class elite might easily confuse the onset of a culture of popular amusement for a pathway toward mainstream bourgeois respectability.” These working class men could hardly have thought otherwise, with the all the financial rewards and social kudos on offer.

Chicago’s South Side Dime Museum hosted a seven-day typesetting tournament in January 1886, featuring New York Swifts Joseph McCann and William Barnes. Racing for the Diamond Medal and Championship of the World, the New Yorkers battled six local Swifts in shifts throughout the week.  Barnes won after an exhausting struggle during which he wowed the crowd by setting type with his cases reversed (the uppercase or capital letters in the lower position, and the lowercase letters in the upper), setting type blindfolded, then setting type blindfolded with his cases reversed. The spectacle was repeated in February in Boston at Austin & Stone’s Museum, billed as “The Typesetting Championship of New England”. The Museum’s lecture hall was transformed into a replica of a big city daily newspaper’s composing room so as to ensure “an authentic feel to the place”.

Following the six-day contest was the barely publicised “Lady Typesetter’s Match” which applied the exact same rules and format of the men’s competition. When the men raced, the usual resident monkey display was temporarily relocated. But the monkeys were returned for the women’s races.  Despite this added distraction, the women set type faster and more consistently than the men over the course of the six days. In spite (or perhaps because) of this, it was the first and last time women ever raced publicly.

In March, the Philadelphia National Championship was held at Bradenburgh’s Ninth and Arch Street Dime Museum.  “Thousands of people who are strangers to the secrets of the composing and press rooms,” declared the publicity materials, “will gladly welcome this opportunity to see the deft-fingered champions of the typographic world present the moulded thoughts of the writers of the day in plain English print.”  The lavish competition was won by Cincinnati compositor Alexander Duguid, who set type faster than anyone ever had, or would. Surprisingly, the craze that began in January was over by the middle of the year. The International Typographic Union banned public racing in response to a threat that had been in plain sight so long it was rendered invisible. That threat was Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype, a typesetting machine that, for the first time in history, actually worked.

By the mid-nineteenth century, inventors and entrepreneurs had revolutionised printing machinery in all aspects of the industry except composition. The Swift William Barnes was certain that inventors could not devise “a piece of mechanism that can think, and the numerous efforts to secure this phenomenon proves the sure foundation on which the compositor’s art is based”. Which is not to say that efforts weren’t being made. Typesetting equipment was installed in New York printing houses as early as 1855, but generations of different mechanisms were found over and over to be far more trouble than their worth. Mark Twain, himself a former compositor, famously lost a good portion of his fortune investing in a typesetting machine which, like all before it, failed. Mergenthaler’s Linotype was a radical rethinking of the typesetting problem. Rather than devise a machine that retrieved and then redistributed type, his machine cast metal into solid lines of type, which, once printed, were melted back into reusable metal.

The union had good reason to put an end to public typesetting races. Bosses were constantly looking to increase profits. The composing room lagged behind advances in other areas of production. Until the problems that plagued mechanised typesetting could be overcome, getting men to work faster was the only way to improve productivity. The Swifts’ performances set a dangerous precedent. In the past, racing was conducted within the confines of the industry. Out in public, Swifts flaunted their exceptional skills, drawing unwanted attention to their less proficient rank and file colleagues back on the shopfloor. Perhaps surprisingly, the union was still focusing more on protecting its compositors from productivity demands and the threat of female labour than the inevitability of mechanisation. As late as 1885, the Inland Printer dismissed reports of a reliable typesetting machine as “rubbish [circulated by] smart alecks of the New York press”. But in 1886, coincident with the heyday of the public typesetting races, the first Linotypes were installed at the New York Tribune, and the other newspapers and printing houses quickly followed.

The Linotype killed hand composition, and along with it, a particular type of craftsman. In 1893, Lee Reilly averaged 8,567 ems an hour on the Linotype, a week’s work for a hand-setting compositor. By 1899, William Henry Stubbs averaged 12,021 ems an hour. Neither man, however, was considered a Swift. The speed and prowess attributed to the Swifts was now bestowed upon the machine. The Linotype itself was the star, men its mere operators.

Industrialisation changed the relationship between a man and his tools and the materials of his craft. In the hand-setting era, printers shaped both the written word and the visual elements of a page. The composing stick was an extension of the human hand—a printer’s expertise lay in his ability to communicate well using type, rule, images and white space. With the introduction of the Linotype, men served the machine and were directed by a new breed of specialists – initially known as printer-architects, later, as graphic designers. No longer free to “write in the stick” (correct copy on the fly) or let loose with decorative ornamentation, machine operation stripped the compositor of autonomy intrinsic to craft. The great public typesetting races of 1886 were a spectacle of precision and speed, but, unbeknownst to anyone, also the last great hurrah for the printer-compositor as an elite among working men. Never again would a printer be presented with a giant emblem of flowers arranged into the shape of a composing stick. Never again would fame be found in an activity so mundane, yet profound.


Douglas Wilson’s Linotype: The Film premiered in February 2012. If, like me, you are fan of late nineteenth century industrialisation (with a particular focus on printing and the allied trades) the announcement of this film was hugely exciting. Through interviews, found footage and some lovely graphics, Wilson tells the story of the life and death of the Linotype, with particular focus on its death. In one scene, a long-time Lino operator talks of how heartbroken he is to scrap a well-loved machine. In the background, a crane lifts the machine from a truck bed and proceeds to (somewhat gratuitously) smash it over and over onto a junk heap, crushing its precision-engineered carcass into smithereens.

We meet Carl Schlesinger, Lino operator at the New York Times for 30-something years, who filmed the last day of Linotype operation at the newspaper before its conversion to phototypesetting. We meet Larry Raid, who runs his annual Linotype University on his property in Denmark, Iowa, home also to Pry Plastics and a fully operational steam railway. Wilson talks to printers still using Linotype: some, 90-year-old men with delicate, gnarled hands and others, young bearded hipsters in band t-shirts and plaid shirts.  All of them focus on how to maintain these machines long after they were officially declared obsolete. All are passionately committed to the special qualities letterpress possesses, unequalled among printing techniques. For these printers, the ability to make type allows them autonomy not available to printers reliant on hand-set type, which continually wears out and requires replacement. It is also an autonomy not known by printers using photopolymer plates who, though they have every digitised typeface known to man at their fingertips, are still reliant on film negatives and the skill of their platemaker.

Strangely, it was this same freedom that hand compositors mourned with the introduction of the Linotype in the 1880s. Somehow, in the almost-century between the birth of the Linotype and its slow death, craftsmen took hold of the new technology and made it theirs. What was initially alienating and an offense to the sensibilities of hand workers became another tool that proud craftsmen mastered. In his film, Schlesinger’s colleagues at the Times farewell their machines, left cold and silent, with evident sadness. I don’t think I was the only one to tear up as the machine was being pounded into the scrapheap. The crowds urging on the Swifts in 1886, Howard Gorin who saved two machines at the auction of equipment from the Boston Printing Office in 2011 when his museum only requested one —these moments point to one thing. At moments of great change—1886, now—craftsmen will mourn the loss of whole cultures formed around skills particular to a craft. But the human urge to make things well lives on, perhaps just in smaller, tighter corners in our increasingly alienated, wasteful culture.

Carolyn Fraser is a letterpress printer and writer. In 2005, after eleven years in the US, she shipped a 20-foot container of letterpress equipment to Australia and re-established Idlewild Press in Melbourne. In addition to publishing artist books, Carolyn teaches letterpress printing and is a regular contributor to Uppercase Magazine. She tweets and posts to Instagram as @girlprinter and can also be found online at www.carolynfraser.com and www.facebook.com/IdlewildPress.