Minding my p’s & q’s” by Denny Johnson is a loving account of his career in typesetting, starting out as a printer’s devil back in the days when “upper case” meant a literal case:

The Job Case in our shop resembled a huge dark green wood bedroom dresser, built at that time, I supposed, certainly somewhere in California, maybe just after the Gold Rush. It stood five feet high, about a foot over my head. It was almost six feet wide, and stained with years of printer’s ink and chewing tobacco; it was sturdy and unmovable. Ever at its side on the floor — a mucky red Hills Brothers coffee can was the compositors’ constant companion — his spittoon.
Instead of three or four deep drawers for underwear, t-shirts and socks, there were sixteen drawers, eight down per side. All the drawers were labeled but their identification tags had long since been obliterated by ink smudged fingerprints. Each drawer was three inches deep by three-feet square and separated by small individual wood fences or dividers that allotted the drawer into special custom cubicles. Every drawer was designed to hold a different, complete font of hand-type from six to twelve point. This is twelve point; this is eight point; so it’s clear that not only did the compositor have to separate and put away each letter in their appropriate letter home, he needed to put the correct letters with their identical sized brethren in the proper drawer as well. If not, sentences would unquestionably suffer and the reader be put upon to wade through dissimilar sized letters and misspelled words, in a sort of alphabet soup that the proofreader would routinely mark: W/F (Wrong Font).

All twenty-six letters of the alphabet, punctuations and numbers were allotted a different size partition in the drawer according to their order of significance: i.e. how often they turned up in words. A line of type was set by hand, letter by letter, character by character, one at a time. Words and the resulting sentences and paragraphs were compiled using an iron composing stick which was just over eight inches long and two inches broad. This the typesetter held in his left hand while the other was free to go for the necessary letter, piece by piece…
In all probability it was a good logical mind some time early in the 15th century that had configured these spaces so that there were larger cubicles and smaller cubicles depending on that letter’s consequence in the news of the day — an associate perhaps of John Guttenberg or one of his moveable-type cronies in 1448? In the early days of printing the compositor would sit or stand — depending upon the charity of his employer — beside an angled frame upon which he would set type. There were usually two drawer cases of type in use at a given time — one UPPER and one lower case…
That brings us to the four demons of which hardly anything has been written, yet they seem to be the cause of a good deal of anxiety for readers and typesetters alike over history. Now, you might propose that a d is a pretty recognizable and well-thought-of-character, and not one to discover himself mixed up with other letters of lesser popularity. But in fact the d finds himself in some very dubious company when he goes getting mixed up with the b, p, and q, aka: the four demons. They’re so named because they most often were the characters that ended up in some other letter’s stall causing chaos between compositor, proof reader, and printer’s devil — whose job as it turns out was to see that it never happened. And that certainly didn’t mean that it didn’t or couldn’t. In fact it happened all the time. There was always someone in the print shop yelling: “Wrong Font!”

It’s not written in the most professional manner, but it’s a joyous romp through the history of modern typesetting by someone who’s got the molten-lead burns to show for it (“Everyone who worked at and around the Linotypes was burned or injured at one time or another”), and anyone who’s ever felt the romance of those days should enjoy this as much as I did. The link comes via Teresa at Making Light, who adds her own, and needless to say better written, reminiscences (“I remember the Linotype, with its inscrutable keyboard, matrixes falling down chutes like a literate pachinko game, lead pig hung up on a chain to melt, bucket hanging off one side of the machine for collecting and re-melting old slugs, and all too eloquent splashes of now-cooled lead on the floor around it”); the comments, as usual, are a rich source of supplementary vitamins.


  1. “Horton”, “Morton” and “Norton” are the three demons of hand-filed, hand-writtwen medical records.

  2. The California job case in common use in fine printing even today happens to combine both capitals and lowercase into one drawer. Big and small letters? Grade school. Majuscules and minuscules? Not outside of calligraphy. Capitals and lowercase, confirm.

  3. dungbeattle says:

    Never ever eat a printers pi, you may em, en or be a pica, otherwise you will be hot leaden it.

  4. George Sherman says:

    I am trying to teach my son about typesetting.
    Would you have a picture or diagram of a California Type drawer and would you know of anyone who might have some for sale.

  5. Here‘s a diagram accompanied by what look like helpful links. A Google image search turns up some nice photos.

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