by John Howells and Marion Dearman
(Discovery Press, copyright 1996)

Printers organized from the beginning

Printers in general always had reputations for being independent and condescending toward their employers. Since their skills were completely portable, it didn’t take much to convince a printer to walk off the job and go work for someone else. Therefore, when printers organized a guild or a union, their monopoly over the skills necessary to produce printing, and their tight organization earned them a reputation for militancy, strength and support for their members.

Unions—or guilds, as they were called earlier—also predated the invention of movable type. The ancient scribes—while they worked almost exclusively for churches or religious establishments—were secular, and they organized guilds to regulate working conditions and pay for their skilled work. Seated in rows, the scribes laboriously lettered the text in response to the reading by one of their members who sat in a chair in front of the assemblage, hence he was called a “chairman,” or sometimes the “chapel father.” The scribe guild members referred to themselves as “members of the chapel.” The chairman or father was traditionally the head of the guild in that chapel, a kind of early day shop steward. One of his duties was to see that all artists were treated fairly and that working conditions were maintained.

When typesetting replaced hand-lettering, scribes were naturally the first to learn the new process. Type cases, imposing stones and presses replaced the rows of desks. And the scribes’ guilds became printers’ guilds, and later printers’ unions. Tradition hung on tenaciously. 

In the late 20th Century, the remaining union composing rooms in English-speaking nations still are called “chapels.” The union representative is referred to as the “chairman” or the “father” of the chapel. Like the earlier chapel chairman, his job is to adjudicate differences between members, to see to it that all chapel members were treated fairly, and to enforce the contract and working rules.

Early printing guilds were strong and militant. At one time, in the early 1500’s, the guilds convinced British Parliament to pass restrictive laws that made it illegal for any more than 500 impressions to be pulled from one typeset form. The type had to be distributed and reset for the next 500 copies. 

Tradition played an extremely important part in the process of passing along the techniques of printing technology. Certain ways of working could not be questioned. Even the words one spoke in a print shop (or could not speak) were controlled by custom. Printers’ jargon reflected century-old traditions, bewildering and sometimes meaningless to the outsider. If you asked a printer why he called the long metal trays that held type a “galley,” why the drawers that held type were called “cases,” or why type faces were called “fonts,” you’d probably receive a look of pity from the printers in a composing room.

Outsiders who didn’t know the jargon were ridiculed when they attempted to infiltrate a print shop. You could always tell an outsider or beginner by the way he spoke. Printers who violated the rules, such as the ban on whistling in the shop, fighting, or any other infraction were fined by the chapel (often payable in beer). For more serious infractions, the offender could be “sent to Coventry.” That is, he received the silent treatment for a given period of time, after which he could buy his way back into good graces by purchasing an amount of beer for his fellow chapel members. 

Some jargon continues even today, carrying over into the field of digitized typesetting. But, tramp printers evolved their own special jargon, the meaning of which is quickly disappearing as tramp printers die off. A special glossary is included in the back of this book to explain some of the more obscure terms.

Logically, all those engaged in printing offices—pressmen, bookbinders and typesetters—could be called “printers,” but in fact only those who worked with type were known as such. This probably evolved because, while the master printer needed to know all aspects of the trade, he was invariably a typesetter first and foremost. Typesetting required the most education, skill and dexterity, while presswork involved brute strength in the early days of hand presses and pressmen were hired because of size. 

Furthermore, pressmen and bookbinders traditionally learned only their segment of the trade, and received lower wages and social status than a printer. Therefore, in this book, when the term printer is used, please interpret this as meaning: a typographer or composing room worker who performs tasks such as typesetting, imposition, makeup or any of the numerous skills involved in typography. Many of them were also skilled in presswork, bookbinding, and all phases of printing technology.

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Pages by John Howells and Marion Dearman, authors of
"Tramp Printers"
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