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

Slipboards in the 1890s

The following excerpt from John Edward Hicks’ book 
illustrates the employment situation in the 1890s

“The Cincinnati Commercial-Gazette, I found, was a morning seven-day paper with sixty-two regulars and perhaps thirty to thirty-five subs. The building was at Fourth and Race streets with a stairway at the rear of the Race Street side, up which compositors toiled to the composing room which was located on the fifth floor. It was necessary for the printers to climb these stairs twice a day—at noon to throw in their cases for the night’s work and in the evening when the actual composition was begun. The regulars drifted in around one o’clock in the afternoon and the subs waited to be hired.”

As can be seen, the slipboard had one substitute for every two regular employees. This  meant that subs had to show up for every shift to catch work. During slack periods, hiring would get worse, and those with the least priority would be tempted to move on.

Slipboards in the 1960s.

This daily practice of showing up for work brought substitutes into close social contact, reinforcing a feeling of brotherhood and solidarity. This contributed to what sociologists call an “occupational community” among the substitutes. Rules of conduct and etiquette evolved which were separate from the formal chapel rules. Substitutes abided by their own code of honor, helped each other when possible, and shared information about where work could be found. The process bonded subs with friendship and brotherhood much stronger than that found among regular situation holders.

The following extract from the book Union Democracy shows that in New York City, in the 1950s and 1960s, the substitute system was intact and of great importance:

“[In New York City] substitutes are hired day by day. Every printer working in a print shop, regularly or as a substitute, has a priority number within that shop, assigned according to the length of time he has been in the shop. However, the company’s daily hiring of substitutes is not carried out in accordance with priority. Instead, the chapel chairman holds a lottery in which each sub draws a numbered ball. Those men with the highest numbers get the positions for the day while those with lower numbers are out of luck for that shift.

“The first consequence of this procedure is that every man feels constrained to show up every day. Those subs who do not get work find themselves downtown with nothing to do for the rest of the day. (Subs are permitted to show up on all three shifts if they like.) Many men who do not get work in the morning will often show up for the evening shift as well. If a man needs money badly, he may show up for all three shifts, trying his luck each time.” (Union Democracy, by Lipset, Trow, and Coleman. Macmillian, New York, 1956)

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