Mind Your Ps and Qs

Typesetter is my former profession, so I’m always seeing details and thinking about how stuff was assembled. If you don’t know from typesetting, until the 1980s, pretty much everything that looked like it wasn’t typewritten (with some exceptions) had a human being managing getting the words into some form. Starting in the 1980s, a writer (or any given amateur or professional in a non-printing field) could set her or his own work, or relied on less-specialized page wranglers.

A Monotype matrix from the C.C. Stern museum.

In the 1970s and 1980s, typesetting happened largely on computer-backed systems, which used an optical process to set onto photo-receptive paper or a special kind of lithographic film (I learned on CompuGraphic systems); for almost 100 years before that it, it was largely hot metal shooting out from absurdly complicated machines (Linotypes and Monotypes and others; for 400 years before that, it was largely people pulling out letters (called “sorts”) and setting them in lines using casting sticks held in the hand.

Behold, the wide wales!

I was reading Moby-Dick for a podcast (honestly!), an edition published the 1950s, but it’s clear from looking at the introduction, which was beautiful set in 1950s style, and the body of the book that the printing plates or setting had been done possibly a couple of decades before. (There were photographic processes many decades ago that would allow etching raised type or “letterpress” plates from prints of set type. It gets complicated.)

I have great admiration (!) for extra spaces, except in typesetting.

You’ll also note in the Moby-Dick setting that the space after periods is very wide, which is more common when you get further into the past, as that was the style. (Also, typesetters were sometimes paid by the “em,” or the width of the capital letter M. Wider spaces meant more money.) I found a note in a typewriting (not setting) manual from around 1900 that said three spaces after a full stop.

We went to a First Folio exhibit this week at the local library, and I was surprised not to learn that there were only about 750 copies printed, but that there are substantial variations among the 225 or so copies that are known. The typesetters were making changes between printing each copy, which I find baffling and should learn more about.

The book was printed, as far as I can tell, prospectively — that is, as many are today, published with the anticipation of sales — rather than by advance subscription, or, as we might call it now, crowdfunding. It’s remarkable to me that in they were correcting typos into the run!