When you mind your p’s and q’s, a first impression will be good

I walked into what appeared to be quite an unexciting building and my eyes popped.

Wooden floors made my footsteps heard, the smell of old paper and ink filled my nostrils and the sight of metal machinery I had only seen in pictures lay before me. Ironically, one of my classmates let out a cry of exasperation before the official start of the tour into the history of printing began; “Ah! My phone just died!” It seemed appropriate that in a place rich in the textures of decades past would be the place where a modern piece of technology failed her. Nothing more interesting though could capture my attention and allow me to drink in the knowledge provided by Eastern Star Gallery curator regarding the ways of the old way of printing. No cellphone necessary.

Student Mitchell Parker is intrigued by the advertising of ostriches for sale in an old edition of the Eastern Star newspaper, while lecturer Gillian Rennie looks on. Photo: Roxanne Daniels
Student Mitchell Parker (left) is intrigued by the advertising of ostriches for sale in an old edition of the Eastern Star newspaper, while lecturer Gillian Rennie looks on. Photo: Roxanne Daniels

The tour into history, given by Richard Burmiester, began. I started to picture the strong men who would have to lug the huge metal frames around the room. I imagined how much heavier the frames became when they were filled with one page’s worth of text and pictures…all set in metal. I saw the man who had to concentrate, blocking out the noise of the machines, while placing tiny little letters into place (backwards) to create paragraphs. I wondered what it would have felt like to breathe in the ink all day as one person rolled it out onto the metal to be spread over the letters and images. I did not have to make these images up – they were right in front of me. Finally, I heard the whirring and clanging of the 120-year-old Wharfdale printing press that rolled away to impress upon the paper the words that had been placed on the bed of the roller.

While I was enchanted by the action in front of me, I was more intrigued by the connections between terminology used for the printing press and the terminology journalists use today. There are phrases I will say today that now have a firm root in my mind, giving them deeper meaning that I have missed out on up till now.

Here are my favourites:

  • Hot off the press – printing a newspaper used to be by way of ‘hot metal printing’ whereby hot lead created the moulds used to print on the paper, making it very hot. Today, we use the term to show that this is fresh information.Leading – if you use Microsoft Word, you will know about ‘leading’. This is the section where we can choose the spaces between lines. In old printing, leading was used to make spaces between lines of text.
  • Upper case and lower case – the little individual metal letters were kept in a case that had a top and bottom part. The capital letters were kept in the UPPER part of the case and the small letters were kept in the LOWER part of the case. Thus today, we have upper and lower case to describe the nature of letters.

    Curator of the gallery showing the museum goers the case in which the metal letters were kept. Photo: Roxanne Daniels
    Curator of the gallery, Richard Burmiester, shows the museum goers the case in which the metal letters were kept. Photo: Roxanne Daniels
  • Mind your p’s and q’s. When placing the letters into a paragraph, the workers needed to put them in backwards (instead of forwards from right to left) so that the printed text would come out the right way. This made letters like p’s and q’s (and d’s and b’s) confusing to work with. They had to literally mind the p’s and q’s to ensure that ‘pilot’ did not read ‘qilot’ for example.
  • Justify the line. This is also a feature of MS Word where you can choose to justify the line, making the words fill up the line to the end. The metal paragraphs for the old printing press had to be tightly packed so that when they were placed upside down, they would not fall apart from each other. Therefore, the workers justified the line by adding or taking away spaces.

    Here the line has been justified and is being pushed compactly together before ink is rolled over it. Photo: Roxanne Daniels
    Here the line has been justified and is being pushed compactly together before ink is rolled over it. Photo: Roxanne Daniels
  • Put the story to bed. Today this means, finish that story, or get it done. The origin of this phrase has the same meaning it has today; if a writer or printing machine worker was told to put the story to bed, it meant that the completed work must be placed on the bed (platform on which the roller goes over) of the printer so that it could be printed.
  • First impressions are important. Today, we understand this term to mean that when we meet someone for the first time, they should come away with the best opinion or ‘impression’ of us. When setting up the metal frame for the printer, the letters had to be even i.e. at the same height, if they were not, some letters would push through the page and others would not print at all. Thus, this was a bad first impression, which led to further bad impressions on the next pieces of paper.
Picture source: http://www.thefitnessu.com/mind/firstimpressions
Picture source: http://www.thefitnessu.com/mind/firstimpressions
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