Thomas Curson Hansard Jr., photographed in 1886.

Thomas Curson Hansard Jr., photographed in 1886.

Publisher's Binding on the Five Black Arts volume
Creative Commons LicenseJeremy Norman Collection of Images - Creative Commons
Publisher's Binding on Five Black Arts.
Detail map of Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom,Columbus, Ohio, United States

A: Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom, B: Columbus, Ohio, United States

Economics of Hand-Typesetting: William Turner Coggeshall Edits and Condenses Hansard II's Writings

1841 to 1861
Five Black Arts title page and frontispiece
Creative Commons LicenseJeremy Norman Collection of Images - Creative Commons

In 1841 Adam and Charles Black of Edinburgh, publishers of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, reissued as a separate work Thomas Curson Hansard Jr's Treatises on Printing and Type-Founding from the Seventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. This summary of the history and then-current processes of printing by hand-press and machine was part of a series of separate volumes of texts from the Encyclopaedia that the Blacks issued at the time.

Less expectedly, perhaps, twenty years later the obscure publishing firm of Follett, Foster and Company of Columbus, Ohio, decided to reissue Hansard's work along with other "condensed" selections from the Encyclopaedia Britannica as FIVE BLACK ARTS. A Popular account of the History, Processes of Manufacture, and Uses of Printing, Gas-Light, Pottery, Glass, Iron. The volume was edited, with various new illustrations, including printing machines, and notes by William Turner Coggeshall, publisher and librarian, who was also a self-appointed bodguard for Abraham Lincoln. At the time Five Black Arts was published Coggeshall was State Librarian of Ohio. After Lincoln was assassinated Coggeshall became U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador.

Of particular interest in Hansard's work as edited by Coggeshall is the discussion of the economics of hand typesetting— a very challenging job that had been done by hand since the 15th century, and remained, in spite of many attempts at its mechanization, for the most part a manual process through the 19th century. The explanations published in this text for how piecework was compensated are easier for the layman to understand than technical discussions of the economics of typesetting published for typesetters at the time. I personally find it difficult to imagine how people could accomplish an average manual typesetting speed of 2000 characters per hour, backwards, and often in very small fonts, on top of the other tasks that were necessary for them to perform as outlined below. Most probably few could achieve that speed, especially for extended periods of time, making it extremely hard for typesetters to earn a good wage. Besides these aspects, perhaps only really near-sighted people could set the truly small fonts such as nonpareil and diamond.

From p. 69 of Coggeshall's edition:

"The compositor is paid by the number of thousands of letters he composes, which is thus ascertained: The letter m, being on a shank which is supposed to have its four sides parallel and equal, is taken as the standard; he ascertains how many m's the page is in length, including the running head and the white line at the bottom; that is, in fact how many lines of the particular type used there would be in a page of a given size, supposing it were all solid type; next, how many m's (laid on their side) it is in width, that is how many times the letter m would be repeated in a line of the given length were it to consist of nothing but m's so laid. This latter sum is then doubled, because experience shows that the average width of the letters is one-half of the depth, or one-half of that of the letter m. The length of the page is then multiplied by the product of this doubled width, then by the number of pages in the sheet, and the result will give the average number of letters in the sheet. This will be much better understood by the following casting-up of a sheet of 8vo in pica:

Number of m's long ..................47

                 m's wide, 24 x 2.......48






number of pages in a sheet of 8vo  16






"The compositor therefore is paid for composing 36,000 letters; for the odd figures are dropped unless they amount to or exceed 500, when they are paid for as if they completed another 1000. If the sheet be of solid type, of the ordinary size, the price paid in London is sixpence per 1000 letters; if in the small type called minion, sixpence farthing; in nonpareil, sevenpence; in pearl eightpence. If the work is composed from print copy the price is three farthings less than it would be paid if the copy were manuscript. If, however, the type be leaded, the price is a farthing per 1000 less for fonts above pearl. If the work is to be stereotyped, and high spaces are used, it is subject to an additional charge of a farthing per 1000; if low spaces, of half-penny per 1000. Works in foreign languages, in type of the ordinary size and character, are paid one-half penny per 1000 more, and three farthings per 1000 more in the smaller. Greek, with leads and without accents, eightpence three farthings; with accents, tenpence farthing. is eightpence half-penny per 1000; without leads or accents, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, etc., are paid double.♠ The compositor, it appears, must therefore pick up 72,000 letters before he can receive an ordinary week's wages, must make up his  matter into pages and impose them, and correct all the blunders mischance or carelessness may have occasioned, with great expenditure of time also in many other particulars; but, as is hereafter described, he must have previously placed every one of these 72,000 into the appropriate boxes whence he has withdrawn them in composition. Now it is usually reckoned that this latter operation called distributing, occupies one-fourth of a compositor's time, and the other operations another fourth; he has therfore only one-half of his time for composition; consequently he must pick up letters at the rate of 144,000 per week, 24,000 per day or 2000 per hour. His rapidity of motion is therefore wonderful, and the exertion is so long continued that the business, although apparently a light one, is in fact, extremely laborious."

"♠ In 1804, after a protracted litigation before the Court of Session, the journeymen compositors of Edinburgh succeeded in obtaining the sanction of the court or an advance of one penny per thousand letters, or upon an average, about one-fourth on the prices of their work.  The grounds upon which the Court rested this decision were, that the wages were much too low; that they had remained for forty years unaltered, whilst the prices of the necessaries of life had very much increased; and although it was proper to avoid a rise of wages which might lead to idleness, yet it was equally necessary to place the workmen upon a respectable footing, so as to enable them to do their work properly, and also to encourage them in cultivating and acquiring that degree of literature by which the public must infallibly be benefitted; and that the fair criterion was, to make the wages of Edinburgh bear the same proportion to those of London which they did in the year 1785, before the London prices were raised. That a court of law, whose province it is not to legislate, but to apply and enforce existing statutes, should have entertained a question regarding the price of labor, for the regulation of which there not only existed no law, but which had never been deemed a fit subject for legislative interference, appears to be a very singular incident in the history of judicial procedure. The prices thus fixed; however (namely 4 1/2d per 1000 for book-work, with an additional half-penny if nonpareil and a penny if pearl and 5 1/2d for lawpapers and jobs), being regarded as not unreasonable, have ever since been adhered to by every respectable establishment in Edinburgh. The price for composition in New York and other American cities averages 25 cents per thousand. Compositors at night and on rule and figure work are paid extra."

More detail concerning the way typesetting was compensated was published in The London scale of prices for compositor's work: agreed upon, April 16th, 1810, with explanatory notes, and the scales of Leeds, York, Dublin, Belfast, and Edinburgh. London: Printed under the superintendence of the Trade council of the London union of compositors, by R. Thompson & co. [1835?]. A comparison of this document with the statements published by Coggeshall indicate that changes in the compensation of compositors during the first half of the 19th century were minimal.

My suspicions concerning the great difficulty, or perhaps near impossibility, of achieving an average manual typesetting speed of 2000 characters per hour were confirmed in a book by American fast typesetting champions published in 1887.



Timeline Themes

Related Entries