The printer’s devil lived a hell of a life!

Gone are the days when young men found their way into newspaper and print shop work as printers’ devils. Their life could be difficult, it could be dangerous, it could stink–and yet young men kept knocking on newspaper and print shop doors looking for a chance to start their careers.

Printing back shops and the men and women who worked in them
Life in the Back Shop by Robert MacGregor Shaw

Bob Shaw recalled those bygone days in Life in the Back Shop, a book he filled with stories of everyday life encountered in print shops.

“Once or twice a week, generally during odd-hours, the printer’s devil would melt used type metal and cast 15-or-20-pound cylinders of type metal called ‘pigs,’ lugging them to the machine to start the process over again. He concentrated his sweeping on the area around the machine, which was always littered with metal shavings called the ‘hell box.’ What the devil swept up was more than type metal. Sweepings contained dust, cigar and cigarette ash, gum, wads of chewing tobacco, and many other filthy objects, and all was dumped into the melting pot. Noxious fumes resulted, contributing to the unique smell of a back shop.

“On the day after press day when type was dumped into the melting pots,’ Doug Coleburn of Virginia writes, ‘the smoke would get so thick you could hardly see. In the summer the windows were all open and the livery stable next door provided hundreds of flies that made us miserable. For this reason, the teenage devil generally did the work when people were not around, in evenings or on weekends. . . .Ventilation was out of the question. Air in print shops wasn’t supposed to move around. Air had to be still, providing a cushion beneath paper in the hands of the pressman or underneath sheets being fed into a job press. Paper had to ‘float’ into place; overhead fans wold have blown paper all around the shop.”

It often was not glamorous work but it put some money in a printer’s devil’s pocket and, for many of them, years later gave them a chance to train other newcomers into the mysteries of Life in the Back Shop.

Until next time . . .

If you enjoyed this, join 269 other subscribers and receive regular articles from Letterpress Book Publishing. Subjects range from news about letterpress and hot metal typesetting, how to publish your letterpress book, to ideas about philosophy, history, economics and, sometimes, just humorous items.

Comments are closed.