That day in 1959 Don McLean immortalised as the one ‘the music died’ lives on, but 2023’s place in history as ‘the year letterpress newspapers died’ appeared to have passed almost without remark. Happily however, the tag is premature.
The sudden last edition of the Don Dorrigo Gazette in country New South Wales – when a machine part broke at the end of June – gained some fleeting prominence in Australian media.
Across the Pacific in the hamlet of Saguache in Colorado, USA, the most recent edition of the Saguache Crescent was printed in January 2023, with publisher Dean Coombs quietly commenting that there was no future in it for a successor… and he wasn’t training one.
A six-minute YouTube video records the printing process, in which sheets from a flatbed letterpress are neatly transferred for fold and crossfold.
Memories here of my own childhood in the UK, where my parents owned a small weekly newspaper: individual sheets printed on an L&M Centurette were also twice-folded, but then sold collated as a set for buyers of the paper to assemble themselves.
Coombs, it seems has got out in time, before – as he remarked – waiting until he was no longer strong enough to lift a type forme or a quire of papers.
But wait: In Thiérache in northern France – a region that sees itself as the location for your next film – there remains a time-warped letterpress newspaper, replete with linotypes and web-fed flatbed newspaper press, a Swiss-built Buhler duplex dating from 1927. A museum in itself, the Democrate de l’Aisne in Vervins was established in 1906 and is still a working newspaper with a weekly, four-page edition selling for 65 Euro cents.
The paper gained a new supporter in Vervins native Dominique Pierru in 2020 – described as a “complicated” year – and new momentum. It was classified as a historic monument in 2022 and plans to open a museum next year.
History may be bunk – as Henry Ford said, “more or less” – but it at least deserves to be recorded accurately or not at all. A worry therefore, that no less than the Smithsonian Magazine, reporting on the Crescent’s place in history, talks of it being printed by “the 19th-century technology known as linotype”, when the printing technology is actually letterpress, and ‘linotype’ only the critical typesetting component.
I heard the Linotype recently being described as “a kind of typewriter”, a reminder that an increasingly small number of people actually know what Ottmar Merganthaler’s revolutionary machine is, let alone how it works.
Happily a few examples are still to be seen, although the number still working is diminishing, as are exponents of its ETAOIN SHRDLU keyboard with the uncanny engineering expertise to keep its wondrous nest of cams and levers sweet.
The sound of a linotype is distinctive, as I still remember from a visit to Venice, now a few years back. The clatter of the composing room confirmed our back-canal location well before the sight of a barge-full of newsprint rolls and the Il Gazettino sign confirmed it.
At the Penrith Museum of Printing in the western outskirts of Sydney, Australia, there are still both linotypes and linotype fans who can help foster enthusiasm for history by setting your name in type. Also the Heidelberg cylinder letterpress machine salvaged from the Don Dorrigo Gazette. Hopefully the hot-metal linecaster – with which publisher Michael English created the paper with the support of his wife Jade – is in store.
At Dimboola in north-western Victoria, an under-resourced and under-publicised print museum has two Linotypes, a Ludlow, an amazing three Wharfedales and an assortment of platens in the former Dimboola Banner building, for which a heritage listing is being sought.
Michael Isaachsen’s former Melbourne Museum of Printing (below) has been less fortunate, its collection of more than 40 linecasters distributed – into store, to other museums, and for scrap – after a financial crisis left it without a home. Happily, the museum’s quirky website is still a substantial resource.
Maybe Henry Ford – who opened a museum of his own – was right, if the experience of America’s Newseum is anything to go on. Opened in 2008 at a cost of US$450 million (A$673 million), it closed its doors on 23,000m2 of exhibits at the end of 2019, then selling the freehold to John Hopkins University.
I can still tell you exactly how a linotype works, with its magazine full of matrices that I recall used to be brought home for washing – in a solution of the new ‘Surf’ powdered detergent – the keyboard, assembler and succession of elevators which took a line of mats for casting and then (minus the spacebands) to the very top of the machine to the “disser” to sort them back into the correct channels of the magazine again.
I recall when, on my tenth birthday, a “state of the art” Linotype Fleet 54 was delivered to the Sheerness newspaper before being taken apart sufficiently for its two tons to be lugged up the stairs to the first-floor composing room. I thought it was my special present.
My father had developed a hand-composing stick to assemble lines of up to 60-point to be cast on a stripped-down Model 1 lino, and the school holiday I spent casting headlines on it… “splashes” – in which a misaligned character led to molten lead being sprayed towards the operator – and all.
A few years before, he’d shown me the first press I had seen – a stop-cylinder Autovic, on which he was printing self-published local guides – perhaps getting the first printing ink into my veins.
It also fell to me in Sheerness, years later when we had moved to photocomposition, to cull the composing department, and selectively send the scrap to the yard. Like many others, I tried to keep one lino for posterity, with the intention of displaying it near to the reception desk, but was frustrated when the production manager reported that it had fallen backwards from a forklift, fracturing those 13 wondrous cams.
YouTube remains a repository for print history. At GXpress, we tried without enormous success to foster interest in preserving antipodean examples of the Cossar web-fed letterpress printing machine still existing in New Zealand.
It also includes Doug Wilson’s notable 2012 feature-length Linotype: The Film, and other records including a series of videos from the International Printing Museum in Carson, California, in which curator Mark Barbour explains some of the linotype’s history.
The museum claims the last two examples of the ‘Linotype Junior’ based on schoolteacher John Rogers’ more modest Typograph of 1895. Barbour tells how a predatory Linotype first copied Rogers’ spaceband technology, then bought the company, and set out to remove remaining examples from the market. You can never stop learning.
And yes, I’m old enough to recall reports of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, Don McLean’s ‘day the music died’, ending a rock and roll era. So let’s spend a moment to note the passing, not quite yet of printed newspapers, but of two of the last letterpress-printed ones, in 2023.
Can we work together to preserve their fragile history? Email me with news of your project and activities, and we would be happy to publicise them.
Pictured: Survivor – the Democrate de l’Aisne in Vervins in northern France; (top) the 1926 press at Vervins; (above) the then Melbourne Museum of Printing stars as the “newspaper composing room” in one of many TV episodes