The First 100 Years: The Next 100...

In the aurora of the nation's centennial

When the National Amateur Press Association first convened in the second-story hall of a Philadelphia building, hand-set type was the way of life in the printing industry. Mechanically-minded men were working on intricate devices with wires, push-buttons and levers to assemble and distribute individual pieces of type. Their designs and results were as varied as the hours of the day, and were eventually fraught with disappointment.
Type founding was a growing business. Since the introduction of the low cost hand-fed printing press, the demand for new and varied type designs grew. Competition among the typefounders was keen and the demand for unique and baroque type styles kept them working at capacity.

Amateur journals of that day were set in small type: agate, nonpareil, minion or brevier, roughly the equivalents of 6 to 8-point. It was the style of the period, before white space and ample leading was recognized a necessity for legibility. Type was usually set solidly in mass. Many journals’ page size was 6×9″ or larger, often two or three columns on the page. Rarely did a wood-block or an expensive engraving appear and perhaps the only note of decoration was embellished type for the nameplate, a fancy initial or a flowery mortise embracing a heading. Fiction and essays were popular. Writers, typical of those times, were verbose and long on descriptive passages. Printers were less editors, more publishers if you understand the comparison with today. The result was a journal with page after page of unbreaking continuous columns. Color was a rarity. While it is easy to criticize this style with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it should be noted that there were fewer outside diverting attractions, so perhaps this type of journal was what the amateur of that day preferred.

In the last decade of the century a new machine was created on a concept that produced a line of type cast in a single unit. While a revolution in the mechanics of typesetting marked the professional field, its effect in amateur circles was negligible. Except in isolated instances where amateurs were simultaneously printing for a livelihood, linotype composition was little used in amateur journals.

At the same time little hand presses, pulled by a side lever to gain an impression, were selling quite well and the price within the reach of any ambitious enterprising youngster. The Gordon-type press with a treadle then became the object of desire for it could triple the amount of work it could produce—or, in better words, reduce the press time of printing a journal by one-third. When overhead belts, powered from a single source, were replaced by individual motors, still less press time was needed for printing. Paradoxically, the increased press power did not advance the number of papers in the association, but considerably eased the mechanical chore.

Except for minor refinements, printing continued its patterned ways until late in the 1930’s when signs of change began to be detected.

The lithographic method, based on the oil and water incongruity, was unable to develop because of the cumbersome etched stone slabs necessary. to its process. Printing engineers experimented with metal plates when it was accidentally discovered that an impression on a rubber-blanketed cylinder printedwith exact detail when offset on a sheet of paper. Thus offset printing was born, presses made to accommodate this method of reproduction and metal and paper plates devised to accept either direct or photographic negative images.

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s a few offset amateur journals appeared, mostly composed on typewriters directly on a master paper plate. They varied little from the mimeographed journals that first appeared in the 1930’s. Unimaginative layout made them all look alike.

A completely offset National Amateur appeared in September 1948 under the editorship of Harold Ellis with technical assistance from W. Emory Moore, a California member associated with an advertising and printing firm. Covers, supplements and inserts printed by offset have since appeared frequently.

With the decline of letterpress manufacturing in this country and the general swing of the industry to the newer method, typefounders have undergone terrible consequences. Consolidations and mergers have failed to keep some of our largest typefounders in business. Presently only a handful exist and the advent of photocomposition and relatively cheap film fonts for these electronic marvels have killed their need to expand or even to stay in business. Type from European sources, beautiful and exotic designs, have been reduced in number, and their high prices practically exclude them from the hobby market. There is a very real possibility that the little hand type still available may come from only one or two foundries. One bright sign: three “hobby foundries” are operating on a limited basis.

Typewriters with interchangeable fonts, some with unit counts to allow for the varied widths of the letters of the alphabet, are popular now. It is conceivable that these “strike-on” machines could be refined still further and made available at prices some hobby printer might afford.

Art work and photographs can be reproduced quickly by offset and at less cost than previously. As time goes on we will see more of this in our journals, some already enlivened by pictorial inserts.

Typographic niceties which we have always taken for granted could disappear. Justified columns have already given way in a few instances, for expediency one can only presume, to ragged right hand margins. Are we trying to simulate a computer print-out or is this the portent of a new typesetting era? Times change; we, too, reluctantly or willingly.

But let’s not look to the future with pessimism. The hobby and the NAPA will continue and, we hope, flourish. Perhaps not in the manner that intrigued many of us for most of our lives, but in an altered style that amateurs of the future can take to their hearts and enjoy.

—Harold Segal