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The Typesetters: 1910

Washington circa 1910. "Government Printing Office, typesetting." Enjoy your tour, and please, no floor-spitting. Harris & Ewing glass negative. View full size.

Washington circa 1910. "Government Printing Office, typesetting." Enjoy your tour, and please, no floor-spitting. Harris & Ewing glass negative. View full size.


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I wonder

How many of these tradesmen died from lead poisoning?

[Probably zero. - Dave]

Communal cup

One public drinking cup was standard, even at public drinking fountains, until the flu outbreak of 1918 drastically changed hygiene.

More California Job Case

We had to memorize the California Job Case in the Reading Public Schools when I was in 9th grade (1979). Print Shop was mandatory for all students. Fascinating photo.

Why the Visitor From the Future looks different

I was intrigued by why the one man seems to look more modern than the other people in the photo. Here's what I spotted: it seems that what sets the old clothes apart are the high, stiff collars, the very narrow ties, and the vests. Since we see the Visitor from the side, we can't see any of that. Plus, his hair seems natural, not oily like everyone else, and he's more relaxed; he's leaning back against the counter while almost everyone else is posing very stiffly.

Flatbed letterpress

Even for 1910 this was an old-school way to set type, as opposed to rotary presses.


This is a great peek back in time - thanks for sharing the photo. And thanks to all of those men for having such great facial hair!

Clank clank

The composition room was probably quiet enough but the old cast iron presses are pretty noisy. We have a small Chandler/Price press here in our house and you can hear it throughout when it's running.

Clip clop.

Years ago, I spent a couple summers at dance school in Eastern Europe where the studio floors were of the exact same construction as those in this photo. They consisted (approximately) of 3 x 3 x 10 inch blocks of wood, fitted tightly and locked together by tongue & groove. No glue or nails. I'm sure that when the floors are first assembled they are quite quiet. But after years of expansion and contraction (just like in the dance studio) the blocks loosen up so much that every footstep or shuffle sends several of the blocks bouncing and knocking against each other. The resulting sound can only be described as a horse hoof hitting a cobblestone. If all of the people in this photo started walking at once, it would probably sound like a bunch of horses trotting down a city street. I can still hear that sound in my head when I think back to our rehearsals in those studios.

From the future

I agree with "fashion-forward" that the man with the suit holding the papers, really looks like he is visiting from the future. Even the way he is looking over, seems like a person from today. Hard to pinpoint why.

Are all those marks on the floor from spit?

How do

all those folks fit inside my computer?

California Job Case

Most of those wooden type trays are of the California Job Case style - distinguishable by the large compartment for lowercase letter "e," the most commonly used piece of type. Type setting was taught in the Washington public schools well into the 1960s! Printers of this time were a proud lot and considered themselves true artists. My dad started at the GPO during the depression, and operated a Lino-O-Type machine - the electro mechanical equivalent of hand set type. He retired as a proofreader and tended to mark up every book in the house -- couldn't let sloppy work get by!

Fairly Quiet

Probably quiet enough to actually think. Other than the occasional tinking of little metal hammers, setting quoins, there wasn't much machinery around. Even the test presses would have been manual.

My uncle worked as a typesetter for 45 years for an envelope manufacturer. Oh, the nonstories!

Job with a future

"Caleb, the way the gummint keeps coming up with more and more forms every day, can you imagine how many of us typesetters there'll be in a hundred years?"

Wrap-Around Lighting

The rest of the floor is so well lit with the Cooper-Hewitt lamps that the wrap-around lighting on the columns seem redundant. Being clustered in groups of three, might those have been some sort of signaling system? I also wonder how noisy the environment was.


The suited man holding the papers appears to be visiting from 1974.

Cooper-Hewitt Mercury Lamps!

I believe those tubular lamps hanging overhead may be Cooper Hewitt mercury lamps. I have never seen a room full of them before. First use was in the composing room of the NY Post in 1903. Each tube contained up to about a pound of mercury. Lead, tin, and antimony used for type. Nice toxic brew.

Mercury lamps

Also seen in this view of a GPO workroom. Scroll down to the comments.

Hey Everybody

"Get back to work!"

GPS coordinates

Column numbers are great for locating a position. In the 1960s I worked at Chrysler Canada, where the assembly plant columns were numbered north to south and lettered east to west, so if you gave a location of 26H it was easy to find.

Unhygenic or Not

That's a beautiful drinking area!

Communalism in the workplace

I noticed that lone cup as well. Odd how our attention to hygiene has changed over the years.

No Floor Spitting

But the shared cup at the spigot is perfectly hygienic!

Going green to extreme

Providing one drinking cup for the whole office instead of paper cups.

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