A secret society, ‘etoain shrdlu,’ once flourished in Jefferson

When I was growing up, I generally felt inferior to my friends who lived in the country. They knew about stuff, and how to do stuff, with which as a town kid I wasn’t very familiar.

I still remember — it was about third grade or so — how I tried to correct one of my farm friends on the pronunciation of the word “combine”: I called it a “columbine.” He seemed puzzled.

Most farm youngsters learned how to drive before town kids did. I was jealous when I saw them driving tractors, and even pickup trucks, while I still got around on my Schwinn fat tire bike.

In junior high, I was visiting the farm where one of my friends lived, and he and his older brother and I took the pickup out to range over the pasture hills. Both of them drove it; I had never had that experience.    

They asked if I would like to try.

I leaped at the chance, got behind the wheel and after a simple lesson I put it in gear, let up on the clutch, and it lurched into action. Feeling like a champ, I headed carefully across the pasture, down a slope and up the other side.

At the top of the rise, the ground fell off rather sharply, and I looked out across a small valley, with the truck approaching the crest.

They hadn’t told me about the brake.

As I panicked and we appeared ready to head down the embankment, my friend quickly stretched his leg over, jammed on the brake and stopped us just in time. They shook their heads at my ignorance and I was the butt of much hooting then and for days thereafter.

My farm-dwelling friends seemed to me to belong to a special club, of which I was not a member. They talked about equipment, livestock and crop breeds, and ag routines in a special language that I didn’t fully understand. And they were all handy with tools, which I definitely wasn’t.

I had a similar kind of knowledge. But it was highly specialized and unknown to everyone outside of its specialized practitioners. None of my school friends understood it and its terms, and I had no one of my age with whom I could discuss it, except my brothers and a friend whose parents also worked at the Bee and Herald.

It was the language and practice of letterpress printing.

When I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, newspaper print shops operated with presses that produced by inking raised letters of type and using rollers to press the paper onto the inked type: hence the word “press.” That’s where the term “freedom of the press” derives.

That was the printing method invented by Gutenberg in the 15th century, and while technology had improved since then, the basic procedure had remained the same for some 500 years.

That all changed in the 1960s with the development of offset printing, which uses a photographic method to reproduce the image onto page negatives and metal printing plates. Offset printing has its own lexicon.

But over the centuries, letterpress printing developed a language and skills known to printers worldwide. I was privy to that knowledge, because like many other town kids whose parents owned a business, I was put to work in the store — or in my case, in the print shop.

In those days, type was set not on computers but on large Linotype machines, an ingenious invention that operated from a keyboard that activated a set of small letter molds, from which were fashioned lines of hot lead type that spelled out the particular story that the operator was “setting.”

The Linotype keyboard was similar to a typewriter keyboard, but the letters were arranged in a different order. The rows of keys were lined up vertically rather than horizontally, and the first two rows of letters from top to bottom spelled out “etoain shrdlu.”

Veteran printers— and today they’re all veterans — instantly recognize the term etoain shrdlu.

The basic goal for a Linotype operator was to be able to set 1 1/3 “galleys” of type an hour. A galley was a metal tray about 15 or 18 inches long, as I recall, so 1 1/3 galleys represented roughly the depth of a column of type on a standard sized newspaper page.

After several months of practice during my high school years, I reached the 1 1/3 galley minimum, and I was very proud of that. But I still couldn’t be considered a true operator because I couldn’t fix a “squirt.”

A squirt occurred when the operator set a line of type that was either too loose or too full.

In that case, some of the hot, molten lead to be fashioned into the typed line, or “slug,” squirted out through the mechanism onto the left leg of the operator, and cooled into a solid mess in and around the mechanism.

I managed to create squirts rather regularly, and the shop foreman then got to clean them up for me. I was therefore not the most desirable Linotype operator in the shop. At least one veteran operator at the Bee and Herald could set twice as much type in an hour as I did, and without a squirt.

At any rate, after the slugs of metal type were set in the order of the story, they were transferred by hand to a “galley” — a smallish steel tray with raised sides on three of its boundaries — and then slid out the end onto a stone table topped with a “chase.”

A chase was a heavy rectangular cast iron frame the size of the newspaper page. The slugs of type in columns would eventually fill the chase, and were tightened up using ingenious devices called “quoins.”  

A quoin was a small, expandable thing-a-ma-jig, placed inside the edge of the chase, that could be expanded to tighten the slugs with a “quoin key,” something like a screwdriver that as it turned would stretch out the sides of the little quoin.

There were quoins on all four sides of the inside of the chase that snugged up the type so that the finished chase containing the page could be picked up, turned vertically, and carried to the press without the slugs falling out.

If — horror of horrors — the quoins were not tightened enough, the slugs would fall out and the entire page would end up in a pile on the floor.

To do that was to “pi” the type.

You didn’t want to pi a page of type.

By the way, the smaller stone table on which the page was built was called the “turtle.” I have no idea why, except maybe it was because the rectangular shape of the table roughly resembled the shape of a turtle shell.

There were many other terms as esoteric as those I just mentioned: a stick, a pig, a pica pole, picas, ems, ens, furniture, a thin space, and many, many more.

It was a lore unknown to any of my friends, and it would have been difficult for me to talk about my job at the paper in those days without using those terms. So I didn’t, and remained silent when my farm friends discussed their own work.

But memories of the print shop are special to me, and I would love to try my hand at the Linotype again.

My shop foreman overseer, rest his soul, would not be glad to see me coming.

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Jefferson Bee & Herald
Address: 200 N. Wilson St.
Jefferson, IA 50129

Phone:(515) 386-4161