My son called the other day. “Hey, are you building anything for Dane’s birthday?” Grandson Dane will be seven next month.
“No, I have a bookshelf on my to-do list, but not anytime soon. Why?” I asked.
“Katie wants to get some wall shelves for his knickknacks. Do you suppose you could make it?”
“That should be no problem. What does she want?” I replied.
It wasn’t an unreasonable request. I have built lots of things for the grandkids.
“We have a picture; I’ll send it to your email so you can get a good look,” Nick proposed. “Let me know if you can do it, if not we’ll order one.”
Later that morning I got the picture. It was a shadow box, painted red. Simple really, about twenty inches square with four or five small shelves.
“Yea, I can do that,” I thought. “Piece of pastry.”
“It could have more cubbies,” Katie suggested later. “He has lots of cars and little things. I thought if we left the wood unpainted, he could use when he was older.”
The old light bulb switched on. “So, what you would like is an old typesetting case.”
“Yes, I see them all the time,” she agreed.
I scratched my head in thought. “Yea, I could make a replica of that.” I figured that all I needed were the dimensions.
Excited, I searched the ole’net, and then had a depressing revelation. – “I’m an old Dinosaur.”
You see, back in the dark ages, when I was in Jr. High, the boys took Industrial Arts (the girls took Home Economics). Actually, it was more of an introduction to all the Industrial Arts; every six weeks we had a different topic: wood shop, electricity, metal shop, small engine repair, drafting, and printing.
I, for one, enjoyed these classes. I made a pump lamp in wood shop. In metal shop, we worked sheet metal and cast aluminum. In small engine repair, we destroyed David Lebedeff’s lawn mower – we replaced the rings and tried to tune it up, but it refused to start. Ironically, it ran when he brought it in. In drafting, I learned skills that I used throughout my career, and in printing, we learned to silk-screen and typesetting.
We set type manually, using typesetting cases – shallow drawers divided into fifty some compartments, some large and some small. Each cubby filled with type for a particular letter or symbol. Frequent letters, like a’s, o’s and r’s went into the large cubbies. Letters used less often, like x’s q’s and b’s, went into the small cubbies. The typesetter’s hands would hover over the case picking and placing each letter onto a composing stick. That’s where I learned to read backward and upside down and to mind my p’s and q’s. A ‘p’ looks like an upside-down ‘q’ and vice versa. We learned that the type for Capital letters is stored in the case above the type for lower case letter, hence the term ‘uppercase.’
Manual typesetting is a forgotten skill. I bet that if you showed an empty typesetting case to ten random folks, nine would call it a knickknack box. Yep, today, that staple of the printing industry hangs in stores, flea markets, craft shops, and homes all over the land, stuffed with all sorts of little objects. Those wooden cases are prized by interior decorators that have no idea how they were used. Only dinosaurs like me remember.
Now, in full disclosure, I grew up in Crawfordsville, and in the 60’s the largest employer was RR Donnelley, one of the nation’s premier book printers. Therefore, our introduction to the industrial arts included letterpress typesetting. Even then, as we assembled our simple texts, we learned that faster methods had already replaced it.
Times change, and like everywhere else, computers took over the printing industry. Computers also took over my drafting industry. Hum, I wonder if I remember any small engine repair. Maybe I should call David Lebedeff and see if he ever got that mower going.
David L Dahl
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