Conditions in printshops prior to the twentieth century were pretty dire. Typesetting work, especially in newspaper offices, had to be done at night under deadline pressure, and lighting tended to be poor. Gas light consumed oxygen and made the room hot and stuffy. Ventilation was minimal: such windows as there were tended to be filthy and never opened. Your co-workers smoked and spat incessantly. The place would stink. Lead poisoning was chronic — handling all that type meant the air was full of lead dust. Symptoms would include “a dull, heavy, languid feeling”, specifically affecting the wrists, hands and fingers. “Wrist drop” or “hang wrist” would make it impossible for a typesetter to earn. Weakness would spread to shoulders and legs, leading to the condition known in the trade as printer’s paralysis. “Printers often spoke of ‘lead colic’, a particular reaction to lead poisoning which produced acute abdominal pain and rugged constipation. Sufferers might develop a tell-tale bluish ‘lead line’ on the gums. If he inhaled enough lead dust, a compositor might develop a chronic lung disorder. In time, brain cells thus starved of oxygen produced dementia.” (Inland Printer, November 1886, quoted in Walker Rumble: The Swifts: Printers in the Age of Typesetting Races, University of Virginia Press, 2003)

Unsurprisingly the average life expectancy of print workers was low. In 1850 the average age at death of members of The International Typographical Union was 28 years, in 1870, 35, by 1895 it had reached almost 39, in 1905, 47, and just over 53 by 1920. These rates were about 10 years less than most other workers. A 30-year old printer would look like an old man: with the apprentice system such a man might have been working ten-hour days since he was thirteen.

A couple of months ago I asked about printer’s gait. I wonder if it may actually have been, at least in part, a symptom of lead poisoning.

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