from Chicago Tribune

Walker Rumble’s The Swifts: Printers in the Age of Typesetting Races (University of Virginia Press, 2003) is an odd publication. Its main focus is on the weird phenomenon of races between hand typesetters. (Rapid typesetters were apparently referred to a swifts.) These races were put on in the sort of place, commoner in the second half of the nineteenth century, now represented by Ripley’s Believe It or Not, or Madame Tussaud’s, and appear to have drawn large crowds. Betting on the speed of a hand typesetter had long been a feature of in-house work-time entertainment in print shops: this development pulled it out into a public forum and naturally did nothing to reduce the betting.

Speed of setting was obviously an important factor in the efficiency of a newspaper. Getting pages printed was no problem on their power presses, but you had to have type to print there: and there were limits to the number of people you could hire. Not only was there a limited number of journeymen out there, but training, all via apprenticeship, was controlled by the union. In a ten-hour day the average journeyman would set (and correct) about 7,000 ems, 700 an hour. At a rate of 1,500 ems an hour, which most compositors would achieve in spurts, their hand would be reaching into the typecase at a rate of 4,000 times per hour. Very fast workers might reach back and forth from case to stick seven or eight times every five seconds. William C. Barnes, one of the last of the champion racers before technology took over and hand setting was superseded, managed 2000 ems an hour in the heats for the 1886 national typesetting championship in Chicago. He would also set blindfold and with his type cases reversed (i.e. upper case below lower case).

The workers naturally had an interest in not allowing the speed in the composing room to get too high: 700 ems an hour was just fine by them. One of the workers’ beefs about the attempt to bring women into the business in the years following the Civil War was that they would work too fast, no doubt to indicate how viable an alternative workforce they were. This represented a delicate balancing act for the macho typesetting unions who needed to demonstrate that men were better, and yet keep work rates down (thus pay rates up). This tension could be partially resolved by these typesetting races which seemed to show that men really could set type faster than women. This was almost certainly not the case, but naturally head-to-head races were not arranged. A comp could easily claim that it wasn’t possible to sprint all day: their competitive speed bursts were never allowed to become the norm. Of course the union, and all its members also faced the looming challenge of machine typesetting, a challenge which overwhelmed them all in the end.

Public hand typesetting races were a short lived phenomenon. They couldn’t get going till printing became industrialized in the 1830s and 40s, so that there were large groups of comps who could compete with one another in in-house competitions, and the races couldn’t survive when hand setting was superseded by machines and the contestants all lost their jobs (or retrained). Thus the “sport” only lasted for about 15 to 20 years from around 1870 when the first public events were arranged.