There’s recently been a bit of correspondence at the SHARP listserv about the diseases affecting printers. (See Printer’s gait, and Printer’s paralysis for the sort of things discussed.)

One response quotes a July 31, 1786 letter from Benjamin Franklin to British physician Benjamin Vaughan:

“In 1724, being in London, I went to work in the Printing-House of Mr. Palmer, Bartholomew Close, as a Compositor. I then found a Practice I had never seen before, of drying a Case of Types, (which are wet in Distribution) by placing it sloping before the Fire. I found this had the additional Advantage, when the Types were not only dry’d but heated, of being confortable to the Hands working over them in cold weather. I therefore sometimes heated my Case when the Types did not want drying. But an old Workman observing it, advis’d me not to do so, telling me I might lose the Use of my Hands by it, as two of our Companions had nearly done, one of whom that us’d to earn his Guinea a Week could not then make more than ten Shillings and the other, who had the Dangles, but Seven and sixpence. This, with a kind of obscure Pain that I had sometimes felt as it were in the Bones of my Hand when working over the Types made very hot, induc’d me to omit the Practice. But talking afterwards with Mr. James, a Letterfounder in the same Close, and asking him if his People, who work’d over the little Furnaces of melted Metal, were not subject to that Disorder; he made light of any Danger from the Effluvia, but ascrib’d it to Particles of the Metal swallow’d with their Food by slovenly Workmen, who went to their Meals after handling the Metal, without well-washing their Fingers, so that some of the metalline Particles were taken off by their Bread and eaten with it. This appear’d to have some Reason in it. But the Pain I had experienc’d made me still afraid of those Effluvia.”

This letter is published in Volume 37 of The Franklin Papers, published by Yale University Press.

I assume the wetness of the types after distribution resulted from washing off the ink.

I wondered what “the Dangles” might be. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t tell. Seems there’s some sort of ice-hockey usage according to Urban Dictionary. There’s also a 1980s rock group. I assume Franklin must be talking about hands hanging useless because of the effects of lead poisoning.

A post at The Briar Press reassures us that lead in its metallic form cannot be absorbed through the skin. So Franklin’s warning is a bit off: the type he was handling couldn’t have been raised to a temperature sufficient to allow “Effluvia”. However, if he had sucked his fingers to keep them warm after handling cold types this might well have lead to trouble. This suggests that heating the type was a good idea. I suppose there might have been a risk of some lead particles floating about in the air, which was probably of pretty poor quality in most workshops. His neighbor Mr James, letterfounder, turns out to have been right: it’s not the “Effluvia” that’ll get you, it’s the “Particles of the Metal swallow’d with their Food by slovenly Workmen”.

Life expectancy among print workers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was in any case short: in 1850 the average age at death of members of The International Typographical Union was 28. Of course at that time average life expectancy wasn’t great: 42 overall, or 57 if you survived childhood.