Letterpress sayings

I have Sky TV which means two things. Firstly I have access to the channels Sky Arts 1 and 2, and secondly the Skybox allows you to record hours of programmes which eventually you may get round to watching. I’ve just watched “Typeface” which I recorded from Sky Arts 1 ages months ago. It is a film by Kartemquin about the Hamilton Museum of Wood Type in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. It’s worth catching if you get the chance.

It included work by Dennis Ichiyama, a Professor at Purdue University and letterpress artist. He uses large wood type to produce his images.

At Hot Bed Press, as well as screenprinting beds, and relief and etching presses, we have facilities for letterpress. Elizabeth, our current artist is residence, was telling me about some of the phrases which originated with letterpress. I knew about “minding your ps and qs” but I hadn’t realised how many other phrases came from this ancient craft.

“Getting the wrong end of the stick”, according to Elizabeth, originates from a composition stick where you set the type. Since we read from left to right it is important to set the type right to left. If you misunderstand the situation and start at the left hand end of the composition stick then you ‘get the wrong end of the stick’.

Most sites suggest that the origin is a sanitary implement used to clean oneself before the advent of toilet paper. However the majority of these seem to have copied from each other as they use the same example. However Wikipedia says: “It is possible that the phrase was used and popularised by printers, but neither this nor the “toilet stick” explanation seems to have much evidence to back them up because the phrase did not become popular until the late 1800s, and more probably derived from the earlier (1400s) upside down walking stick or staff [which does not provide the same support as when used the right way up].”

Elizabeth also explained to me that the type for upper case letters, meaning capitals, was in boxes which were physically above the boxes containing the lower case letters.

The third phrase she told me about was “being out of sorts.” Since at least the 17th century ‘sorts’ has been the name of the letters used by typographers. If you were a typesetter and you were short of particular letters it would make you “out of sorts”.


About notes to the milkman

I'm a printmaker based in the North West of England, living in Bolton and printing at Hot Bed Press in Salford. Please visit my website johnpindararts.weebly.com
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9 Responses to Letterpress sayings

  1. seascapesaus says:

    These are fascinating notes! We did some typesetting back in the 70s when I trained in occupational therapy – one of our lecturers (and Englishman) was a big fan and still had the gear. How important proof-reading was then. Very intricate work with little tweezers and thinking right to left!

  2. Thanks for the history lesson 🙂

  3. I’ve noticed in the TV listings that a) if you’re in the UK b) you’ve got Sky TV and c) you’re not bothered about the footie then Typeface is on Sunday (1st July) on Sky Arts 1 at 6.50 pm.

    Link to info

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