Monday, November 10, 2014

Then and Now: Handmade vs. Automatic

As tomorrow is Veterans Day, I found myself thinking about all the men and women over the centuries who have served and/or died for our country. Even before we became a country, there were people fighting to shape the nation we love today. Fighting techniques have changed drastically over those centuries: from hand-to-hand using rocks and sticks, to swords and then guns, and now missiles and precision targeting. That's the trend, to move from doing things by hand to having a machine do it for us.

I love Miranda Lambert’s song, Automatic. Have you heard it? It’s all about how we used to do things for ourselves and now so much just happens with little or no effort. Her point is that we get out of life what we put into it, so having things handed to us lessens the importance or meaning of the item or act. For example, we take it for granted now, but newspapers have not always existed. Yes, I know, some have closed their doors, but we still have many in print and online. However, in the 18th century, they were only beginning to come into their own.

In my American Revolution era romance, Emily’s Vow, Frank Thomson is a Continental Army spy who is undercover in Charles Town, South Carolina, playing the part of a printer. He’s not happy about his assignment, because he’d prefer to be out and about than tied down to one place and then inside to boot. The work of laying out the type and operating the press is hard and tiresome and downright frustrating to this strong, adventurous man. Yet it’s the paper that enables him to relay coded messages to the American forces surrounding the besieged city. It takes time and effort to accomplish his objective, too.

Recently, I went to Philadelphia, home of not only Independence Hall (pictured below and the site of the debate and signing of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution) but also Benjamin Franklin and his print shop replica. I really wanted to see if I'd accurately portrayed the printing business as it was in the 18th century, and thankfully discovered I had. Whew!

The park ranger on duty in the Printing Shop a few blocks away from Independence Hall demonstrated the process of printing a one-sided broadsheet. When the press was active in the 1700s, it took several men doing individual jobs at the press to make each copy.

One man laid out the type in the appropriate channels using the small metal blocks with letters on them. (Interesting side note: The two “cases” of type sat in such a way as to have one on a table (the “lower case”) and one mounted above on an angle (the “upper case”). We still use those terms today, don’t we?) Another man inked the type, a very messy job! Another laid on the wet paper in the frame and lowered it over the inked type, then slid it into the press. The “puller” then pulled the lever to apply the pressure to make the print. One copy of the news or announcement was made. One. The goal was to make something like 20-30 copies an hour. Compare that to the automated presses newspapers use today and I think you can imagine how much more treasured having a broadsheet or pamphlet was then than now.


I think Miranda Lambert is on to something. Not that I want to go back to the way papers used to be printed in lieu of the current processes! But there are aspects of our current society’s expectations as a result of how fast things are done or produced that I wish were different. Can you think of something we take for granted that perhaps we shouldn’t? Or, the opposite, something you wish was more automatic? Leave a comment and your email address (as I will need to contact the winner as to format and where to send the book) for a chance to win a copy of Emily's Vow, in either ebook or paperback format. I'll post the winner on 11/14. Good luck!

And please, stay in touch via social media or, better yet, subscribe to my newsletter, Betty’s Broadside, at As a thank you, each quarter I’ll draw one name at random to win a gift. And most important, I promise to not overload your inbox, but only send out a broadside when there is news worth sharing.

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Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

love that top photo

Betty Bolte said...

R. Mac Wheeler, thanks! That pic was taken at Glacier National Park in August of this year. What a gorgeous national park, too!

Cari Hislop said...

I love that note on why "lower" and "upper" case letters! I always just assumed the "upper" case letters were they were upper. ;)

What a fantastic adventure to visit a printing set up that old. I got to visit a Victorian village where they had a print shop set up, but by then progress had moved on from needing four men to one man being able to run off quite a few prints without too much backache (though I'm sure in real life it must have been a very long day and the men probably still fell into bed very inky and sore. I love how the ink smelled though.

I've never heard that song, but I often think about that too, how so much we have today just seems to appear out of nowhere. If we think we have it easy now I suspect 3-D printers will put even more people out of work (and give us instant access to all sorts of stuff). Why have endless factories if everyone can print almost anything they need? We'll probably end up with our own modern version of the loom breakers...can't remember what they were called. The weavers who attacked the mills in the Victorian age. That will be a sad day, but I suspect that handcrafted objects will make a come back if only for the rich.

cari at thehislops dot co dot uk
(e-book if I win) ;)

Betty Bolte said...

Cari, thanks for stopping in and sharing about the Victorian print shop. I bet that was interesting as well!

Betty Bolte said...

Time to announce the winner... Cari, you won the copy! Yay! I'll send it to you shortly. Congrats!!!

Cari Hislop said...

To Betty: Just a public thank you for a copy of your book. I love your word flow and you have a talent for description! In many ways your story reminded me of reading Nathaniel Hawthorne. I felt transported back in time...lovely!!! I also love the tension between the characters need to pretend to be Loyalist when they were really Revolutionaries. A very sweet romance!!!