Sunday, February 15, 2015

The (printer's) devil and Miss Pearl Lewis

Writing about the Stewart-Harper house yesterday morning reminded me of Miss Pearl Lewis, who when she retired on Oct. 6, 1945, had worked for Chariton newspapers for precisely 61 years. She went to work for The Chariton Democrat as a typesetter on Oct. 6, 1884, earning $1.50 per week. She retired as local reporter and society editor for The Herald-Patriot and The Leader (the Democrat under a newer name).

This remarkable woman moved into the Stewart-Harper house as a lodger between 1910 and 1920, when it still was the home of its builders, George J. and Amanda Stewart. She was still there 25 or more years later residing with Zora (Stewart) Harper when, having decided it was time to enjoy her "golden" years, she decamped for the Home for the Aged --- the equivalent of a modern modestly upscale senior living complex on a 13-acre campus adjacent to Drake University --- in Des Moines.

Pearl died 20 years later at age 97, just before Christmas 1964, at Wesley Acres with her faculties fully intact, having outlived nearly everyone. A highly organized woman, it seems likely she commissioned her own tombstone in the Chariton Cemetery --- imposing upon herself in death the given name she rarely used in life, "Perley A(nn)."

She may well have written her own obituary, too --- published in the Christmas Eve 1964 edition of The Herald-Patriot. Although it does not name her parents, Harry and Harriet Lewis, it does provide a lively description of her early years.

"Miss Lewis was born in Chariton July 23, 1868, the same year the C.B.&Q, railway was completed to the west end of Lucas county. She was enrolled at Columbus school at the age of five, before erection of the Garfield building, attending there until the building burned in 1877. She also attended school later in a building on the grounds where the present Alma Clay building now stands.

"She was graduated with a class of eight May 30, 1884. She planned a teaching career and attended Normal Institute where she earned grades entitling her to a second grade certificate; but being but 16 years of age --- too young to teach --- the certificate was withheld.

"In October, 1884, she answered an advertisement in the Chariton Democrat, reading: 'Wanted --- Two girls to set type and learn the printing trade.'

"It was the beginning of a career which spanned 61 years."

When the The Herald-Patriot celebrated its 100th birthday during 1957 --- using the 1857 founding date of the Patriot half of its flag as the basis, Miss Lewis wrote a lengthy letter home to Chariton, recalling her newspaper years. It was published on the front page of the centennial edition, issued on September. 12.

I find this all fascinating because I remember most of it --- kind of. The Linotype era was winding down when I entered the University of Iowa School of Journalism. Henry Africa's big newspaper production lab still was dominated by a row of the beasts (he had until quite recently also operated a University-sponsored training program for Linotype operators). The Daily Iowan still was set into type on Linotypes --- far removed from the newsroom --- two of them operated by Dolly and Leonard Dickinson --- once editors and publishers of the Russell Union-Tribune.

Downstairs in Harry Duncan's typographic laboratory, I learned to hand-set type. It's a complicated business because a typesetter has to learn where in the California job case each bit of type has its assigned place. And then, once a project is complete, it all has to be redistributed.

But this isn't about me, it's about Pearl --- so here's her piece from The Herald-Patriot's centennial edition:

"When I learned that the Chariton Herald-Patriot was going to have its 100th birthday, my mind wandered back to the days and years I spent in newspaper work.

"In the fall of 1884, I began work as a compositor in the office of the Chariton Democrat, owned and published by J.D. Hull. His son, Ollie Hull, was foreman in the office, and later owned and published the Leon Reporter. About 1886, Mr. Hull sold the paper to E.E. King. I continued to work in the office until about 1887, seventy years ago, when I quit there and went over to the Chariton Patriot to work in the same capacity. The paper was owned by the Lewis Publishing Company. The firm was composed of Elijah Lewis, a Civil War veteran (no relation to me), who was editor, and his sister, Lucretia Lewis, bookkeeper, and their brother, Evan Lewis. I believe they had purchased the paper from George Ragsdale, who was a half-brother of Mrs. Belle (George) Carpenter of Chariton.

"At the time the paper was a four-page folio, nine columns wide. The columns were 15 "ems" wide. At that time Linotype machines had not been invented, and the type was all set by hand.

No Electricity

"There was no electricity for power in those days and the big platen press had to be turned by hand. One of my chores was to feed the press. The paper came in flat bundles, not in a roll, and the day before press days enough paper for that week's edition was wet down, as a better print was obtained if the paper was slightly damp. A quantity of paper (perhaps 100 or more sheets) was sprinkled, then another bunch was laid on that and sprinkled, and so on. Then a board was placed on top of it, and a heavy weight on top of that.

"Foot power was used on job presses, and I have "kicked" them many times, but not long at a time, as, believe it or not, I only weighed 90 pounds in those days.

"After a paper run was completed the forms were placed in a sink and washed with lye, a brush being used. The type was then distributed in the cases.

"As there was no electricity at that time, kerosene lamps were used for lights. For type setting, lamps were placed in brackets and fastened to the top of type cases.

Heat Ink Rollers

"The composing room and the office were heated with stoves. Printer's ink, as you know, is thick, like tar, and doesn't spread easily in cold weather. Often an ink slab and rollers were placed by the stove to warm up a little. On one occasion I remember, a slab on which red ink for use in job work had been placed was set on a chair by the stove. The editor came in, and without looking, sat down on it. The air was blue for a little bit, while compositors ducked their heads behind cases and snickered.

"There was no paper cutter attached to the press at the time and in lieu thereof, if a cutter was needed one end of string was attached to a nail on one side of a table. The string was then slid across the table, a paper folded over it, then the string was given a quick jerk, and the paper was cut in two.

"The foreman in the Patriot office, Del Huyck, died very suddenly. We were then engaged in printing a premium list for the Lucas county fair, which was to soon be held. I undertook the job of making up the forms for it and getting them ready for the job press. The pages were quite small and several were printed at one time. It took considerable figuring on my part, inexperienced as I was, to get the forms made up so that the pages would read consecutively when printed. But I got it done and learned a lot about job work and getting presses ready, and ad setting in the weeks that followed when we had no foreman. The editor did most of the foot work on the job presses.

"In those days, the employees worked from 7 o'clock in the morning until 6 in the evening, Saturdays included.

At Montgomery Wards

"At that time the Patriot office was located on the north side of the square on the second floor of a building which stood about where the Woolworth store is now (in 1957) located. It was reached by a stairway between the Maple book store on the west, and a clothing store on the east.

"The Democrat office was located on the third floor of the opera block, the present site of the Montgomery Ward store and the store adjoining it. They had a small steam engine which was used for power for the presses, but was not very satisfactory. While working there I ran downstairs more than once, thinking it would blow up. It was finally discarded.

"The Patriot and Democrat forces were on friendly terms and helped each other in times of extremity, and often borrowed type or other articles from each other. Occasionally a new "devil" was initiated by being sent to the other office to borrow a left-handed shooting stick or italic spaces. He learned there were no such things and would come back looking sheepish but good natured.

"In printers' parlance, the "devil" is the chore boy. He often stayed long enough to learn the trade and several followed the profession for many years. The "hell box" was a receptacle where damaged type, broken bits of leads, slugs, rules and other worthless articles were dumped. A "morgue" was the place where used cuts (engravings from which illustrations were printed) that might be used in the future were kept.

"I was with the Patriot office about a year and a half, then Mr. King coaxed me back (with more pay) to the Democrat office. There I stayed until about two years after Henry Gittinger bought it in 1905. In the meantime there had been several owners. Mr. King was followed by Jas. Campbell, Frank Stuart (George Stuart's great-uncle) and Walter Dewey, who was editing the paper when Mr. Gittinger purchased it, and who sold it to the present owners.

"I left the Democrat about 1907 to work on the Chariton Herald for Sam Greene as local and society reporter. Linotypes had come into use about that time; I think the Herald had the first one in Chariton. After I had been there a few years, Mr. Greene purchased the Patriot and it was merged with the Herald under the heading "Herald-Patriot." A few years later, he sold the paper to the present owners, Chariton Publishing Company. I stayed 'put' with the Herald-Patriot and Democrat (Leader) until I retired in the fall of 1945, after 61 years of newspaper work.

"A newspaper office is an interesting place and I trust that on this 100th anniversary day many of your readers will call and see how a newspaper is made. Congratulations to all the staff."


Finally, a paragraph from Miss Lewis's retirement story, published on the front page of The Chariton Leader of Oct. 2, 1945, explains how she made the transition from setting the news into type to writing it:

"One day the copy hooks ran dry, a thing that still happens today. Instead of waiting for the editor to return and write some copy, Miss Lewis took a pad of paper and tripped down to the stores and picked up from her friends some local items. Returning with a number the editor might have overlooked, the boss decided her voluntary act a good thing, so he doubled --- no, not her pay, but her work --- and assigned her to the task of gathering news, turning it into copy and then setting it in type. From that day on, her's was mostly a writing job."


Unknown said...

I know all too well the linotype business as my father ran those big machines starting at the Afton newspapers in the '30s and then business of his own in Waterloo in the '50s and moving the business to Cedar Rapids in the '60s. Then in the 80's he went into the printing end of the type setting work, which changed to more electronic printing etc. and the use of a huge German made printing press into the '80s until he fully retired in the '90s.

Frank D. Myers said...

Interesting! Part of Henry Africa's "Newspaper Production" class involved setting a little type on a Linotype (under very careful supervision). Not quite the same as using a typewriter! But I did OK. Unfortunately, I did something wrong when operating the Ludlow Typograph (used for headlines) and led spurted everywhere. Mr. Africa was not amused. I remember those big old Linotypes being taken out of the production lab (after exterior window panels had been removed) with a crane, then hauled off. They actually found homes at private press operations because they'd been so well maintained. When Harris Honsey, former editor and publisher of The Lake Mills Graphic, retired his Linotype --- he sat it beside his driveway and used it as the base for a mailbox!

Frank D. Myers said...

Make that "lead," not "led."