L’Illustration, a Weekly Newspaper How It Was Done

Compositor at his case
Compositor at his case
It is Friday: the newspaper has been fully completed since the night before. All that’s left to do now are a few minor corrections. Whoever among you has never seen a printing house? You all know, I suppose, that each compositor has in front of him a number of cases of various sizes filled with lead characters. His eyes are almost constantly focused on the manuscript and his hands know so well where to find all the letters of the alphabet, the periods, commas, spaces, etc., that they fetch them of their own accord without ever making any mistake. A steel instrument, the composing stick, is used to arrange the letters and set the line spacing. When a certain number of these lines have been put together, they form a matter. A roller coated with glue and loaded with ink is then used on this matter, a sheet of slightly damp paper is applied, and, using a brush, a proof is obtained, which the author and editors will check for grammatical and typographical mistakes. After these corrections have been made, on Thursday, the compositor arranges the matter into pages, in an order decided and given in advance. This order is sometimes called disorderly, but it should be known that, to produce decent prints, we have to fit all the engravings of any given issue on pages 1, 4, 5, 8, 9, 12, 13, and 16. In consequence, illustrated articles are not always found where logical order would have them. Blocks of lead temporarily take the place of woodblocks, which are not yet finished and will only be delivered the following morning. Two pages make what is called a form, and eight forms put together make sixteen pages, that is, one issue.

Nothing extraordinary so far. But on Friday morning, the engravings are delivered and then a new work begins, which is somewhat difficult to explain and known in the trade as making ready.
Relief engraving has over intaglio engraving the great advantage of allowing the printing process to happen at the same time and in the same manner as that of type. But, in order to achieve such a result, it must be submitted to a fairly long preparation. First, engravings and type are made perfectly level, then the engravings are overlaid. This operation is more important than is usually thought, for upon the overlaying depends entirely the final effect of an engraving: a masterpiece of Messrs. Andrew, Best, & Leloir, if poorly printed, would be regarded as the rough draft of an unskillful apprentice even by experts.

Image source: Turgan, Julien François. Les grandes usines vol. I. Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1875.