Sunday, November 14, 2010

Proletariata Obsolescens: My Pocket Pal

I suppose it's a cliche to marvel at modern technology, but at least for somebody my age it's just hard not to. This is my copy of the Pocket Pal. As you can see from the scribbling on it I inherited it from Joe Cammilleri, one of a handful of old-timer graphic production people I worked with who made it to new technology. (He dropped dead at a family picnic in the late 1980s; he was in his sixties. Everybody at the type shop we worked at went to his wake.) Anyway the Pocket Pal was a treasured possession back in the day. Published by the International Paper Company, it was a pocket-sized book that was sort of a how-to bible of old-school graphic arts. It explained how everything worked, and had some basic charts and descriptions that were key to understanding any job or process somewhere along the graphic arts production chain. First published in 1934, mine is the snazzy 12th edition, hot off the presses in 1981.

I got my first job in graphic art in 1981, when I moved from Chicago to New York to be the Art Director of The Revolutionary Socialist League's newspaper, The Torch/La Antorcha. The guy who had put the paper together for years--he went by the name Lee but he was a veteran of the old S.D.S. named Morgan Spector--had learned a bit of the real newspaper craft as a youth working in California. He was tired and wanted to move on. Lee explained to me the basics of typography and layout. We could have used a Pocket Pal: even if our technology was pretty basic, we were only a few steps into post-mechanical production and there was stuff I wish we had known. The Pocket Pal details moveable type (above), linecasting and monotype even these were pretty much obsolete in the U.S. by 1981.

We had an early phototypesetting system, the CompuGraphic Comp One. It had a one- line memory, and a primitive one-line illuminated dot-matrix readout instead of any kind of video screen. It was very basic typesetting; there were a handful of codes you had to learn. Once you pressed the "return" key, there was no going back, the wheels inside the magic box spun and exposed photographic paper from a very bright bulb through a film strip. If you wanted to change the size of the type or the font, you had to open the machine and change the font film strip. When all of a manuscript had been re-typeset onto a galley, you had to remove the film cannister and put it in a special photographic processor. Out came a galley of type ready to be cut up and pasted up...and of course that's how the newspaper itself was actually laid out, with a razorblade, a waxer, a T-square, and a wonderful wooden easel. There was another similar machine called a headliner that generated display type. On special occasions we'd break out the presstype. In a couple years the technology improved to be more computerized: you entered the coded galleys of type onto a more standard computer screen and everything was recorded onto a giant floppy disk. The CompuGraphic Editwriter seemed like a miracle. An expensive miracle.

While the name is now dated, sounding like a bit of a medical issue, when VDT's hit typesetting it seemed like a miracle. That's Video Display Terminal. They displayed horrible bluish white or green letters against black, and they weren't even slightly WYSIWYG. You had to memorize a library of coding to generate a good paragraph of type. The Pocket Pal explains how all this works, with a precision of language and description that is admirable. It's all up to the ghost in the machine with today's digital publishing world, but not so back then. At my last typesetting job toward the end of the 1980s there was a person whose job it was to simply mark up the kerning between every single letter of type that we generated: she sat there with her schaedler rule measuring the number of points to be added or subtracted between every letter to make the type look "massaged."

Typesetting was a real old-fashioned trade. While it was unionized for big newspapers and the like, small nonunion type shops were all over the place. It was a great job for people who had other things going on in their lives. You could quit your job one day and choose from a page of them in the classified ads the next day to find more work immediately. You had to know what you were doing, though, so the hourly rate was pretty good. I learned and worked two different systems over the years, and even though the machines are completely obsolete, I think the old-school craft I learned from my coworkers has served me well in the digital world.

There's only a small bit of still relevant information in my Pocket Pal. Technology has steamrolled on. If you read between its lines, you realize a whole layer of working class craftspeople has been made obsolete and disappeared. As much as I love the miracle of graphic design on a Mac computer--InDesign and Adobe Photoshop are incredible tools--it's weird to think of how much skill and craft has been completely replaced by machines. And as much as I love the freedom of creative expression on the internet--like this blog--I wonder what we have traded up for when people's sense of class solidarity seems to have all but disappeared.

At least I'm certified as a punchtape telex operator for life!


  1. All my metallurgical skills that I worked so hard to learn are now as quaint as horse shoeing. Seriously, almost nothing I learned is currently used in industry although people still use those processes in home workshops. Just another old timer reminiscing about days gone by.
    Did you know that one of the real old timers I worked with in Chicago was at the Republic Steel Massacre? He was a damn good weldor and he hated the bosses in ways that the sparts could only dream of.

  2. I didn't know that about one of your coworkers! It's easy to think about stuff like that as "the history of the labor movement" rather than "the day some of my old co-worker's friends got shot at work."

  3. My RU friend, Pat Hickey, was the nephew of the founding president at another steelworker's local. He had great stories to tell. "The company gave in. We had our first contract. Everybody's down at the hall drinkin' and celebrating when I remembered, Holy Jesus! We forgot to get the dynamite out from under the railroad tracks!"
    When I first moved up here I met an old Trotskyist. He was semi homeless, lived in his old rv and hung out with the Earth First!/IWW crowd. He was involved in the Oakland general strike of 1946. Unlike the 1934 SF strike, the Oakland strike failed but not before there were some big battles and wild moments.
    I always sought those guys out when I was young. Now I am one of those guys. Yep, I was in Harlan county back in '74. I was there when they broke the Dodge truck wildcat. I was in Ed Sadlowski's steel worker's local.
    That's just some of the stuff people have heard of. I got teargassed by the Paterson New Jersey cops when I was 15. I organized sabotage at the lumber yard where I worked when I was 18. I started an organizing drive in Indiana that that lasted several years and finally won.
    I hope this shit doesn't end with me.