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The Swifts

Started by Mechanic, January 21, 2010, 12:31:25 AM

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The following web address will take you to a book review of "The Swifts, by Walker Rumble". There are several reviews on the page. If you search for "swift" on the site you should go straight to the review. It's about a third of the way down the page. The following is an extraction of that review.

Swifts were given their name because they were exactly that — swift and accurate. They were the fastest type setters and Mr Rumble is fascinated by them. He describes in great and loving detail who these men were, from whence they came, the places where they worked—they moved from place to place and job to job as the mood struck them.

Most of them, like most journeyman printers of the time, died young, often before reaching 40, often of consumption. It was an occupational hazard brought about by vile working conditions, air befouled with the stink of unsanitary toilets, the sweat and body odor of unbathed men and tobacco smoke, hard drinking and long hours. The ITU in those days apparently cared little about working conditions and was primarily interested in wages and in keeping women out of the composing room.

In this latter effort it failed; for the most part it could keep them out of the union but not out of the composing rooms, largely those of job shops and book publishers. While women were always scarce in the back shops of newspapers, one, Freddy Brown, worked for years as a proof reader at the Burbank, Calif., Daily Review. She had three daughters, one of whom, Angie Dickinson, went on to star in movies and on television.

You can't write about the swifts without mentioning the great ones, the Babe Ruths, or Joe Louises or Jesse Owenses of their peculiar sport. In every sport there are three or four unforgettable figures. Among swifts there was the legendary George Arensberg, known as the Velocipede because of his speed. Others, including the Irishman Joe McCann, Bill Barnes and Alexander Duguid, broke his record just as others have broken Ruth's. But still, Arensberg is acknowledged to be the first of the truly great ones. When he died he was an old man of 36.

George Arensberg was called "The Boy" when the 19-year-old printing compositor arrived in New York in 1869. Within a year, though, his shopmates had renamed him "The Velocipede." Arensberg had EA Donaldson, a composing-room foreman at The New York Times, to thank for his newfound fame. That winter, Donaldson had offered the young Arensberg an opportunity to prove that he was fast enough to set four stickfuls of type—maybe five pages of modern double-spaced typescript—in an hour. Then Donaldson spread the word. Scores of printers from New York's newspapers and printing shops converged on the composing room of The New York Times to bet on the Velocipede. He did not disappoint. On the afternoon of February 19, 1870, Arensberg set 2,064 ems of type in a single hour, making him the world's fastest typesetter.

Composition had not progressed much since Gutenberg's day. It would be the last part of traditional printing to be mechanized, lagging behind technological leaps in other stages of the process, from rotary steam-powered presses to curved-plate stereotyping. Even after the introduction in the 1860s of presses that could produce 15 000 newspapers an hour, printing still required battalions of hand compositors.
George Finn (Mechanic)
Gold Coast

Dan Williams

My grandfatherEllis Williams was a swift, on the Houston Press.
In the thirties he could hang the elevator through a whole shift. I tend to believe it because he wasnt the bragging sort.
But it was the depression and he was compelled to slow down because there were too many card carriers that needed a seat.
So he quit and opened a print shop. He died in 1982, about 85, so I imagine that the shop environment wasnt all that bad.

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