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Nostalgic Question from non-printer

Started by wabash, August 28, 2009, 02:54:49 PM

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Hi everyone ... interesting site...I'm doing a book on my family -  my grandfather spent his entire life (40 years beginning in 1929 ) working in the US GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE . I am trying to get a better idea of what he actually did at work . Upon researching his papers, i found a little, not much to go on. Based on his time frame , can you shed some light on this for me ?

In his early years he was a STONEMAN. I'm very curious ( could not find any information ) about what this is ... he worked his way up to LETTERPRESS SUPERVISOR then also called a Manager.

  • What kind of machine might he have been working with ... do you have a picture of a similiar on one your site ?
  • What is a STONEMAN ? what is letterpress ? does letterpress deal with printing the whole document ( picture and words) or just the words

  • How many machines or people might have comprised this type of  operation ?
  • I do have some pictures of him at work ( 1930-40 ish) . In some he appears to be in an office setting ( none showing any machines). Would  a letterpress supervisor be a desk job ? 

  • What type of technical and personal skills might he have needed ?


I'd be grateful for ANY information . THANKS

Dave Hughes

I'll at least try to answer some of your more general questions here.

Perhaps other people will have more idea as to what sort of work was carried out at the US Government Printing Offices in the period you mentioned.

OK for starters here is a picture of someone carrying out the work of a stonehand:

It involves arranging the type into a page, and perhaps several pages into a forme for printing on a press.

This guy is working on single broadsheet newspaper pages.

"Letterpress" is a printing process, another one is "Lithography".

The letterpress process, at its most basic, involves putting a thin layer of ink on a relief surface and pressing a sheet of paper against it to produce an image.
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Does the moonlight shine tonight along the Wabash, in Indiana?

I am not a printer, but I did spend over 40 years in the print industry, so I picked up a thing or two about letterpress printing along the way. If anything I have written is not correct I'm sure some old printer, with the ink still flowing in his blood, will correct or expand on what I have written.

Like the computer industry today, the printing industry had a language of its' own.

From what you say your grandfather probably served an apprenticeship as a compositor or maybe as a hand and machine compositor. Compositors had various duties and a stonehand was one of them. Dave has already given a description of the stonehand's duties. They are called stonehands because the surface they worked on was originally made of stone Other duties of a compositor was to hand assemble foundry type from fonts (individual characters of a particular type family) to forms lines of type to be part of a printed item. He may also have used a Linotype or a Monotype keyboard.

In 1940 the GPO had 126 Linotypes and  100 Monotype keyboards. and 202 printing presses of various types.

Your grandfather seems to have switched trades at some stage. Up until the mid 1960s most printing was by letterpress. One of the main reasons was that most typesetting machines produced type for letterpress machines. Letterpress machines print all aspects of printing. Type, line art and photographs. In the mid 1950s phototypesetting machines were being perfected and this method of typesetting was most suited for offset printing.

In fact your grandfather may have seen the first keyboard phototypesetting machine. The first Intertype Fotosetter was evaluated by the GPO in 1946, and was used to typeset the "Petrified Forest National Monument, Arizona," printed for the Interior Department.

It seems reasonable that your grandfather would have had an office. He was most likely to be responsible for nominating on which machine a particular job was to be printed. He would have to be able to judge the quality of the finished product. A letterpress machinist is a very skilled trade, particularly in shops where they are responsible for producing high quality documents. Normally when a job is put on a flatbed letterpress machine the printer will print a proof of the job. The reason for this is to make sure that all aspects of the job will be printed at the correct pressure. Too light and it wont print and too heavy it will press through the paper. If there is any variation he will take steps to correct the situation either have lines reset or pack the under the type matter. This  is known as 'make ready'.  If there is more than one colour in the job they have to ensure that the register is correct, some jobs that include coloured photos, could require up to four colours. Time spent prior to starting the print run can mean the difference between a 'so so' job and a quality product. When the printer was happy he might take the final proof to the supervisor for his OK. During the print run the printer will continually monitor the finished product to ensure there is no change in the quality.

Try Google 'youtube letterpress'. I'm sure you will find a lot of videos.

Have a look at the following videos on this site and they will help give a better understanding of letterpress printing. Just click on the URLs and they will come up on the screen.,362.0.html,249.0.html,394.0.html

and for fun,350.0.html

Some of the information relating to the above was obtained from:-

George Finn (Mechanic)
Gold Coast


Thank you both, you are very decent gentlemen to have spent time to enlighten me. I appreciate it, having added your information rounding out the family history book.
BTW- My name Wabash taken from address of my grandfathers  Chicago GPO workplace which I happen to be staring at when I registered  :D
Have a great day !

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