CURRENT HOURS: TUES-SAT • 9am–4pm • Last tractor cart leaves at 2pm

Letter Play!

Young Girl at School Holding a Computer Mouse

Do you like to play with how letters look on your computer screen? Do you like to make them bigger and smaller and fancy?

small lettersfat letters

silly letters

I’ll bet you didn’t know, that makes you a typesetter! When you type out the letters to spell words on the screen, you are typesetting! In 2014, we use a keyboard to send those words electronically to a laser printer. In our 1875 Print Shop at Living History Farms, typesetting is more hands-on than that!

In 1875, a typesetter used small pieces of wood and metal with letters on the end to make words for printing. They called these pieces “moveable type” because they could move the letters around and use them over and over. Finding and putting the letters in order is called hand-setting of type.

In our 1875 Print Shop, type is stored in special drawers called cases. Just like they would have done 100 years ago! Each case has many little boxes inside it to hold the different letters and numbers.

type casetype

Typesetters used a special map to memorize which little box held each letter. The typesetter held a metal tray called a composing stick in one hand. composition stickThey took the letters from the case and lined them up, upside down, in the composing stick. The letters were eventually covered with ink and pressed against paper to make a copy of the words.

Your computer can print letters in lots of different styles and sizes of lettering. The style is called a font. Maybe you use Comic Sans, or Arial, or Times New Roman? Do you have a favorite style for typing on your screen?

In the 1800s, moveable type came in lots of different styles or fonts, too. The Print Shop at Living History Farms has fonts like:

copperplate                    bodoni

Goudy                    fancy fonts

Some of the historic styles are really fancy. There were even italics–the kind that slant to the right and make words stand out.

italicsThe letters also come in different sizes. You can change the size of the type on your computer by choosing a new number from the box at the top of your screen. Those numbers are called point sizes, so when you change from 12 to 24, you are changing from 12 points to 24 points. Typesetters in 1875 could print in different sizes of letter too. Remember those cases that hold the type? Each of those cases holds a different SIZE of type. One case might hold the 10 point Copperplate, while another holds the 14 point Copperplate.

When you are finished typing on your computer, you can either save or delete your work and it is stored electronically. In the 1875 Print Shop, typesetters would have to clean the ink off of each piece of type and carefully replace each letter in the box where it belonged. Then it would be in the correct spot when they needed to use it again – and they DID use the letters over and over again.

So which method of typesetting do you think is faster? Using a keyboard and computer? Or setting by hand? On your next visit to Living History Farms, ask one of the printers to show you how type is set and then you can decide for yourself!

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