Why Not Categorize Them?

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As of late 2012, the Notebooks on Noncomposing Type Casting Machines on CircuitousRoot simply gather together the individual Notebooks on each of these machines in a single group, without attempting any further categorization into "foundry automatics," "sorts casters," "Monotypes," etc. Some might find this objectionable. After all, it groups together machines which many have reviled ("sorts" casters, Thompsons, Monotypes and other machines which, we are told, cannot produce "real foundry" type) with those they have revered (the Barth). For the first few years that I was developing these Notebooks, as I was just learning about typecasting, I did categorize them. But as I learned more about the machines and myself became more proficient in the operation of at least one of them, I came to realize that this was the wrong approach. The categories that printers may have learned for these machines ("foundry automatics" vs. "sorts casters," for example) are the products of old marketing propaganda and reflect neither the history nor the technical realities of these machines. They are all worthy to stand in each other's company.

In the 19th century, the various American typefoundries attempted, naturally, to assert that their type was better than the type produced by their competitors. Since most typefoundries were using basically similar casting machinery, must of this advertising hype came down to dubious claims about metals (e.g., "superior copper-mixed type"). With the dominance of American Type Founders in the early 20th century, this continued - but with two changes. First, ATF did not really have to compete with the few surviving (or new) "non trust" typefoundries. Generally, it managed simply to buy them out. It did, however, have to compete with two new antagonists: the linecasting (Linotype, Intertype, Linograph) and typecasting (Monotype Composition Caster) machines, and a large number of independent typecasting operations which used casting machinery designed originally for use by printers directly (Thompson, Monotype Giant, etc.) ATF responded with an extremely effective, very long-lived marketing attitude. Playing upon metallurgical necessities of linecasting and composing typecasting machines, they were successful in establishing the notion that "foundry" type was necessarily better than these, and that "real" foundry type could only be that produced by ATF itself - the sole possessor of the (admittedly remarkable) Barth type casting machine. These articles of faith in ATF marketing propaganda are still heard with regularity on letterpress printing forums in the early 21st century. Students of "deep" advertising methods would do well to study ATF. The problem, of course, is that these notions are not true, and that their claimed technological basis is a half-truth.

Some history is in order here. David Bruce developed the "pivotal" type caster in the late 1830s, and from the 1840s it came to dominate (and to a large extent define) typecasting in the 19th century. With a few exceptions [1], 19th century type was pivotal-cast type. The amalgamation of ATF in 1892, with its consolidation into a single plant after 1903, brought to it the Barth "foundry automatic" casting machine. (ATF seems not to have used the Foucher machines it must have inherited from the Central Type Foundry.) ATF made much of this, and they were right to do so, because the Barths (each of which was a bespoke machine) are without question the finest type casting machines ever made in America.

However, they represented only a portion of ATF's output. The words of Theo Rehak from Practical Typecasting (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Books, 1993) are particularly relevant here:

"In the halcyon days of ATF the largest, busiest, and most intriguing casting bays were those in the Hand and Steam Department. Here, side by side and row after row, were the hand-cranked pivotal casting machines and their powered 'steamer' counterparts (driven from pulleys and flat belts) which could cast anything [Rehak's emphasis] in a myriad of matrix drives on 3- to 208-point bodies." (p. 11)

I have come to believe that the term "foundry" for type is misleading to the point that it is best avoided. But if one insists upon distinguishing "foundry" type, then one must, necessarily, include in its scope not only Barth-cast type but also pivotal-cast type.

Some technology is in order here. A pivotal typecaster is basically an automated hand mold attached to a "force pump." They were typically well-built but relatively lightly-built machines - quite adequate for their purposes, but much less substantial than the beautifully over-engineered Barth. Their force pumps operate under spring pressure at levels where actuation by hand is sufficient. (The German name for them is revealing: Handgießmaschine (hand casting machine.)) A pivotal type caster produces type which is dressed on no sides and which therefore requires additional hand dressing (typically by low-paid child or female labor in the 19th century).

In the early 20th century, a strange and ultimately unsuccessful idea emerged - that every printer could become their own typefounder. This idea failed because printing and typefounding, while related, are essentially different activities. Most printers do not want to be typefounders. Nevertheless, several machines were brought to market to fulfil this idea. The Thompson lasted the longest, but there were several others as well. These machines were collectively termed "sorts" casters, with the expectation that a printer might use them to cast up individual sorts when they were in short supply. Later, the Monotype companies entered into this market with several machines. For the most part (at least outside of printing establishments committed already to Monotype composition casting) printers did not buy these machines. Independent type foundries, however, did. (Aside: See On the Importance of All Typefoundries for a polemic on why I believe that it is proper to call these firms "Type Foundries"; many do not.)

These "sorts" casters were all, of course, more or less different from each other. Some, such as the Nuernberger-Rettig were basically just pivotal casters. Others, especially the Thompson, introduced significant changes in the casting mechanism. All of them, however, contained mold mechanisms at least as good as those of pivotal casters, all of them were operated at pump pressures which were not less than those of pivotal casters, and all of them could be used with the same alloys as pivotal casters. Most of them produced type which was dressed on two sides (which could of course be hand dressed on the other two sides, but which in practice is usable as-is).

In other words, from a technical point of view, every one of the "sorts" casters and those Monotype casters producing non-composed type were equal to or superior to pivotal casters. These casters were (and are) therefore capable of producing type indistinguishable in quality from pivotal-cast "foundry" type. The distinction between "foundry" and non-"foundry" type on the basis of the casting machine employed is specious. There is no technological reason why there need be any difference.

Of course, this does not mean that any given machine will magically produce good type. The best typecasting machine may be poorly operated. It certainly helped ATF's advertising department that many of these idependent typefoundries casting on Thompson, pivotal, and other equipment employed operating practices which produced type of dubious alloy and quality.

Certainly some casting machines were (and are) better or worse than others. I'd love to have a Barth. But I am more than happy to have my Thompsons, and I know that their deficiencies (worn parts aside) lie with my own lack of skill, not with the machines. Aside from one-off aberrations which never made it past the patent drawing stage, nobody ever made a bad type casting machine. Each machine must be considered on the basis of its own merits and (when it survives) operated on the basis of its own characteristics.


[1] Non-pivotal-caster type in America in the 19th century: From at least the late 1880s, the Central Type Foundry in St. Louis was using either Foucher (1879) or Küstermann "System Foucher" (1885) Komplettgießmaschinen (what would later be termed "foundry automatics"). From 1888 Henry Barth at the Cincinnati Type Foundry used his "foundry automatic" type casting machine. However, although both of these foundries were amalgamated into American Type Founders in 1892, operations were not consolidated into a single plant (in Jersey City, NJ, built in 1903) until after 1910.

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