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Paper, Ink, and Pi: Printing the Signal of Liberty (Part I)

Tue, 08/14/2018 - 9:20am by morseh

Part I: “Pi”

On April 14, 1845 the editors of the Signal of Liberty (1841-1848), a weekly Ann Arbor antislavery newspaper, ran an apologetic notice stating that “Last week our whole advertising page was knocked into pi, and we were obliged to insert some advertisements in two places, while others did not appear at all.” While twenty-first-century readers may wonder whether they dropped the page into someone’s dessert (or a geometric formula), the term meant something quite different to a nineteenth-century printer. Newspapers such as the Signal of Liberty relied on a laborious technique of arranging individual pieces of cast metal type into lines, columns, and page-sized “forms” before they could be inked and pressed. Types became “pied” if they were mixed up, dropped, or otherwise jumbled to the extent that each letter and punctuation mark had to be manually resorted into cases before the printer could resume composing. For a whole page of a 4-page issue to be “knocked into pi”—that’s up to 56,000 pieces of type!—was quite a disaster, indeed.

To become a printer, you had to master the counter-intuitive practice of setting letters into your composing stick upside-down and backwards—no easy feat—as well as the vocabulary of the printing trade. In fact, the origin of the saying “mind your p’s and q’s” may very well have been in printing shops, where compositors had to double-check their selection of these easily-confused letters. It certainly helped to have a “lower case” and an “upper case,” which were wooden boxes designed to place the most commonly-used letters close to hand. Other printers’ terms included “devil,” a nickname for a young apprentice who got the messiest, most tedious jobs like rolling ink, sorting pied type out of the “hellbox,” and “distributing” it back into the proper cases. As one Signal of Liberty article joked, a mischievous newspaper printer might tell his young “devil”: “get your stick and conclude the horrid murder which Joe began last night—wash your hands and come to dinner, and then see that all the pi is cleared up.”

Metal type in a composing stick

Signal of Liberty article titled "Mysterious Profession"

Today, letterpress printing is an artisanal practice mainly pursued by small independent publishers, artists, and the makers of handmade greeting cards and other ephemera. The technique, however, dominated the history of printing for centuries, from Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press in 1439 up until the rise of offset printing in the twentieth century. Theodore Foster and Reverend Guy Beckley joined the ranks of thousands of country newspaper editors in the U.S. and its territories—in profession, if not in political affiliation—when they began publishing the Signal of Liberty on an iron hand-press on behalf of the Michigan State Anti-Slavery Society in April 1841. But the practical workings of a newspaper, including its budget, remained mysterious to most subscribers, who were notorious for neglecting to “pay the printer.”

A March 23, 1846 article targeted at delinquent subscribers offered a crash course in the Signal of Liberty’s day-to-day operations and yearly expenses:


Paper and Ink $580 [$850]
Interest, Insurance, and Repairs, 100
Four hands 936
Pay of Editors and correspondents, 400
Incidental expenses, 100


As the article makes clear (despite the unfortunate typographical error of $580 instead of $850 for “Paper and Ink”), the Signal of Liberty barely broke even. To supplement the money received from subscriptions (which varied from $1 to $2 per year, for a total revenue of $2,025), the paper depended on job printing and advertising. Sometimes the editors even placed ads asking for daily staples such as wood and produce in exchange for subscriptions. (A nineteenth-century printers’ proverb could have been “You can’t have your pi and eat too.”)

Advertisement for Job Printing

Advertisements for Wood and Produce

So how did the Signal of Liberty stay in print for seven years, and what printers, paper- and ink-makers, and other local business connections contributed to its success? How does the story of the Signal compare to that of other early Michigan newspapers, and the history of nineteenth-century letterpress printing? Parts II-IV of “Paper, Ink, and Pi” will give the details! (Read Part II here!)

In the meantime, if you want to try your hand at letterpress printing, the Ann Arbor District Library holds a weekly “Letterpress Lab” featuring the library’s historic Kelsey and Vandercook letterpresses—check out the next event on August 15. And definitely don’t miss the upcoming 2018 Ann Arbor Wayzgoose & Printing Festival on August 24 and 25!

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