Printing History Rich in Word Origins
It has always fascinated me how the meanings of some words or phrases change with the passage of time. Sometimes the technology that the word or phrase originated with no longer exists or is needed. Many times the phrase or word becomes archaic or extinct so is no longer used. Other times the phrase or word stays long after the technology dies but the meaning changes. While conducting research on other topics I have come across some interesting tidbits of information relating to these changes. Many of these words or phrases have newspaper or printing history originations.|
There came a time in America, and the world for that fact, that there became a gap in the maximum number of newspaper issues a printing press could produce in a day and the number of issues needed in a day. One printing press could not keep up with the demand. To set type for an entire newspaper took many hours of manual labor. In some larger city newspapers, due to quantity of news, most of the entire day was spent by a crew of typesetters setting type for the day's newspaper. Adding a second printing press to double the capability of the number of issues printed was not practical.
As early as 1790 in France, seeing the future demand, craftsmen began experimenting with a quicker way of producing a duplicate matrix - an exact copy of the typeset page that could be placed on a printing press to print from. Many methods were tried. The one that worked the best was to prepare a paste made from paper and pour it over the typeset matrix. When this dried, it was removed and used as a mold. A metal alloy was then poured into the mold and allowed to set. It was this metal alloy plate that was placed on the printing press.
A stereotype plate enabled the printers to print enough copies of their newspapers to meet the need. All they needed were enough printing presses. It is from these printing history origins that we now use the term to mean "all alike or having similar attributes" in describing certain ethnic groups or occupations. For example, "All cops ever do is hang out at donut shops." We know it is not true but assign that attribute for all policemen anyway.
CAN'T HIT THE BROADSIDE OF A BARN
This phrase also has an interesting printing history origin. The term "broadside" literally means "printed on one side only." It derived its name from being printed on the "broad" (or largest) side of a sheet of paper. For example, early 4-page newspapers were actually printed on a larger sheet of paper on two sides and then folded to make four pages. Thus, a broadside was printed on the area of what would have been page one and page four or page two and three of a newspaper. As time went by and newspapers became 8-pages each, newspapers were still being printed on one large sheet but folded into an 8-page issue.
In early America, until the late 1800's, when anyone wanted something printed they went to a newspaper office. In addition to publishing and printing a newspaper, a newspaper owner would also print broadsides for other businesses to supplement their income. A prime use for broadsides was advertising.
As America's road system improved, a favorite marketing method of advertising agencies or businesses was to post broadsides on barns located near roads. When the circus or a patent medicine agent was coming to town, you can bet one would find a broadside posted on a barn to promote the "event." These were the forerunners of what we call billboards today. By the late 1800's some broadsides were several square feet in size. A favorite pastime of boys in this era was to stand back from a barn and throw rocks to try and hit the "broadside on a barn." As time passed, the term broadside was replaced with handbill or flyer. Also, these notices were no longer being posted on the sides of barns. Instead, radio and television became a prime medium for advertising. At this point the phrase "Can't hit the broadside ON a barn" became meaningless - there were no broadsides on barns anymore.
Thus, to make sense, the phrase was altered to "Can't hit the broadside OF a barn." At this time "broad" still meant "largest" side. One would have to have an awful aim to not be able, to hit the largest side of a barn with a rock or ball. The alteration from "on" to "of" made it a bigger insult.
In the 1700s papermaking mills there were three primary occupations. To make paper then, cloth rags were soaked in water and rolled into balls and allowed to ferment for six to eight weeks. At this point they were placed into vats and boiled into a mash. Next, a person with the job title of "vatman" dipped the moulds one at a time into the mash and carefully pulled it out. A thin coating of the mash would cling to the wire mesh screen of the mould. Once out, by careful rotations and twisting, the vatman would literally shake the excess water off. It took great skill to be able to only shake off the excess water and not disturb the rag mulch on the mold. Once the excess water was shook off, the vatman turned the mold over to a person with the job title of "coucher." This person would carefully peel the wet paper from the mold and place them in stacks with a felt sheet between the sheets of wet paper. Although I am not certain why, the coucher placed the wet sheets of paper in stacks of 144 sheets. For an unknown reason, this stack of 144 sheets was called a "post." It is for this reason, no doubt that many early American newspapers had the word "post" attached to the their title; Boston Post-Boy, Washington Post, St. Louis Post, and so forth.
Next, when the paper had dried long enough, the "post" was turned over to a layboy, or depending on age of the person, a layman. His job was to peel the felt sheets from the paper sheets and replace the now damp felt sheets with dry ones This process was repeated three times.
The layman was the least skilled job title in early paper mills. It is no doubt that this is where we derive today's "layman" to mean unskilled or lacking knowledge of a specific field.
It is interesting to note that in the early 1700's in America the vatman was paid about $9 a month in wages, a coucher was paid about $6 a month, and the layman received about 6 cents a month plus room and board.
Printing technology in 17O0s America also presented another problem on occasion for newspaper publishers. All newspapers were printed on one larger sheet of paper and then folded to make a 4-page edition. On occasion, when more advertisements came in than anticipated or some late-breaking news came in just prior to the printing time, it presented a problem. There was not enough news or ads to make it a 6 or 8-page edition. To solve the problem, the editor would print a miniature edition as an insert to the regular paper. This insert was called a "Post Script." Due to its nature of purpose - last minute additions of news - we still today assign a "postscript" to the end of our letters to mean "last minute thoughts or news."