Someone recently asked me what the p’s and q’s are in the old saying “mind your p’s and q’s.” I was surprised because it’s been years since I’ve heard that expression, but it sure brought back memories.
There was a time, many, many years ago, when I was just beginning the printing profession. I had some mighty good teachers — my mother and father. Although the first lessons centered around the business end of a broom, it wasn’t long until I had graduated to the “California job case.”
The California job case is a drawer that is divided into 89 little compartments — some long and narrow and some nearly square. In today’s world they are called printers’ drawers and can be found in nearly every antique shop.
The object of the drawer is to store, in a certain order, individual metal or wooden printing letters known in the trade as “type.”
The trick was this: the lower-case compartments on the left side of the drawer are not arranged in any sensible order. In fact, the lower-case letters compartments are arranged completely differently than the upper-case letters on the right side of the drawer.The largest compartments on the lower-case side belong to the most used letters in the English language (such as e’s, a’s and t’s.) The skinniest compartments are for letters not often used (such as p’s and q’s.)
On the right side of the drawer are the upper-case letters. Each of those compartments is exactly the same size. The upper-case letters are in alphabetical order except for two letters — the J and the U (which were the last two letters added to the English language.)
As you can well imagine, this made things a little difficult for an 11-year-old boy, who really didn’t concentrate on anything very well in the first place.
What made things even more exciting was the fact that printing letters are upside down and backwards. If you hold them up to a mirror they look right, but it takes a long time to get to the point where one could actually “read” them.
Some letters were much easier than others to recognize. A lower-case e for example wasn’t hard to decipher. The real test came with letters such as the p and q. That’s why my parents always asked me if I was minding my p’s and q’s.
It’s been a long time since I’ve “thrown in or picked” type from a California job case. Printing has made so many changes since those days that no one working in a newspaper or printing office today would be able to mind their p’s and q’s.
But back in my younger years (the 1950s), there were a few newspapers that were actually set one letter at a time from a California job case. The type in most papers, however, was set on a machine called the Linotype. (But that’s another story.)
The last newspaper in this area that was completely hand-set was the Cambridge Leader. Although the publisher, the late L.O. Langland, owned a Linotype, he never did learn how to use it, so he set his newspaper by hand.
I have no idea how many individual letters it would take to fill the front page of his paper each week, but it had to be many thousand. Not only did he have to set each page that way, he also had to put each letter back in the drawer after the paper was printed. It probably took nearly as long to take the pages apart as it did to put them back together for the next week.
A sad time for Mr. Langland and his newspaper took place not long before his retirement in 1971. In fact, it probably helped him decide it was time to retire.
He was lifting the front page of his paper from the “stone” (the flat marble tabletop where the page is put together) to the press. The page, which probably weighed nearly 100 pounds, slipped from his grip and fell — scattering little letters all over the floor of his office.
When the paper came out that week, the front page read: “Tough Luck! Dropped front page. Will print it next week.”
Ed Rood is the former publisher for the Tri-County Times. He and his wife, Sharon, live near Cambridge.