Mac McGrew - My Life With Type
My Life With Type

Editor’s Introduction
by Richard Hopkins, Editor,
American Typecasting Fellowship Newsletter

November 1999

One of the goals of this publication [the American Typecasting Fellowship Newsletter] is to preserve knowledge of the technology of letterpress. Tied to that is knowledge of how business was transacted in the days of letterpress, so I approached Mac McGrew to provide some reminiscences regarding his life-long career with type. What better person to approach? His lifetime research project, American Metal Typefaces of the Twentieth Century, is testament to his devotion to and knowledge of the craft.
      And now I’m doubly glad I approached him. He submitted his first draft in April. By October, he was unable to complete the project because of macular deterioration in his left eye (he had it in his right eye for several years). So Mac sent his disk to me for final editing and assembly.
      Regarding his move into the present-day world of computer typesetting, Mac says “the earliest work on American Metal Typefaces of the Twentieth Century was done on a manual typewriter. Most work on the preliminary edition (1986) was done on a primitive word processor, which had no monitor—it simply recorded characters, and was capable of playback with very limited editing.
      “By the time I was working on the revised edition (1993), I had an early computer, which had a monitor and much more extensive editing ability, but only limited non-scalable type fonts. Later I added a program that allowed scalable fonts, but at very low resolution.
      “Meanwhile, in 1974 I took on the volunteer job of production editor for Trolley Fare, the newsletter of the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum. Early issues (with no budget for commercial typesetting) were done on a typewriter, with rub-down transfer type heads pasted in, all done oversize and reduced by the printer.
      “My early computer permitted scaled-type heads, but the output was much too low-resolution for scaled-type text, so heads were still pasted in with typewriter-like text, still done oversize and reduced.
      “Finally, in 1996, I got a more advanced computer with full capabilities for scalable type and complete finished-size assembly (aside from halftones, which I have chosen to not do myself).
      “Much of this equipment has come to me through the generosity of my son, Jon McGrew, while I have added a rather extensive type library.
      “In addition to Trolley Fare, I have done other volunteer work, plus some writing and hobby printing. Now, eye problems have forced me to curtail much of this work.”

My first actual encounter with metal type came when I bought a small hobby printing outfit from Kelsey, during the summer before I entered high school, in the 1920s. I had been inspired by several type specimen booklets given to me by my father, who was an architect with a specialty of inscriptional lettering. He had designed the inscriptions on a number of schools and other public buildings in the Pittsburgh area, notably the former Buhl Planetarium, and had used these specimens for reference.
      I soon found out that the two fonts of type included with the outfit—8 point Caslon and 10 point Cheltenham Bold—didn’t go far. Somehow I found out about the American Type Founders branch in Pittsburgh, and bought another font of Caslon there. Fortunately they gave me Caslon No. 540, which was close to the Kelsey Caslon though not an exact match—but near enough to be mixed. I hadn’t considered that another source might not have the exact same style.
      Later, during a summer vacation from high school, I got a job in a small printshop, distributing and sometimes setting type and making up forms. Aside from a few hobbyists, most of whom worked on a very small scale, virtually all typesetting was done in print shops or typographic shops that had made substantial investments in equipment and in shop space to house it.
      After high school I studied printing at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). It had the country’s leading school of printing at the time, so it was a natural goal for me. There I learned all I could about type and its use, including the Linotype, Monotype, and Ludlow machines.
      At Tech I had developed the habit of reading trade journals, principally Inland Printer and American Printer. They often had items about new typefaces, which particularly interested me. Somewhere around this time, or a little later, Linotype introduced its Caslon Old Face, a more faithful interpretation of the foundry face than previous machine-set Caslons.
      Their ads featured lines of foundry type mixed at random with the Linotype setting, and challenged the reader to identify them. Later Linotype told me I was one of only a half dozen people who correctly distinguished them. It hadn’t been a contest, but as a “reward” I was given a subscription to Linotype News, which gave me information on new Linotype developments, as well as articles on quality in typesetting, which was helpful and inspirational to me for years.
      After a few jobs in smaller shops (jobs weren’t easy to come by in the depression era), I became production manager and typographer in a mid-size commercial printing plant (William G. Johnston Company, 1942–1952). There I specified type in detail for the men in the shop to execute. There my shop experience came in handy, because I had first-hand knowledge of the possibilities and limitations of the equipment, and was able—when necessary—to explain a specification that they may have considered impossible or impractical.
      That shop printed newsletters, as well as general advertising, forms, and other work for a number of large corporations, including Westinghouse, Alcoa, Heinz, and others. At some point my employer decided that a Linotype would be advantageous, and gave me the job of selecting Linotype fonts to most nearly match the Monotype fonts they had been using for newsletters.
      One morning I submitted my list, suggesting also Caledonia, then a brand-new Linotype offering. “No extras,” my boss said summarily. In the afternoon of the same day, the company’s top salesman came to me. “Do you know a typeface called Caledonia?” he asked. I assured him I did. “Alcoa wants to use it in all their advertising,” he said. We got it.
      Looking back, I think the shop crew planned problems now and then to test me. On one occasion, they showed me a galley proof of Monotype composition with improperly spaced quotation marks. I pondered it a bit, then said, “Your 5- and 7-unit quotes are transposed.” (Monotype users will understand that.) I think they were impressed.
      On another occasion, a Linotype operator showed me a slug with one character sticking up above the others. I know he expected me to say, “What the heck happened there? That’s impossible!” Instead I simply said, “Oh, a Rogers Tabular mat.” (Linotype users might understand that.) He admitted I was right.
      Some of our clients sent us jobs with a lot of tabular matter in them. I made sure my specifications would work, but left it to the Monotype or Linotype crews to determine such details as spacing of columns. Except once, when the only practical specification was 12-point Monotype Twentieth Century Medium for column heads in a series of tables, and 14-point Linotype Spartan Medium for the body matter. I took time to specify that in detail. Later one of the shop men told me they were betting the combination would never work, but they put the output of the two machines together and it fit perfectly.
      At one of those jobs, a friend introduced me to the Pittsburgh Club of Printing House Craftsmen. I became a member, and attended some of the conferences of the International Association, which greatly broadened my horizons, and introduced me to some of the prominent people in the business.
      Eventually, the job of type director in the city’s largest advertising agency opened up, and I was recommended for it. I went to Ketchum, MacLeod & Grove as type director —later typographic director—where I worked until retirement in 1979. That was a “dream” job for me, as it concentrated on my greatest interest.
      I already had some acquaintance with the advertising typographers of the city. In fact much earlier I had approached one of them for a job, but was told I could start as a messenger and work my way up; that I declined, as I thought I already had the experience for a better starting point.
      As type director, I occasionally made ad layouts, but usually began with layouts and artwork from the staff of art directors (as many as a dozen of them in the agency at one time), and handled the typographic portion, sometimes making or recommending adjustments as necessary.
      It is said that in early days, some small-town newspaper editors wrote their articles on a Linotype keyboard, which allowed them to go directly into type. That may have been true, but in my experience there was virtually complete separation between writing and typesetting during the metal type era. Writers did their work on a typewriter, or in some cases wrote in longhand. Quite often the author retyped it several times, as he polished his sentences.
      Perhaps then the writing went to an editor, if it was headed for a publication, or to the client if it was advertising matter. When finally approved it went to a typesetter. These compositors—or “comps”—were usually a good backup at correcting ordinary errors of spelling and at following standards for other details such as punctuation. Most of them were making a life-time profession of the work. They had studied it in trade schools or even in college courses, or worked under foremen who guided them.
      Most of the ads in my earlier days on that job were comparatively simple—illustration, headline, text, and signature, usually in that sequence. Although the advertising typographers we dealt with had a much larger selection of typefaces than the printers I had worked for previously, they were still quite limited compared to later times.
      Most machine-set typefaces were held only in 8, 10, and 12 point sizes; some in 6 point and, on Linotype, 14 point. Odd sizes such as 9 point were very rare. Of course headlines were set by hand, in Monotype or foundry type, or on Ludlow from one or two sources. Sometimes even text was set by hand, when an art director wanted a particular typeface that was not available otherwise. Of course, this slowed production and increased costs.
      The agency had a production department of three or four men who actually ordered the typesetting after I had specified it, and a traffic department whose members moved the work from one department to another. This made sense in the days when type, halftones, electrotypes, and other details had to be coordinated.
      Most printing was still letterpress, and the larger national magazines required quality plates for the ads we produced—electrotypes of type forms rather than engraved type, for instance. So this involved at least three sources for the physical production of each ad—typesetters, engravers (for illustrations), and electrotypers, not to mention writers, photographers, artists, and others who did the preliminary work.
      When I joined the firm, the agency sent almost all of its typesetting to one supplier, even though another could have handled a specific job better. So it became part of my job to determine the best source for setting each ad, and I initiated little slips on which I checked off all the local suppliers who had the typefaces necessary for the order.
      This system usually worked smoothly, but I remember one occasion when it seemed everything that could go wrong did. The art director had prepared layouts for a series of six booklets, and he had gone so far as to have dummies prepared by an outside art studio, with a few pages set in type to establish style.
      This was all approved by the client, and brought to me in the middle of one afternoon, with instructions that the client had to see proofs of everything the next morning. One glance told me we were in trouble, for the art studio had used a new typeface that at the time was available only as imported foundry type. And the three local suppliers that had the face had it only in 18 point and larger—but the studio set it oversize and shot down to about 10 point! The typographers would have been glad to order more type if I had asked them to, but shipping it in from New York would have taken several days.
      Immediately I contacted the account executive and urged him to let us select a more readily available typeface. But he wouldn’t try to get the client to agree to that. “It has been approved this way,” he said, “and we have to do the best we can.”
      I talked to the production man who was listed on the order, and together we contacted the three suppliers who had that style, found how much each had, arranged to send two booklets to each one, and alerted them to have the night shift ready to set as much as possible, pull repro proofs, distribute the type, set another batch, etc.
      I quickly wrote specifications allowing for the oversize settings, and turned the whole thing over to the traffic person, then went back to other work for the rest of the day. Proofs didn’t always come first to me, so I didn’t worry when I didn’t see them—at least partial proofs— early the next day.
      It was three days before we saw complete proofs, and I began to find out what had happened. Since I had discussed the job with the production man, I didn’t put a supplier designation slip on the work. But the order had the wrong name on it, and the production man I had talked to never saw it again. Another production man, blithely unaware of the problem, sent all six booklets to one supplier, who did his best.
      Before the great array of scalable fonts became available on computers in very recent years, the general public—and even many people in the business—had no idea of typefaces and their availability.
      On one occasion a client of the agency was faced with a strike situation at its branch in another city, and was preparing an ad explaining its views for immediate insertion in the newspaper in that city.
      While others were hastily finalizing copy and layout, and a courier was preparing to take it there, and with no time to go to our usual advertising typographers, I phoned the paper to determine its type facilities to most closely match the client’s established style. I explained the situation to the composing room superintendent, and he confidently said, “Whatever you want—just name it, we have it.”
      Helvetica? “Well—uh—no.” News Gothic? “No.” Trade Gothic? “Never heard of it.” It turned out that he was blissfully unaware that there were any typefaces beyond the few in his shop, and he was vague about the names of those few. All we could do was send along a proof of an ad of similar appearance, with instructions to match typefaces as closely as possible. The result wasn’t very close.
      I had developed a reputation for accurate specifications, and ads almost never had to be reset, except for changes in copy. But several years into the job, art directors began to produce more sophisticated layouts, with text running around the contours of objects in photos or drawings.
      A few times I tried to anticipate everything, and write specifications in enough detail to get this right the first time around. But I soon discovered that this was not only extremely time-consuming on my part, but that the slightest miscalculation could disrupt all the rest of the specifications.
      So I developed the system of ordering a first setting in the desired typeface without regard to runarounds. Then, using tracing paper, I could more easily and more accurately plot the fit of the entire ad. This was long before the days of computers and their possibilities for doing such work (within limitations), and my ads had to be re-keyboarded, but they always fit the second time around, and were more cost-effective than trying to anticipate everything.
      Another advance in sophistication brought demand for a greater variety of typefaces. At times, when the situation seemed to warrant it, I encouraged local typesetters to buy additional fonts. At other times, for one-time purposes, I developed an extensive list of out-of-town sources and their resources.
      Technology began to change, too. For five hundred years, the technical aspects of type and typesetting had changed little, except for the development of machines to set it around the end of the nineteenth century.
      The first big change was the introduction of photolettering, with paper or film reproductions of typefaces assembled by hand and photographed to the desired size for headlines. I tried to resist this for a while, but eventually had to go along with it. Again, local sources developed, and again I supplemented their offerings with knowledge of possibilities elsewhere.
      Another big change came with the introduction of phototypesetting machines. These early machines had no advantage that I could see, other than the ability to set letters closer together. Some people, especially art directors, it seems, thought this was great, and demanded this new service.
      Often it was a pain in the neck to me, though, for resources were limited from any supplier, not only in the few styles available, but in the few sizes of each style. Results often were not what they would have been in traditional metal typesetting, and even new data didn’t always give me the results I expected. And sometimes spacing was so close that clients and even art directors were not happy with it.
      Gradually these machines were improved or replaced, although they always had their limitations. And any change in specifications always meant re-keyboarding.
      One of the last big jobs I handled before retirement was an unusual challenge, but one which I enjoyed handling. It consisted of a series of 90-some ads—actually that many variations of one ad, for it consisted of an ad of two or three pages, to run on the last pages of the national section of TV Guide, with an additional page or more listing local dealers, to run on the first page(s) of each local edition of the magazine. And we had three days to produce it. In addition to our (my) usual daily load of ads.
      The dealer lists took as little as a half page in a few editions, and two or three pages in others. It would have been impossible to determine accurate point sizes and other details of all that type for setting by conventional means, within the time limits, but one supplier had just installed the first computer-like typesetting equipment in the city. I had not used it yet, but a quick conference with him convinced me that it was our best bet—fortunately the desired Helvetica was among the few styles he had available.
      So we made an initial setting of everything in one size (except for heads). Then it was easy to re-figure a new size, where necessary, to fit pages to best advantage in each case. Since his equipment permitted settings to be resized without re-keyboarding, as any present-day computer can do, that saved the day for us.

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Sometimes I wonder what my job would be like if I had not retired when I did. (And if I was still young enough to keep up the pace.)
      But in retirement—thanks in great part to the generosity of my son—I have come through several generations of computers right in my home. And now have more typefaces on my desktop than my suppliers had in their large shops 20 years ago. Not only more styles, but almost unlimited sizes. Not just a dozen sizes (few shops had metal typefaces in more than that), but almost 10,000 sizes each!
      Any size up to 999.9 points, by tenths of a point! But I say almost, because 2- and 3-point sizes aren’t very usable. (That’s on my present computer, not necessarily on all computers.) And in unlimited quantities. If for some strange reason I want a page-full of 9.7 point swash Q’s—no problem; I can have them ready to go in a minute or so.
      Caledonia is not part of my font library. But if I get an irresistible urge to add it sometime, I can get two weights and italics in all those thousands of sizes for far less than my employer paid for each size of Linotype matrices fifty years ago. Or four weights and italics for a little more. And, incidentally, without the non-kerning restrictions of Linotype matrices. Furthermore, I can get them on diskette by overnight express, or—if I’m in a real hurry and have Internet access—within minutes of placing the order.
      Of course there’s a down side to this. I don’t get the third-dimensional bite of metal type into paper. That’s curable with polymer plates, but that’s a big extra operation and expense. I don’t get the subtle differences from one size to another of metal types. And most unthinkable of all, to some letterpress folks, I don’t get any f-ligatures, except in a few typefaces, and then by a rather time-consuming special operation.
      By and large, in the days of metal type, typesetting was done by people with technical training or an apprenticeship. They were supervised by foremen who maintained the level of quality of the particular shop, and were double-checked by trained proofreaders.
      Now, anyone with a computer is a desktop publisher, with or without any training. Computer classes may emphasize use of the equipment, with all its wonderful possibilities, but without explaining the difference between a hyphen and a dash, for instance, or customs in the use of punctuation marks, abbreviations, and a myriad of other details. Who cares if he or she chooses to set a paragraph of Old English type in all caps—aside from you and me?
      There was good and bad typography in the metal type age, and there’s good and bad typography in the computer age—only it’s now available to a lot more non-professionals.
      Metal type is heavy. At a quarter pound per square inch of printed area, a 7×10-inch ad with a bit of surrounding metal, for instance, will weigh 20 pounds, and several of them will quickly add up. The type for even a small magazine or book can run into substantial poundage, if not tonnage. By contrast, hundreds of pages of computer-set type can be stored on a diskette or compact disc weighing an ounce or two.
      What’s next? Computers that accept your spoken words and turn them into printed matter—that’s what.
      So now, please excuse me; I must go and practice my Caslon accent.
—Mac McGrew
Proof of article for November 1999 issue of American Typecasting Fellowship Newsletter

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Reprinted through the kind permission of the publisher.

Richard Hopkins
American Typecasting Fellowship Newsletter
P. O. Box 263
Terra Alta, WV 26764