My Life in Print: An Ode to Type and Fonts

~a leisurely long weekend post~

Everybody is a font geek and has strong opinions about which typefaces are appropriate for which uses. In my years on Earth I have been lucky enough to live through massive changes in printing technology. Here are my reminisces about days of yore!

For reference, I was 7 years old in 1970, 17 in 1980, 27 in 1990 and so on.

1960s and 1970s:

As a young child, I would imitate my parents’ handwriting by scribbling loops. In school, we learned printing, followed by cursive handwriting in Grade 3 (age 8). Teachers were strict about penmanship and they punished messy writers. However, we used pencil and ballpoint pen, so had no worries about ink blots! My kid also learned cursive around the same age, but assignments were expected to be word-processed within a few years, so handwriting didn’t become a lifelong default for that age group. My thought processes are different than the current generation’s by virtue of having had to sit there with a pen and paper and think things through before writing them – with few correction options other than starting over!

As kids, my friends and I loved to play with print. Art supplies for doing hand lettering were popular children’s gifts: there were alphabet rubber stamps, stencils, press-on transfer letters, and alphabet stickers. Of course, with the latter two, you never seemed to get the right proportions, so you would run out of As and Es. My last name has 2 Zs so that was a lost cause! We tried to impress each other by drawing bubble letters, or making up other hand drawn “fonts.” As a preteen one of my favourite gifts was a calligraphy set – not too old-school though, because it had a fountain pen with screw-in nibs, and ink cartridges. I loved writing Italic on parchment! I am impressed by my artist kid who can draw perfect outlines with an old-fashioned fountain pen and bottled India ink.

I grew up on Crayola crayons and didn’t use coloured pencils routinely until I was 11 or 12. The quality of markers was terrible back then, and water-based markers barely existed except for the ones that came in your Doodleart kit! I really enjoyed buying my kid every kind of marker in existence – Copic Sketch professionals are now the marker of choice, but Link still can’t resist multi-colour packs of Sharpies.

Everyone of my generation remembers inhaling the chemicals from handout sheets at school which were printed on machines called ditto machines, mimeographs, or (brand name) Gestetner. Prior to the photocopying era, teachers had to get a master copy made (by the school secretary) and then “run off” copies, which had an odd colour from the aniline purple dyes used – there was no colour choice. Because of the set-up time involved, we didn’t get handouts on a daily basis. We envied the kids who got to use the ditto machine to create school newsletters, poetry mags and so on!

There was a real craze to personalize things in the 70s, since technologies to do so weren’t in everybody’s hands. Again, one of my favourite gifts was a set of stationery “engraved” with my name and address, used for sending personal letters through the mail to friends and relatives. The stationery would have had to be ordered from a printing house, like people used to do with wedding invitations, so that was a big deal. Another trend was personalized T-shirts. You could go to a T-shirt shop in the mall and choose a custom message to put on your shirt, and there was even a choice of a few typefaces. Now we know better than to put kids’ names on their shirts (the better for strangers to lure you, my dear!) Eventually I got my own Dymo labeller, a low-tech hand-held device that allowed you to print plastic labels for your possessions. It seems ridiculously simple now, but it allowed you to standardize your labels instead of hand-printing them.

1980s:

In high school I used my mom’s portable, non-electric Smith Corona typewriter to type short stories, poems and essays. It finally crashed when I was in university and certain letters would no longer print correctly. The machine was replaced with a succession of used electric (not electronic) typewriters. Our original machine had ribbons that allowed you to type in black or red, but of course you never used red because it reminded you of Jesus quotations! I was impressed when I first saw ribbons that had a correction band on them – you could backspace and type over your mistake in white. Manual typewriters had no word processing features that were later included on electric typewriters, such as automatic carriage return (ENTER button) or the ability to centre text (JUSTIFY options). That is why you still see seniors adding 50 spaces to the start of their paragraph to get it to move to the middle of the page 🙂

There was no possibility of copying anything at home or in home offices except with carbon paper. I was trying to think of how to explain carbon paper to someone who’d never seen it. To make a copy, you would write or type on a top sheet. Underneath you’d put a sheet of carbon paper, and under that, a blank piece of paper. The carbon paper had a dark pressure-sensitive surface on the back, which would transfer the letters to the blank page. You could put a sheet of carbon paper under every other blank page and make 2 or 3 copies at once. This was later replaced by carbonless paper, which  is still used for some duplicate cheques and receipts (do you remember sorting “pink copies” and “yellow copies” of these?) Carbonless paper had a lot of toxins and where used heavily, created sick office spaces. But then, you would have already been inhaling ditto machine fumes and black marker fumes for decades!

My university had a massive mainframe computer. Students could go to the library basement, type term papers on computer terminals, and press P for print. Many hours were lost and tears were shed over essays that failed to save or print.

I never used a stand-alone word processing machine, but the advent of word-processing on computers was astounding to anyone who grew up without it. You could correct as you went along, spell-check, and save your document to print later – whoa! Of course, you used Courier 10 as your default font – hard to believe now. Dot matrix printing made your Courier 10 look twice as bad because the low-resolution letters were made with highly visible dots. Plus, dot matrix printers had “continuous feed” paper rather than separate sheets of paper.  You had to print your document, then pull apart each sheet on the perforated line, and remove the line of punched holes that fed the paper through the printer. Weird to think of “assembling” your document after printing! But then, early photocopiers didn’t sort either, so you would have to stand there and sort out multi-page documents into piles, so that was an assembly job too.

When I started working as a librarian in 1987, my desk had a phone, a spike for messages, and a drawer of file folders. My workmates and I shared a typewriter. Before PCs and email, it took forever to conduct business – you were always playing phone tag or waiting for responses in the mail. I worked with people who remembered stenography and dictation machines. I remember creating posters and flyers which were hand-drawn and lettered. There was some Letraset in the office, but it was used sparingly because it was so expensive. Page layouts had to be done by hand and ruler. You would have to use the zoom feature on the Xerox machine (photocopier) to resize pictures, and then literally glue them to the page. Creating large-scale wall displays took forever. I am sure my productivity has increased 20-fold since those days!

1990s:

My first work computer was a terminal connected to a mainframe, and had amber type on a black screen. We had word processing and email and that’s it. It was a huge deal when the library’s card catalogue went to microfiche and then CD and then online! My first home computer, in 1992, was a Dell 386 with Windows 3.0 and it cost a fortune in proportion to one’s income at the time! My first experience with the Internet, in 1998, was through a text-only interface called Lynx: definitely not worth the trouble. It was a couple more years before we all “surfed in cyberspace” using a desktop and a mouse! Throughout the 90s, there was tension between office workers who were stuck in their old ways and those who embraced computing. Looking back, there was a real cultural shift: some staff had spent years doing admin support, and suddenly executives were doing all their own documents instantaneously.

One joy at the time was programs like Microsoft Publisher and Broderbund Print Shop, which finally allowed you to create professional layouts without paper and tape. A review of the 2001 edition of Print Shop warns, “You must surrender 670 MB of drive space!” You would get dozens of CDs with clip art on them, and you wouldn’t have enough space to load them, so you’d have to actually run them off the CDs and switch CDs as needed.

2000s:

Digital cameras started to go mainstream and photo editing applications came into their own. The default word processing  font became Times New Roman 12. iPods arrived bearing Apple’s Chicago font. Word processing and email became normal and expected at all workplaces. With the addition of cell phones and laptops, employees became available to their bosses 24/7. We started communicating through messaging and then texting. We started doing our banking and taxes and job applications and health claims online. Therefore we now live in a paperless world. NOT! Despite the increase in productivity and output created by personal computing, we felt a need to make a paper copy of everything, and did not trust any back-up systems. And, given overnight tape back-ups and the like, it was understandable that you felt your digital legacy could disappear at any time.

Today:

Nostalgia for paper and print prevails, but as a hobby rather than a necessity. The whole world is trained in the design principles of type faces, or so we think.

Here are the things I hand write:

  • Grocery lists
  • Short-term to-do lists
  • Phone numbers of people who leave me voice mails
  • Calculations – yes, I still do some without a calculator to keep me sharp 🙂
  • Things I want to remember to look up on Google later (e.g. the name of a song I heard on the radio)
  • Brief notes during web research, e.g. prices for comparison shopping
  • PDF forms that don’t allow me to type into them
  • Action items during meetings
  • My signature to authorize things

and that is all. As someone who grew up with the handwritten word, it is beyond the belief of my childhood self that this could ever happen. But would I turn back the clock? Nope. I am really happy that I got to experience print for so many years hands-on, and really happy that technology allows me to communicate instantly. So be it!

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7 comments

  1. Pingback: These Are a Few of My Favourite Things | An Exacting Life

  2. Fiona

    Ahh! The nostalgia from reading this! I remember how much we loooved to sniff those purple, ‘run off’ copies in Primary School. And how great was Letraset (yet so special and expensive.) I remember first seeing the Internet at a school in 1995. A teacher ran in and told me: “You HAVE to see this – it’s going to change schools forever!” and I thought she was being incredibly melodramatic!

    Those were the days. I’m still very interested as a teacher to read research about handwriting. Some say it’s a completely redundant skill…others say that the physical act of writing has an effect on learning and retention. I’m pretty old-school and still insist on good penmanship with my classes!

    • I would agree about handwriting, but I’m sure we’re a minority. I don’t know if schools teach keyboarding at a young age or if kids just pick it up? I never learned to type properly and my error rate is ridiculous. With spell check and auto correct, proof-reading may die out too (although Damn You, Auto Correct should prove it’s still needed).

  3. Oh there was a time without a myriad of readers/commenters for you. Who’d have throught. Even some of these memories are pertinent to young old me too! Even in 1996 my brother got thos epurple copied sheets from the French school in Vanuatu

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