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Miracle on Wednesdays

by Fred Gaskins

When the Mathews-Middlesex Herald was founded in 1896, newspapers of one form or another had been around for a while, but the method of producing them had changed little over several centuries.

Romans had their scrolls as early as 59 B.C. and the Chinese had developed block type and published the world’s first known book in 868 A.D., but the newspaper revolution really 
began when Johann Gutenburg introduced movable type during the 15th century in Germany.

At the new Herald, and for over 20 years after it became the Southside Sentinel, the paper was printed primarily with moveable type. Words were composed one letter at a time, by hand.

The rest of the work was tedious as well, all performed with muscle power, and mostly on Wednesday.

For most of its existence, the local paper has published on Thursdays. Readers have expected it to be there on that day, and it has hardly ever failed to arrive.

To make it so, however, some amazing things have happened in the newspaper office on Wednesdays, and even early Thursday mornings.

Even the current staff, following a particularly hectic week, breaths a sigh of relief after what they call the “Miracle on Wednesday.”

Our forebears would probably tell us we have it pretty easy these days, however.

In the beginning

The late editor Carl R. Tomlinson was one of the original employees when the new Mathews-Middlesex Herald was established, according to a column he wrote in 1950. He described himself as being the printer’s “devil” in 1896, the industry term for a new employee just learning the trade.

He said the paper began with an old Washington hand press, some old type cases and other outmoded equipment, all brought to Urbanna from West Point by Capt. Joe Hurley’s mule team.

Most of the time, the paper contained four pages each week.The front and back pages contained material provided by a syndicate. Local items, all set with hand type, appeared on pages two and three.

Tomlinson said the first compositor was R. B. Edwards, and hopefully he was trained in his profession. The type cases had several drawers, each containing a different type face.

Typically, the drawer was divided into 89 compartments to house the different lower case and upper case letters, numerals, punctuation marks, etc.

To set type efficiently, one had to know exactly where each piece of type was located. They weren’t in any alphabetical order.

The type, including spaces between each word, was placed in a type stick set to the proper width. When an article or advertisement was complete, the type was most likely inked and some sort of impression made so that it could be proofread.

Later, all of the items were locked together in large metal chase to form the full page, ready for printing.

This had to be a scary time. Everything had to fit just right, or hours and hours of work could go tumbling onto the floor when the chase was moved to the press. 

Once the paper was printed, the pages had to be “broken down” and the type replaced in the proper compartments, ready to begin work on the next issue.

Ink on paper

Washington hand presses, perfected in the 1820’s, brought journalism to the remotest corners of America. The one that arrived in Urbanna in 1896 had most likely been used somewhere else since faster cylinder presses were rapidly replacing these models throughout the country.

The Washingtons were indeed slow. Once the two full page forms were in place, the type was most likely inked by hand with a brayer and a flat sheet of newsprint placed over it. An impression was made by pulling a lever which forced a flat platen against the paper.

The procedure was repeated for every impression, and each sheet was hung over a frame to dry until the reverse side of the sheet could be printed.

The completed paper then had to be folded, most likely by hand in the early days.

Shortly after Walter Ryland and several partners acquired the paper at the beginning of 1897, Tomlinson said the Washington press was traded for a Campbell cylinder press, “and we really thought we had something.”

He wrote, “This press was turned by hand by an old colored man, Allen Reed. At his death, Preston Gaines presided over the crank handle. For this locomotive work, which required about two hours to print 500 papers, 50 cents was paid, which was considered at that time very good wages.”

Power was added to the press later, but not without a few trials and errors. Tomlison recalled that Ryland’s partner, H. Jeter Haydon, tried to hook up a Palmer engine to the press. “The day the trial was to be made, the town folks were invited to witness the feat. Unfortunately the power was too much for the press and also too swift, and practically the first revolution shot the bed of the press nearly out the front door.”

When Ryland died and Tomlinson and Julian Brown took over in 1916, they acquired a better press which dould be run by power. Somewhere along the line, the Sentinel also acquired a mechanical folder to fold the large sheets of newsprint after they were printed.

Among those who assisted at the Sentinel on Wednesday nights, wild tales are told about paper floating around the press room, charged with static electricity, and efforts to control it with yards and yards of tinsel. The folding machine, particularly, would gobble up and mangle such sheets without mercy.

About the syndicates

Syndicates became popular during the Civil War, according to an account in From Quill to Computer, The Story of America’s Community Newspapers, by Robert F. Karolevitz. For many of America’s pioneering newspapers, the syndicates created ready-to-print sheets already filled with national and state news on one side and the other left blank for the local printing of local news.

When the Herald began, it is believed that the syndicated material was shipped in by steamboat on lead stereotype plates which could be “edited” with a saw in case local news and advertisements were available for the front or back pages.

The first Mathews-Middlesex Herald, however, contained syndicated material entirely on its front and back pages.

To reduce the cost of preparing the material, syndicates also included advertising on their pages. “They sought products of univeral appeal, and that resulted in a preponderance of promotional material for patent medicines, dollar-a-bottle elixers and questionable quackery gadgets,” wrote Karolevitz.

He noted that many of the potions widely advertised contained more than 25 percent alcohol, including Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound for women (an item advertised in the first Herald).

The first Herald also includes an advertisement for Kilmer’s Swamp Root which “cures all kidney and bladder problems.” Ironically, the son of that company’s founder would later purchase land in Middlesex and establish a horse farm here that was home to 1918 Kentucky Derby winner, Exterminator.

The Kilmer legend lives on through the community of Remlik, which is Kilmer spelled backwards.

The Eighth Wonder

The composition and printing of the now Southside Sentinel continued pretty much unchanged until 1923, when Tomlinson and Brown acquired a larger press which would print four pages on one side of a sheet and another four on the reverse. The Sentinel became an eight-page paper each week.

Another major advance occured at the same time: the Sentinel acquired its first Linotype machine. Described by Thomas Edison as “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Linotype speeded composition by being able to create an entire line of type at once. The tedious process of setting type by hand was reduced to a minimum or eliminated completely.

Again after some trial and error by others, the Linotype had been invented by Otto Merganthaler in 1886. The 2,300-pound machine was a maze of gears and cams with a keyboard design that would baffle any normal typist.

The machine used an alphabet of brass matrices and space bands, each of which fell into place with a touch of the mysterious keyboard. When the line of words and spaces was complete, melted lead was forced against them, the lead instantly hardened, and a mold of the letters was created. The matrices and spaces ingeniously returned to their proper places to be used again and again.

The lead slugs were placed in the same types of metal chases for printing, then the lead was re-melted for use in creating the next week’s paper. 
During this era, some photographs began appearing in the Sentinel, although most were supplied by syndicates or other outside sources. Local photos were few since expensive engraving equipment needed was in far off cities.

Line art and special headings used in advertisements soon became available on cardboard molds, or mats. Using a special casting box, melted lead was forced against the molds to create the castings and they were mounted on wood blocks to be printed.

Hot type to cold type

The death in 1961 of Julian Brown, the editor and Linotype operator at the Sentinel, brought on several changes. Apparently no full time Linotype operator could be found who would stick with the job very long. Moonlighters from other papers and transients (often driven to drink) kept things going for several years, but it eventually got so bad that items for the paper had to be taken to a Richmond trade shop for typesetting.

Luckily, a new “offset” printing process was sweeping the country, and in 1967 the Sentinel decided to join the bandwagon. Through the new photographic process, pages could be created by typing the news, headlines and advertisements on plain paper, then cutting and pasting them into position on a full page layout. The entire page was then photographed, creating a negative from which the printing plate was made.

The composition method switched from “hot” lead type to “cold” type on paper.

The Sentinel began its offset production with a set of two Friden Justowriters to prepare the news copy. The first Justowriter, on which the articles were typed, produced a punched paper tape. The tape was then feed to the second Justowriter which “justified” the lines and printed them on plain paper using a carbon ribbon.

Headlines and advertisements were created one line at a time on a Headliner machine which used 35mm photographic paper. Letters were made from negatives encased in a circular piece of plastic. One simply dialed in the letter to be used, flipped a switch to turn on a light and expose it to the paper, and moved on to the next letter.

At the end of a session, a lever was flipped to cut the exposed paper from the cassette that had enclosed it, and the paper proceeded through developing solutions until it emerged from the side of the machine, soaking wet.

All of the items were coated with wax, trimmed with scissors and knives, and placed on the page. The wax coating allowed the items to be moved and rearranged several times if desired. This procedure is still in use.

Photographs were much easier to use with the new offset process and their reproduction was much clearer than with the old letterpress method. A variety of inks also were available and in the first offset issue published June 15, 1967 — over 71 years after the paper began — red spot color was used for the first time.

On the road

The purchase of a large offset press to print the Sentinel was not feasible, and that meant another big change: For the first time in over 71 years, the newspaper began to be printed at another location.

The procedure became common among rural papers across the nation. In many cases, several papers would join forces and purchase one press to print all of the papers. The “central plant” concept was begun, and continues today.

For several years beginning in 1967 the Sentinel was printed at the daily Star-Exponent in Culpeper. Wednesday night meant a new adventure. The drive was two hours each way and we waited three or four hours before the papers rolled off the speedy web press and were loaded in our truck.

Once the preliminary photography and platemaking were completed, the actual printing of the paper required only about 20 minutes. The press used large rolls of paper, printed both sides on a single pass and delivered the papers all folded and ready for addressing.

In contrast, the process on the now-retired flatbed cylinder press at the Sentinel took most of a day. The size was still limited to eight pages; four were printed on one side of a sheet, and later the other four were printed on the reverse side. Then the large sheets had to be sent through the ornery folding machine.

Nevertheless, the trips to Culpeper, through rain, wind, snow, and always the dark of night, resulted in some long Wednesday nights, which often stretched into early Thursday morning.

Later the Sentinel switched to the printing plant at the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg, and then to the Gazette-Journal in Gloucester. Today it is again printed in Williamsburg.

The computer age

In 1975, the Sentinel entered the computer age by replacing its old strike-on Justowriters and Headliner with a Compugraphic composing system. It included two computer terminals at which employees typed in the news, headlines and advertising material. The information was then sent to a separate typesetter which recorded it on photographic paper, later loaded into a processor for developing and drying.

The materials were then trimmed with scissors and knives, waxed and positioned on the pages.

The real computer revolution at the Sentinel began in 1989 with the arrival of Apple Macintosh computers. The Macintosh gained favor because of its capabilities in the graphic arts arena and the early WSIWG (what you see is what you get) software available for the machines. This later proved valuable in advertising composition because entire ads could be composed and printed, ready for paste-up without trimming.

At the Sentinel, Macintoshes first were used in the newsroom, replacing old typewriters and even handwritten news copy. An unwieldy interface system was required to convert Macintosh files to Compugraphic output while the old photographic typesetter remained in use.

Later in 1989 the photographic typesetter was retired in favor of a new laser printer which used plain paper. Expensive photographic paper and the chemicals used to process it were no longer needed.

At the same time, the advertising and circulation departments obtained Macintosh computers and the entire system was networked so the machines could communicate with each other and send files to the printer. Accounting and billing procedures were added later, and a computer can now be found on virtually every desk in the office.

G. F. Palmer and Walter Ryland probably wouldn’t believe it.

The second century

When the year 2096 rolls around, the girations described above will probably seem hilarious to our successors. If technological advances continue at the current pace, drastic changes in the way news is delivered may occur even within the next two decades, however.

Since spot color hit the scene in 1967, technology has advanced to the point that each issue of the Sentinel now includes full color photographs on the front page. Black and white photographs may soon be a thing of the past.

Film faces the same destiny. Digital cameras are now on the scene which capture images electronically. The images can be downloaded to computers for viewing, adjusting and printing, and the camera reused again and again. Some models include removable disks on which the images are stored.

The resolution of most such cameras does not yet equal that of film, however, and digital photos in large sizes do not reproduce well on newsprint. Still, high resolution digital camera are used daily on large metropolitan papers.

Middlesex County is wired, as is most of the world, and that is leading to another revolution in communication. Phones and televisions are in virtually every home. When linked with computers or another type of interactive device, contact and information dissemination is immediate.

Today we call it the Internet. Through your phone line, it links your computer to every other computer.

Computers are now outselling television sets, and as more and more homes in Middlesex acquire the new technology an electronic version of the Southside Sentinel is inevitable.

Could the U.S. Postal Service bite the dust? Many computer users are now corresponding electronically; we call it e-mail (electronic mail). Type a letter, find the party’s e-mail address, click a button and the letter is there, ready for the other party to read.

From your computer you will soon be able to submit news articles and advertisements, or order a subscription to the Sentinel via e-mail.

Will there still be a paper to curl up with in your favorite easy chair? Past futurists predicted the end of newspapers when radios invaded every household, and again when television saturated the airways. Particularly in rural areas like ours, we predict the traditional newspaper will be around many more years, along with electronic versions you can read on your “wrist receiver.”

That’s one prediction. In reality, your guess is as good as ours, but the Sentinel will continue to deliver the local news as conveniently as possible.

Of course, we’re assuming everyone will still know how to read in 2096.

More historical information may be viewed by clicking on these links to stories published in 1996 during the Sentinel’s centennial celebration:


posted 07.17.2008