Researching the 1880’s Newspaper Office


Composing sticks, tympans, and friskets…Oh My! What do these all have in common? 

They are all parts that make up an Old West newspaper office. 

When I decided to write Abigail White’s story as the last addition to The Oak Grove Series, my research into the early newspaper office of the 1880’s took me back to my local “living history village” where I was able to glean information on American small-town newspapers from our local historian and docent. As you can see — it was a foggy, damp, day in early March.

For a town like Oak Grove, situated on the Kansas plains, paper was ordered and arrived on large rolls by wagon or by train. Once delivered, it was cut to the desired size.


Type was made of a composite of cast iron and steel. The most common were Wisconsin type and Hamilton type. Type was stored in type-cases – large drawers with many different sized compartments. The higher or upper case held capital letters. The lower case held… you got it…lower-case type.

The composer stick was the width of the column that would be used in the paper. The one at Midway Village was manufactured in Chicago by the H.B. Rouse Company which was a common national supplier of these devices in the U.S. The type would first be arranged in this and then transferred to a large frame. 

The compositor or typesetter (or in my story – Abigail or her brother, Teddy White) – removes a piece of type from one of the compartments of the type case and places it in the composing stick. Not so difficult until you realize this had to be done working from left to right and bottom to top, placing the letters upside-down! Can you tell what this type says? (Answer at bottom of post.)

Composing Stick ~ Photo by Wilhei [CC BY 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The composer stick was the width of the column that would be used in the paper. The one at Midway Village was manufactured in Chicago by the H.B. Rouse Company which was a common national supplier of these devices in the U.S. The type would first be arranged in this and then transferred to a large frame. 

For pictures, the newspaper office would purchase a few etchings from a factory, and then used them in numerous ways. For example – an etching of pine trees to be used at Christmastime or a fancy United States Flag etching to be used on National Holidays such as the Fourth of July. Local companies that used the newspaper for sale announcements would have their own etchings made and supply them to the newspapers to be used frequently over the years.

Printer’s ink was oil-based, thick and tarry. It won’t spill if turned upside down. On cold days, the ink didn’t flow well and would become so thick that it would create a blob on the letters and thus on the paper if used. A blade would be used to scoop it up and spread it on a flat plate. Here you can see the round, disk-like flat plate.

Oak Grove Gazette Printing Press

With the linotypes of the 1870s and 1880s, “printer’s disease” was a danger.  It was contracted by working with lead in the linotype. The workers would absorb the lead through their skin and get lead poisoning. These types of printers were in the larger cities and so I didn’t make mention of it in Christmas With the Outlaw. The plate would be pressed against the letters and then against a piece of paper. A rhythm would start up, and if not very careful, the plate could easily smash fingers. For newspapermen, it was the middle two fingers that most often were smashed or severed.

A “galley proof” or test copy was always made before any further papers were printed. This was to ensure that the type had been set accurately. A piece of type could accidentally be stored in the wrong case and as rapidly as the apprentice had to work, it could end up being placed back into a composing stick. The metal type, being comparably soft, could also become damaged or worn.

A cylinder printing press

Once the galley proof was checked and last-minute corrections were incorporated, the type would be fixed in the frame to ready it for printing.

A rope stretched across the length of the newspaper office so that once printed, pages could be placed over the rope for drying. Once the ink was dry on the “front,” the back side of the paper could then be printed upon.

It was a dirty job and as you’ve read…could be dangerous. The large paper cutters could easily cut off fingers that got in the way! Newspaper men had ink-stained fingers and they often worked overnight to get the paper out in the morning.

In Christmas With the Outlaw (in A Western Christmas Homecoming Anthology,) siblings Teddy and Abigail put out a weekly paper along with flyers for town events. They inherited their printing press from their parents and transported it by wagon to Oak Grove, looking for a fresh start in a growing new town. Abigail is also the town reporter and takes her job seriously.

Oh yes! And the answer to the above type in the composing stick is:  

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog and feels
as if he were in the seventh heaven of typography. 

Leave a comment for your name to be entered into the drawing for an autographed copy of my just out ~

 A Western Christmas Homecoming!

Connect with Kathryn!



+ posts

36 thoughts on “Researching the 1880’s Newspaper Office”

  1. Oh WoW thanks for the info, gosh that was a tedious job. Don’t think I would have had the patience to do all that work of setting letters for and entire paper. Would love to read your story.

    • Hi Glenda,
      Thanks for stopping by! I think the “bottom to top and backwards” with placing the type in the composing stick would have been fun — at first! Kind of like putting a puzzle together. But then, of course, I’d probably have all sorts of errors on the first galley proof!

  2. Fascinating! I would love being a researcher. You learn the most amazing things. Thanks for the great post.

  3. Such an interesting and informative post. Amazing the work that went into getting a paper out. I don’t have that kind patience. 🙂

    • Hi Janine,

      So NICE to have you stop by! It always strikes me, that no matter the “work” there is always so much more to it once a person actually does it. I’m thinking of any house repairs or renovations I make around my house. There is always more to consider than just one thing!

  4. Thanks for this fascinating information. I loved learning how these newspapers were published. Getting the news wasn’t easy, was it?

  5. Interesting information and amazing as to how hard some of these jobs could be back then. The amount of manual effort. I can remember when offset printing first came to our vocational wing of my high school (because I was the editor of my high school paper and often, us kids in journalism had to do the printing also), it was a real effort and challenge, using the new type of printing. Still, such an advance over the old way of setting all the letters.

  6. I can not imagine having to pick out each item to write out whole articles for the paper… hoping not to make a mistake!

    • I hadn’t actually thought of that. It would probably make for sore fingers, stubby nails, blisters and then callouses on your fingertips after a few weeks. So, so, so much easier to type on a keyboard!

  7. It sounds like it would have taken a long time to print a paper then. I never thought of it as being dangerous though.

  8. It’s amazing what people created long ago and how it changes through the years. I would love to see the way they printed papers back in the 1800’s. It had to be a very hard and long job just to print one page. Thank you so much for sharing with us.

    • Hi Pam,

      So nice to have you join in today! So many jobs back then were more labor intensive. I’m thinking about when ice was chopped from the lakes in winter and stored in buildings in sawdust in order to preserve it until summer. So many things were like that!

  9. how wonderful to be able to do your research at the living history village.

    there’s a cool display at the Baltimore Museum of Industry with a Linotype machine (used for almost 100 years) and vintage printing presses. They have live demonstrations on the weekend.

    • Hi Denise,
      It would have been a big help for me to see one of those demonstrations! As it was, I surfed Youtube for some footage of working printing presses and that was helpful. Armchair research! But going to a museum would have been great.

  10. I have seen a number of old printing presses and the patience it took to print the news still amazes me.

  11. Kathryn, thank you for this fascinating post! Typesetting and researching the news seems like an overwhelming job.

  12. Oh this is a topic I just love. So it’s no surprise that I worked in publishing. Although I was an editor, I often visited our various printing plants around the country–always great visits.

    I also love printing history, having gone to Franklin Court Printing Office, Phila, Pa, Franklin Institute Science Museum, Phila, PA, Colonial Williamsburg, Va., Old Sturbridge Village, Mass., The Printing Office of Edes & Gill, Boston, Mass., Roanoke Press, Kill Devil Hills, NC, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and others I’ve likely forgotten.

    Thank you, Kathryn, for such a lovely blog, and for a chance to win an Oak Grove/Printing book!!!

    • Hi Eliza!

      Wow! You sure have been to a lot of printing places. It obviously is a passion of yours! I enjoyed my research — Heck…I always enjoy my research LOL. The best thing about writing my stories is that I get to meld my research and my story-telling. I think it helps make the story “come alive.” So glad to have you stop by!

  13. It has always amazed me how fast and accurately an experienced typesetter can do his or her job. It is an art that will likely someday be lost if those who admire the past do not keep it alive.
    I love anthologies and holiday selections are a favorite. A WESTERN CHRISTMAS HOMECOMING sounds like it will end up on my keeper shelf.

    • Hello Patricia!

      We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, right? All our human inventions … We had to start and then build on our earlier processes. I’m thinking, with newspapers, the earliest form of communication goes all the way back to verbal language and then the “invention” of writing it down. Paper…handwriting…type. And now computers. It’s mind-boggling!

      Thanks for joining in the conversation! So nice to have you here!

Comments are closed.