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Weighty Words of Yesteryear

Vintage-40s-UNDERWOOD-Standard-Manual-Typewriter-Art-Deco-_57Nowadays, thanks to the internet (which has lost its capital letter in the AP stylebook, for becoming too ordinary) and our numerous computers, smartphones, and other devices, our words flit from device to device to publication as light as their weight in electrons.

But as we veterans of the 20th century know, it wasn’t always that way. There was a time, back before anyone had thought of cluttering our (literal) desktops with computers, when our words were always hard copy, beginning with ink on paper and ending with metal lines of type an inch tall.

If you wrote for a newspaper in, say, 1960, your chief tool was nothing electronic. No, you worked a manual typewriter, more likely than not using just two of your fingers (touch typing not yet part of a journalist’s education). There were Royals, Smith-Coronas, and Underwoods, among others. (My favorite was one I bought for myself, a beautiful reconditioned 1940s Underwood Standard with Art Deco streamlines along the sides.) When reporters were at work, newsrooms were noisy.

By the 1960s there were plenty of electric typewriters, but not often in newsrooms. You had to have strength in your fingers to press each key firmly enough to strike the ribbon and leave an imprint on the paper rolled onto the platen. You’d make lots of mistakes as you typed, but that didn’t matter. They were easy to correct.

You double or triple spaced, not on beautiful stationery but on newsprint, sometimes half sheets. It wasn’t pretty. But it wasn’t supposed to be.

No, it was supposed to be legible, and amenable to correction.

And correction didn’t mean erasing. I don’t remember any erasers in pre-electronic newsrooms. Erasures could make a page illegible. Never erase, just cross out and insert.

The all-purpose tool for editing, correcting, and improving copy was a beautiful soft-leaded Mirado No. 1 pencil, black inside and outside. And without an eraser.

The writer and editor made many marks with that No. 1, an L-shaped mark for every new paragraph (even if the paragraph was already indented on the typed page), a circle around any abbreviation that was to be spelled out and a circle around any spelled-out word that was to be abbreviated, and many more.

Paper and pencil weren’t what made your words so weighty, of course. That happened when the marked-up paper was delivered to a union typesetter. What happened then deserves a column of its own.

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