Days of lead and glue

I’ve spent a good portion of my life around newspapers. My comics have been running in The Union for almost nineteen years, which is amazing to me. Where does the time go?

Although there is a big gap in between, I also worked for the paper in my youth, first as a paperboy, and later as mail clerk and press assistant. I still remember those simpler times, sitting in the backroom rolling up papers with the other paperboys and watching how newspapers were put together. When I first started there, the paper was still being constructed using lead type. The production was done upstairs, where the molded lead columns were assembled on huge galleys and wheeled into a dumbwaiter. They were then lowered to the pressroom and loaded onto the ancient press, which usually broke down three or four times a day.

Eventually, the paper purchased a new off-set press, and the ponderous galleys were replaced with aluminum sheets. It didn’t matter, the press still broke down three or four times a day. I learned a lot of colorful adjectives and adverbs during that time.

Eventually, I graduated from paper delivery to the prestigious position of mail clerk. I was paid a dollar an hour and didn’t have to endure the elements anymore, unless you count the glue. The labeling gun was as ancient a tool as the old press. You had to mix the glue, which was held in a reservoir, and then load a roll of pre-printed address labels onto the rear of the device. The labels were advanced by pushing a gear with the thumb and then slapping the device onto the newspaper where it was snipped off and hopefully securely attached after passing through the glue reservoir.

It should have been simple, but it rarely was. Trying to get the perfect glue consistancy was an art I never quite mastered. If it was too wet, the labels would get soaked and stick together. If it was too dry the labels would fall off.

As I said, the press was a finicky brute, and I tended to have a lot of free time waiting for the pressmen to exorcise the demons by throwing curses and tools in the hope that the damn thing would do as it was told. I would run errands for the men upstairs in the newsroom. As anyone in journalism knows, newsrooms are incubators of cynicism and gallows humor. There was a bulletin board that used by the reporters as an outlet for these dark impulses, and there was always something funny to read.

All these years later, there is only one example that has stuck to my memory, possibly from the glue I ingested back then. Someone had taken a wire photo of Richard Nixon with his finger up his nose and posted it with the headline, NIXON PICKS AGNEW. It still cracks me up to this day.

Inspired by the reporters, I started a collage on the wall of my mailroom station. There was plenty of copy to manipulate, and no shortage of glue. It didn’t seem to bother anyone until I found a photo of a cornstalk growing through a crack in a sidewalk. The tag line proclaimed CORN IS WHERE YOU FIND IT. I searched around and found a similar font and glued the word “pot” over corn.

I was proud of my creation, but it didn’t go over so well with management. I was told to scrape my artistic endeavor off the wall, and shortly thereafter, I was demoted to junior pressman. But that’s another story for another day…

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4 Responses to Days of lead and glue

  1. Don Baumgart says:

    In high school in Spokane our journalism class toured the Spokesman-Review where we each were given a piece of lead with our name on it – in reverse. After college the Review became my job and my first full-page feature, set in lead, was edited to fit by me and a pressman who pulled the copy I selected to die. To this day old-time newspaper people still spell the beginning of a story the “lede” because the word “lead” meant “put in more space.” One of my finer moments came when another reporter handed me some copy written by my former high school journalism teacher. It was terrible!

    • rl Crabb says:

      In those days, lead wasn’t considered to be hazardous waste. There were piles of it lying around the office and the rear entrance to the building. I used to take it home, heat it up in an old soup can over a can of sterno and mold it into pendants and other things. Perhaps all that exposure led to my current status as village idiot. There are some in the community who think so.

  2. Don Pelton says:


    Thanks for the beginning of a great memoir. I hope you continue with these recollections, then eventually compile them into a book (illustrated, of course!). I’m sure any publisher would welcome it, but you might consider local publisher Dave Comstock if and when you’ve got it together.

    By the way, your anecdote about pasting the word “pot” over the word “corn” reminded me (for some reason which I can’t fathom) of an incident at Stanford shortly after the 1906 earthquake.

    The quake toppled a prominent statue in the Quad of Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz, in such a way that he landed exactly upside down, with his head stuck in the concrete. Later, a picture of the now hapless professor was printed in the student magazine with this caption:

    “Professor Agassiz was excellent in the abstract, but not so good in the concrete.”

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