X Is for X-Acto Knife

I was going to feature an image of my two X-Acto knives, a #1 and a #2, in their plastic case, but case and knives have vanished from the drawer where I keep miscellaneous office supplies. Could they be hiding somewhere else in this not-very-large studio apartment? Could I have lent or given them to someone? No idea.

Here’s what a #2 X-Acto looks like.

What I wanted to blog about was how we produced documents in the days before the digital age made it all a helluva lot easier. My X-Actos may have vanished, but I still have a few relics from back then, so here goes.

In my antiwar movement and student government days, late 1960s and early ’70s, photocopiers were generally inaccessible to us scruffy activist types, so to make multiple copies of anything we had to prepare a stencil and run it on (usually) a mimeograph or (sometimes) a Gestetner machine. What I recall most vividly about the Gestetner is its penchant for unexpectedly spewing ink in all directions.

Typos were a bear to correct on a mimeograph stencil, so accuracy at the keyboard was a plus. I didn’t learn how to type till several years later, after I learned that female liberal arts graduates were pretty much unemployable without clerical skills. Nevertheless, in college I did make some money typing papers for my fellow students, who realized that though I might type with my two forefingers, I would also correct their grammatical and spelling errors as I went. I didn’t know what an editor was at that point, but clearly I was on the way to becoming one.

In those days the guys did the writing and public speaking; the girls did the typing and ran the various duplicating machines. Supposedly the guys were innately adept at things mechanical, but when the mimeograph or the Gestetner jammed or otherwise screwed up, the guys were nowhere to be found so of course the girls figured out how to do it ourselves. This was a contributing factor to the rise of the women’s liberation movement and the decline of the (male) New Left. Feminism meant, among other things, that though we still ran the machines, we also got to write the stuff we printed on them.

Not only did we publish broadsides and pamphlets, we established print shops, like the Women’s Press Collective in Oakland and the Iowa City Women’s Press (guess where that was), whose technological capacity went way beyond mimeographs. They published magazines and books that included graphics and photographs and, eventually, four-color covers.

In the mid-1970s, now a competent typist, I got my first proofreading job, working on contract jobs for the company that published my hometown’s weekly newspaper. The production process was a complicated hybrid of technologies. I worked nights, usually alone in the office with the typesetter. Early in the evening Dave the production manager was still around. A generation older than I and my college colleagues, he was adept at fixing cranky machines.

The process went something like this, to the best of my recollection (which I confess is a little fuzzy in places). I sat at what looked like a contemporary desktop computer only clunkier, and it came with a couple of gizmos on the side that I don’t remember very well because I haven’t seen anything like them since. The typesetter’s  machine was a glorified IBM Selectric typewriter, or so I recall it, though I’m sure it had a monitor attached. It used a special ball that produced manuscript pages with what looked like a running barcode under the letters.

I would feed these pages into one of my gizmos, whereupon the copy would magically appear on my monitor, usually with a fair number of @@@@@@, which meant that the gizmo hadn’t read the barcode correctly. I’d correct these and other spelling and punctuation errors on my screen, then when it all looked good, I’d hit the equivalent of Send or Print or Enter and out of another gizmo would come a long punched tape. Here’s one of the relics from my drawer, showing the hole pattern for each letter and command. It looked a little like Braille, only with holes instead of raised dots.

I would then take the tape over to the humongous phototypesetting machine, which I think was a CompuGraphic, thread it properly (sort of like threading film in a pre-digital movie projector, or a chain through a bicycle’s rear derailleur); and press a button.

This step produced film in a sealed container, which then had to be fed through a developer. At long last, down the sloping front of the developer would come the galley proofs.

This process was laborious and time-consuming enough that we were not about to repeat it for every little correction — and yes, I did catch on the proofs typos I’d missed on the screen. This is where I became adept with X-Acto knife, straight edge, and Scotch tape. If two letters or two words had to be transposed, I’d carefully cut them out of the galley with knife and straight edge, apply tape to the back of the galley with the sticky side showing through, then use the tip of the knife to replace letters or words in the correct order.

line gauge

A line gauge, aka pica stick, makes an excellent straight edge, and you can measure with it too.

Presstype

My steady hand and reasonably accurate eye served me well in the years that followed, when I was active in various feminist groups in Washington, D.C.  We produced flyers and short documents using a combination of typewriting and presstype — rub-on transfer lettering that came in a wide variety of fonts and sizes, including dingbats, ornaments and symbols that could be used to make a page of unrelenting type more visually appealing.

me checking newspaper pages

Me, checking the boards at the Martha’s Vineyard Times, October 1993. Paste-up was still being done manually. Those “boards” were what went to the printer to be turned into a newspaper.

Also available was Formaline rub-on tape, which came in various widths and was used to put borders around text or graphics, or to separate stories from each other. It was still in use in my early newspaper days, late 1980s and early ’90s, before manual paste-up gave way to digital layout.

By this time photocopiers were widely available in offices, though prohibitively expensive for shoestring organizations and businesses. Those of us with office jobs used the office copier for movement work whenever we could, and “liberated” essential supplies from the supply room as needed. Especially coveted were carbon sets and Wite-Out correction fluid.

Proportion scale

Jobs that required serious graphic quality and more than a few copies went to the local women-run print shop. Preparing clean camera-ready copy required all of the above skills, plus an eye for layout. Photographs and other illustrations often had to be sized to suit the design.

With this handy-dandy proportion wheel you could choose the desired height or width of your graphic element, then figure out what the other dimension would be and how much space to allow for it.

Word-processing and layout apps have superseded most of the tools I used in my younger days. I can make multiple copies of pages to take to my writers’ group and they’re all as clean as the original — there is no original except the Word file on my computer. Fixing errors is easy, but catching them is still hard.

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