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Ye olde editor remembers how newspapers once were printed

By Staff | Aug 30, 2008

I went to the State Fair on Friday, Aug. 22. So did 100,000 other people.

They went for the food, the fun and the activities.

I went to work in a fair ‘booth.’ Well, actually it’s a building, not a booth, but work was definitely involved.

If you know the State Fair at all, there is a spot north of the midway called “Heritage Square.” It has a lot of very interesting old time craft booths located there. There is even an old caboose which houses fair memorabilia.

But I digress.

Tucked way back in the far northwest corner of Heritage Square is a brick building called the Minnesota Letterpress Newspaper Museum.

It is owned by a branch of the Minnesota Newspaper Association called the Minnesota Newspaper Foundation, (MNF).

MNF is the education branch of our association. One way they educate the public about newspapers is to run this museum during the fair.

The building is filled with a lot of antique letterpress equipment, including a Miele press, newspaper folder and linotype machine.

Most of the equipment came out of the Maynard News newspaper office in Maynard which is on Highway 23 between Marshall and Willmar.

The building has a sign on it proudly proclaiming it to be the office of the Maynard News.

What is more amazing is that each day of the fair, volunteers publish an issue of the Maynard News on this antique equipment.

So for the 12 days of the State Fair, Minnesota has another daily newspaper.

On that Friday I was one of the half dozen volunteers working hard on printing that day’s newspaper.

It takes us all day to do it because we don’t work very fast. That is because our primary mission is not to get the paper out, but rather to talk to all of the visitors to the museum, and tell them how newspapers used to be produced.

Most are fascinated. Some are familiar with the machinery. Some stay and visit a long time. Others take a look and go.

We have copies of the newspaper, printers hats, bookmarks and postcards (printed on site). All of it is free for the taking.

Some folks are disappointed the Maynard News we print each day is not filled with information about the fair. It isn’t.

Since it is a museum devoted to newspapers, the Maynard News is filled with stories about newspaper topics, both historical and current.

Most years I have gone there to work I have run the folder.

The newspaper is only four pages. It is printed flat, two pages on each side of the newsprint sheets.

After they are dry, a person has to feed the pages into the folding machine, one sheet at a time.

This time I only briefly worked the folder, and received a promotion – a chance to try the press and the linotype.

The linotype machine is my favorite. I am in awe of how it works.

A full description would fill this page, but basically it is a typesetting machine which uses brass matrices (molds) of letters, and hot melted lead to form a ‘line of type’ – hence the name.

It has a 96-letter keyboard with keys for both upper and lower case letters. It resembles a modern keyboard a little, but actually has the letters in different order.

Watching it operate is fascinating. It is full of hydraulic moving parts, noisy, and hot – a pot on the machine constantly melts the lead.

The machine was invented in 1884 by Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German clock maker who had come to America in 1872.

In 1886 the first linotype was installed in the New York Tribune newspaper. From there it spread across the U.S.

This new typesetting machine revolutionized the printing industry. Before it came on the scene, printers set their type one letter at a time, by hand.

Linotypes and letterpress printing were mainstays in newspaper offices all the way to the 1960s.

After that, a method of printing called offset was the next big step. Of course, in the 1980s computers arrived and made as big of an impact as the Linotype had a hundred years earlier.

We doubt, however, that Mergenthaler became the richest man in America, like Bill Gates did.

Rumor has it he went insane – probably from working so hard on his complicated machine.