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wooden trays, Picas, metal strips, typographers, type sizes

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Typesetting, the arrangement of individual characters of a particular typeface into words, sentences, paragraphs, and so on, for the purpose of printing and publishing. The designer, or typographer, selects the typeface, designs the page format, and makes copy-fitting calculations to ensure a readable and attractive publication that is economical to produce. For a basic text typesetting job, the designer provides a set of specifications—the type and particular size to be used; the measure, or line length; the method of justification (spacing the letters and words so that the margins are even); and the amount of interlinear spacing. Additional instructions are necessary for the setting of front matter (title page, table of contents, and so on) and end matter (bibliography and index, for example). After all type has been set, it is usually proofed (a printed sample made) and read for accuracy.

Picas and Points

Typesetting specifications rely on two units of measurement, the point and the pica. One point is equal to 0.013837 in. (0.0351 cm), or about 1/72 in., and is commonly used to specify type sizes and interlinear spacing. One pica is equal to 12 points—about 1/6 in. The pica is used by typographers to specify line length, margins, page depth, spacing, and so on. In most situations, interlinear spacing called leading is used. The term is a throwback to the days when thin metal strips, usually of lead, each 2 points in thickness, were inserted between lines of type.

Composition by Hand

For nearly 500 years, from the middle of the 15th century to the 1950s, the bulk of typesetting was done with type made of metal. Until the end of the 19th century, a printer typically would purchase fonts (complete sets of type) of particular styles and sizes of type from a typefounder in quantities sufficient to accomplish the job in hand. Such foundry type was sorted by character into type cases—wooden trays divided into small compartments of varying sizes. The compositor, or typesetter, used a composing stick—a shallow, narrow metal tray adjusted to a specified measure—into which the characters would be set to form words. Each word was separated from the next by a metal space not quite type-high. The lines of composed type would then be arranged on long trays called galleys, proofed, and corrected. Next, the type matter would be assembled into pages in an operation called imposition, and locked into position on a relief printing press, or letterpress.


Pankow, David, M.A., M.L.S.

Assistant Professor, School of Printing, Rochester Institute of Technology; Curator, Melbert B. Cary, Jr., Graphic Arts Collection.

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