Chronicles of the Printing Press
By Shannon Wilson
When curator Richard Burmeister invited me in, I felt like I had stepped into a time capsule and landed in Grahamstown in the 19th century. The floor was dark brown and wooden; there was a hint of turpentine in the air and the furniture looked foreign. The small metal, block letters in trays lining the room intrigued me. Burmeister explained how these were used to make the words that were printed in the Eastern Star four-page newspaper. Someone had put the letters into a block individually and upside down, a task considerably more difficult than typing on a keyboard and having words magically appear on the screen in front of you. Burmeister noted that skilled workers, who put the letters into blocks and then printed them, were paid well for their skills. Perhaps this is one of the reasons journalists make less money now then they did when the Eastern Star newspaper produced its first copy on 6 January 1871.
The Eastern Star Museum is located on Anglo African Street in Grahamstown, a place that I must have driven past a hundred times in the past year. The exterior is cream in colour with a delicate sign, but the interior is darker, with antique brown worktables, metal grey keys and black ink. The machinery works as effectively as modern technology and it is fascinating to see how things once worked in the Grahamstown news world. In bygone days, the office was predominantly made up of men, injuries occurred fairly regularly due to dangerous machinery, and it took much longer for news to be produced compared to the hourly bulletins we are now used to.
The individual letters, known as swords, were swopped in for slugs as time went on. Slugs were blocks of metal that were produced in short sentences to increase printing process speed and ensure that fewer mistakes were made. A person would put in the sentence and a machine would punch in the letters to make sentences. “Hot off the Press” is not just a slogan.
The pictures we are so accustomed to seeing in our modern newspapers were few and far between back then. Printing pictures was difficult as it meant that a sculpture had to carve the picture into a metal block backwards with intricate detail, and so the newspapers mainly consisted of writing.
Behind the Eastern Star Museum’s door is a world where there are no pictures in the paper, an enlightening perspective on how news was once printed and delivered and an appreciation of technology.