Printing Techniques

Do You Speak Handset Type?

This stop-motion video by Lynn Kiang isn’t so much about letterpress printing as it is about where typesetting terminology came from. To understand the nomenclature, it helps to see how type used to be made out of wood or metal. Terms like “upper case” and “lower case” harken back to the days of handset type when capital letters were stored in the upper section of the typecase and small letters in the lower case. Around 1886, the invention of the Linotype speeded up typesetting, letting typesetters keyboard in the text, which was cast out of molten metal one line of type at a time. Depending on the design, these hot-metal “slugs” would either be “leaded out” by placing thin sheets of metal between the lines or closed up by “taking the lead out.” When all the type was set in layout form within a metal frame (“chase”), the printer “locked it up” and “put the job to bed” on the bed of the letterpress. These terms have become industry jargon, but in the age of digital typography, their origin has become lost. This video, set to the soundtrack from “West Side Story,” is a great little primer. Lynn Kiang, an M.F.A. student in graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design, named her video “Type High,” which means the height of the type from the face to the foot.

One thought on “Do You Speak Handset Type?

  1. Very nice piece. I work in the Open Book literary arts center in Minneapolis where the Minnesota Center for Book Arts has a great collection of handset type. Using the new Fujifilm X-100 camera, we shot this stop motion video with type from MCBA on the art of digital innovation: http://vimeo.com/26781916

Leave a Reply