Founding Fathers Blog

Ben Franklin — Mind Your P’s and Q’s

October 24th, 2011

Benjamin FranklinA few years ago my wife, my son and I traveled in New York State. One small town we stopped at was Palmyra, near the “Finger Lakes.” In that town there is now a restored place of business known as “The Grandin Press and Print Shop.” The owner of that shop had the most advanced printing press of the times in 1830. It was not much different from the printing press on which Benjamin Franklin printed his “Poor Richard’s Almanac” in the 1750’s. The printing press may have been somewhat improved, but the actions required by the printer was nearly the same.

It was fun, educational and interesting to see this print shop and envision Benjamin Franklin as a young printer. The shop had reproductions of not only the press, but also the cases (don’t call them drawers) to hold the letters which would be individually manually placed in the press to create the handbill, newspaper, advertisement, or book pages to be printed.

These cases were about 2 1/2′ X 3 1/2′ and about 4″ deep as I recall. In other words, they were quite large. They were divided into small spaces to hold the actual pre-molded metal letters to be transferred to the press for the printing job at hand. These cases were stacked in a holding form about 6 to 10 feet from the press itself.

There were as many cases in the shop as would be needed for different printing styles or fonts. For each font there were two cases. The case higher on the rack, or uppercase, was to hold the capital letters, the one underneath it on the form would hold the regular or smaller letters. Hence the terminology “upper case” for capital letters, and “lower case” for regular letters. These terms, upper case and lower case, originated in the early days of the printing press used with movable type in letterpress printing.

When someone was typesetting (laying out the letters, know as composition) they would pull out two cases which were the same font, but one case would be the larger capital letters the printer would use to start sentences, names, as well as the punctuation, and so on. The other case would be the smaller letters.

When the printing was to be composed, the printer or apprentice, would move the proper cases to a nearer table or stand, which usually was angled from the back to the front to allow easier access to the proper letter, be it upper or lower case. An apprentices task was to disassemble, and redistribute the used type to the relevant cases. That was known as “dissing”, which seems to have taken on a new meaning today. Lazy apprentices sometimes mixed up the used letters so they would have to be reviewed and replaced into the right box from time to time.

As you can well imagine, these letter cases were quite heavy and unwieldy. Most printers assistants (which is how Ben started out) would carry one case at a time, with both hands. Oh the trouble if you should happen to drop a case and mix up the letters! What you may not know, is that Benjamin Franklin was such a good athlete, and such a strong young man, he would usually carry both cases at one time, balanced on each hand. And he rarely dropped a case.

Yes, Ben was an athlete. He was a wrestler and a great swimmer. No he didn’t participate in organized sports such as baseball, basketball or football — they had yet to be invented.

When Ben was learning to be an apprentice or printer’s assistant, he had to be reminded to “watch your p’s and q’s.” Those letters were close to each other in the font form and they were very similar. A ‘p’ had it’s long stroke on the right side, while a ‘q’ had the long stroke on the left side. The compositor takes the letter block from the compartments and places them in a composing stick, working from left to right and placing the letters upside down with the ‘nick’ at the top, and then sets the assembled type in a galley. So a compositor is essentially working letters upside down and backwards.

Therefore the printer, or his assistant, had to use care not to pick up the wrong letter. That’ where that old saying comes from. “Mind your P’s and Q’s.”

If you are traveling in upstate New York, you will find it interesting to stop in Palmyra and visit the Grandin Press and Print Shop. Such a visit will help you understand printing as it was in Benjamin Franklin’s time. You will understand more about Ben the printer.

One of the most interesting things Ben printed as a young printer was his own epitaph. You can find this in The Benjamin Franklin Autobiography. Although this epitaph wasn’t actually used on his gravestone when he died, I know you will appreciate the language he used. In it you can not only see Ben’s cleverness as a writer, but also get a view of his belief in Christ and the resurrection.

It reads like this:

The body of
B. Franklin, printer
(like the cover of an old book,
Its contents torn out
And stripped of it lettering and gilding)
Lies here food for worms,
But the work will not be lost;
For it will (as he believed) appear once more
In a new and more elegant edition,
Revised and corrected
By the Author.

[Founding Fathers–Uncommon Heroes, page 34-34]

1 Comment

  1. I ALWAYS learn something new when I pick up and read something you have written Steve. Something important about important people and important events.

    Comment by Shirlyn Allen — December 22, 2011 @ 9:04 am

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