How Magazine Pages Were Created Before Computers: A Veteran of the London Review of Books Demonstrates the Meticulous, Manual Process

The London Review of Books is celebrating its 40th anniversary, but somehow the magazine has always felt older than that: not like the product of a stuffier age, but of a more textually and intellectually lavish one than the late 1970s. Pick up an early issue and you'll see that, as much as it has evolved in the details, the basic project of the LRB remains the same: publishing essays of the highest quality on a variety of subjects literary, political, and otherwise, allowing their writers a length sufficient for proper engagement of both subject and reader, and — perhaps most admirably of all — refusing, in this age of internet media, to burden them with semi-relevant pictures and clickbait headlines.

"Much in those early numbers still looks fresh," writes Susannah Clapp, who worked at the LRB during its first thirteen years. "But the apparatus and surroundings that produced them seem antique. Typewriters. Letters covered in blotches of Tipp-Ex, for which the office name was 'eczema.' No screens; hand-drawn maps for layout; tins of Cow Gum." The cow gum was an essential tool of the trade for Bryony Dalefield, who since 1982 has worked "pretty near continuously" for the LRB as what's called a "paste-up artist." In the video above, she describes how her job — whose title remains "pleasingly still in the vocabulary in the digital age" — once involved "literally cutting up copy and pasting it onto a board so it could be sent to the printers and photographed for printing."




Dalefield doesn't just recount the process but performs it, summoning a presumably long-dormant but well-honed suite of skills to paste up a current page of the LRB just as she did it in the 80s. First she takes the text of an article, fresh from the print shop, and cuts it into columns with scissors. Then she spreads the Cow Gum, with its "strong petrol smell," to fix the columns to the board, fearing all the while that she'll stick them on out of order. Even in order, they usually require the addition or removal of words to fit just right on the page, and at the LRB, a publication to whose meticulous editing process each and every contributor can attest, another round of edits follows the first pasting. We then see why X-ACTO knives are called that, since using one to replace individual words and phrases on paper demands no small degree of exactitude.

With the wrong bits cut out and the right ones pasted in and held down with Magic Tape, the completed page is ready to be sent back to the printer. Pasting-up, which Dalefield frames as a marrying of the work of editors and typographers, will seem astonishingly labor-intensive to most anyone under the age of 50, few of whom even know how magazines and newspapers put together their pages before the advent of desktop publishing. But the very word "desktop," in the computer-interface sense, speaks to the metaphorical persistence of the old ways through what Dalefield calls the "falling out of trades" in the digital age. I myself have done a fair bit of "cutting," "copying," and "pasting" writing this very post — but I suppose I never did say, "Oh, that's very sticky" while doing so.

Related Content:

The End of an Era: A Short Film About The Last Day of Hot Metal Typesetting at The New York Times (1978)

The Art of Collotype: See a Near Extinct Printing Technique, as Lovingly Practiced by a Japanese Master Craftsman

Mark Twain Wrote the First Book Ever Written With a Typewriter

The Art of Making Old-Fashioned, Hand-Printed Books

How to Jumpstart Your Creative Process with William S. Burroughs’ Cut-Up Technique

J.G. Ballard’s Experimental Text Collages: His 1958 Foray into Avant-Garde Literature

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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  • Carol says:

    Used to do this for the newspapers I worked for!

  • thurston blodgett says:

    This was my life, for decades! Freelanced, and worked for Saul Bass among many others in Los Angeles. Rubber cement or wax was used for paste-up, depending on the shop. When the Apple Macintosh IIcx came out I saw the writing on the wall, bought one, learned PageMaker, then Quark. Kept all of my X-ACTO knives; still the handiest tools for removing recalcitrant medicine-bottle seals. Thanks for that look-back-in-time!

  • Neal says:

    I did paste up as a job in the mid 80s. Watching the video brought it all back, thanks for posting it! Good to see that you can still get cow gum.

  • Steve says:

    Now do hot type.

  • Laurie says:

    My dad was the editor of our local newspaper. When I was in my teens, I would work summers there. I often hung out in the composing room, watching them do the paste-ups. That was a real art, fitting all the bits onto the page. One of my favorite jobs was running the sheets through the wax machine. I can still remember that smell. Thank you for posting this.

  • Cheryle Fisher says:

    In the mid 1980’s I was church secretary responsible for a weekly newsletter and Sunday bulletin. I did both of these by the cut and paste method mentioned here. It was time consuming and easy to make mistakes. I then printed, folded, and mailed them myself. Until you have had to prepare publications by this method you are not aware of how labor intensive they are and thank your lucky stars for computers.

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