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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Comments (6)
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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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