Typing vs. Typesetting

Fresh Ribbon

I ran across this little ditty in my travels and it’s given me pause.

For the better part of the twentieth century, the distinctive forms of typewriter type (notably its single-character width and unstressed stroke) characterized the immediacy of thought: getting the idea down without dressing it up. Now that computers have replaced typewriters, most word processing programs default to Helvetica or Times Roman (or their derivatives) as the typographic expression of simple typing. […] As a typographer, you should recognise the difference between typing and typesetting. Time and usage may ultimately make Inkjet Sans the expected typeface for letters. For now, however, on paper, typewriter type is still the best expression of the intimate, informal voice — direct address. Imitating the formalities of typesetting in a letter is always inappropriate because it suggests an undeserved permanence — the end of a discussion, not its continuation. (John Kane, A Type Primer, p85)

I raised rent money during college by selling advertising for a local newspaper. At the time, that meant laying out the ads as well, and we did that on light tables with Exacto-knives and streamers of print from the typesetting machine. I wasn’t allowed to handle the typesetting machine, of course, because there was a Typesetter whose job it was to set type. A person who, by the way, made four times the money I did. It was a highly skilled position.

I’m beginning to believe the computer has turned us all into typesetters. As a matter of fact, I’m typesetting right now in various ways to make this little blog post presentable. I’m also editing and creating layout without sharp instruments or a light table, but it’s cut and paste and move and re-adjust all the same.

Well. I’ve called the act of throwing together this blog “writing,” but now I’m not so sure. And I’m feeling more than a little guilty that a whole skilled trade vanished while I was looking the other way – at a computer screen, no doubt.

1959 College Typewriting textbook



I found this in College Typewriting, Complete Course, 6th edition, by Lessenberry and Wanous. It’s dated 1959 and is just filled to overflowing with stupefying typewriter drills. I did note, however, that the Miss Harriet L. Brock of this particular exercise, had to give quite a bit of information in her application letter and data sheet. While I was busy being perfectly horrified by that data sheet, I almost missed the most important information entirely.

It seems the 5′ 4″, 110-pound, unmarried Miss Brock had three years of an Economics degree from Columbia behind her before asking for this secretarial position. Columbia. University.

By my calculation, Miss Brock would be 72 years-old right now. I wonder which way she’d vote in the upcoming election . . .

Speed and Accuracy


I’m assuming she didn’t have to perform her outstanding typing skills with her feet or in that bathing suit during the contest. I don’t know, though. This appears to be her ninth win.
This makes me think of my grandmother. She was a 21 year-old mother of five when she got The Telegram during WWII – no skills, no high school diploma. The Army sent her to business school to learning typing and dictation to support all those fatherless children. I don’t imagine it paid for much, but it did throw my war-widow grandmother in the path of a few unmarried professional men.
That’s how it was done, really. I seriously doubt Gram’s typing skills netted that doctor she soon married. I believe she relied more on youth and an uncanny resemblance to Jane Russell. I also believe that’s what the Army had in mind all along.
Post-war, typing skills were many times the means to a happily married end. She’ll tell you that herself. She’ll also tell you the times called for being gainfully married, so it definitely mattered where a girl did that typing. Gram says she typed like the wind, but in the end it was more important which sweater she wore to the office. A mother of five had to be practical about such things.
If you’d like to test your words-per-minute, try this online typing test. You’ll be tested on your laptop rather than your Remington, but at least you don’t have to wear a bathing suit.