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At The Caslon Letter Foundry

December 17, 2020
by the gentle author

22/23 Chiswell St with Caslon’s delivery van outside the foundry

For centuries, Caslon was the default typeface in the English language. William Caslon set up his type foundry in Chiswell St in 1737, where it operated without any significant change in the methods of production until 1937. These historic photographs taken in 1902, upon the occasion of the opening of the new Caslon factory in Hackney Wick, record both the final decades of the unchanged work of traditional type-founding, as well as the mechanisation of the process that would eventually lead to the industry being swept away by the end of the century.

The Directors’ Room with portraits of William Caslon and Elizabeth Caslon.

Sydney Caslon Smith in his office

Clerks’ office, 15th November 1902. A woman sits at her typewriter in the centre of the office.

Type store with fonts being made up in packets by women and boys working by candlelight.

Another view of the type store with women making up packets of fonts.

Another view of the type store.

Another part of the type store.

In the type store.

A boy makes up a packet of fonts in the type store.

Room of printers’ supplies including type cases, forme trolleys and electro cabinets.

Another view of the printers’ supplies store.

Printing office on an upper floor with pages of type specimens being set and printed on Albion and Imperial handpresses.

Packing department with crates labelled GER, GWR, LNWR, CALCUTTA, BOMBAY, and SYDNEY.

New Caslon Letter Foundry at Rothbury Rd, Hackney Wick, 1902.

Harold Arthur Caslon Smith at his rolltop desk in Hackney Wick with type specimens from 1780 on the wall, Friday 7th November, 1902.

Machine shop with plane, lathes and overhead belting.

Gas engines and man with oil can.

Lathes in the Machine Shop.

Hand forging in the Machine Shop.

Another view of lathes in the Machine Shop.

Type store with fonts being made up into packets.

Type matrix and mould store.

Metal store with boy hauling pigs upon a trolley.

Casting Shop, with women breaking off excess metal and rubbing the type at the window.

Another view of the Casting Shop.

Another view of the Casting Shop.

Founting Shop, with women breaking up the type and a man dressing the type.

Casting metal furniture.

Boys at work in the Brass Rule Shop.

Boys making packets of fonts in the Despatch Shop, with delivery van waiting outside the door.

Machine shop on the top floor with a fly-press in the bottom left.

Woodwork Shop.

Brass Rule Shop, hand-planing the rules.

Caretaker’s cottage with caretaker’s wife and the factory cat.

Photographs courtesy St Bride Printing Library

You may also like to read about

William Caslon, Letter Founder

David Pearson, Designer

Roger Pertwee, Manufacturing Stationer

Gary Arber, Printer

Justin Knopp, Printer & Typographer

16 Responses leave one →
  1. Benita Brett permalink
    December 17, 2020

    For a family with a history firmly in the print industry, today’s email featuring the Caslon letter foundry was a seriously good read!

    Another founder of my family was a comptometrist, trained at the Felt and Tarrant School in Birmingham. For this reason, I must take you to task over the image of the Clerks’ Office, where the lady in the centre appears to me not to be sitting at a typewriter, but rather at an early comptometer. Patented only in 1887 by Dorr Felt, this 1902 image puts Caslon at the cutting edge of office management!

    I have to admit, the keyboard of her machine has an unusual layout, which I must research. Thank you so much for today’s offering.

  2. Martin Tolley permalink
    December 17, 2020

    Some wonderful pictures here. Interesting to see clerks standing at desks (who thought the standing desk was a modern idea?).
    But I think you are mistaken in the clerks office. I think the lady is sitting next to an adding machine – the keyboard layout and colour key coding is wrong for typewriters at this time. Adding machines did print their caculations onto a roll of paper which can be seen at the top. The whole apparatus is narrower than a typewriter. She is also sitting in a central position, which is unlikely for a typist role – she’s probably in charge of accounts.

  3. December 17, 2020

    Yes, I still experienced it myself when I was a young Man doing a Holiday Job in a Newspaper Printing Company. At that time, whole lines were casted in Lead. And today you just press a Key and that’s it.

    A fine Story!

    Love & Peace

  4. December 17, 2020

    My father was born in a terraced house at No.10 Caslon Street, located just off Old Street and virtually in the shadow of St.Luke’s Church, Old Street. Caslon Street, which consisted mainly of very basic terraced houses, was swept away in the late 1960s as part of the construction of the red brick council estate that is today centered on Bartholomew Square.

    The Caslon family obviously had many connections with the local area and you will find a family tomb in the churchyard of St. Luke’s. Incidentally, my paternal nan was a cleaner at the church until its closure in 1959.

    There are records of Caslon living in Ironmonger Row and a purposeful yomp through Whitecross Street would have delivered the great man to Chiswell Street in a matter of minutes.

  5. December 17, 2020

    Wonderful article. I miss the printers of old. Thank you.

  6. Pauline Taylor permalink
    December 17, 2020

    As someone who was taught typography at Art School this brings back such happy memories of the printing school at the local technical college where we were allowed to go to learn to set and print type, I loved everything about it but it was a special dispensation and we were only allowed to touch the type when no apprentices were there as the printing industry was such a closed shop then. When I went to work for a printer publisher in Lavenham, Suffolk, my boss told me he had been given permission, by the men, to take me into the print room once to show me around but that I must never ever go in there again or they would come out on strike… They did relent a bit once they got to know me and realized how much I loved the smell of the ink and the noise of the machines but it was only on rare occasions. The problem was that I could easily have done what they were doing but I was a girl!! For my final exam at Art School I had to set up, illustrate and print in two colours part of an article and I can still remember how much I enjoyed doing that, and the satisfaction in seeing something that you were entirely responsible for rolling off the end of the machine. We had to operate the machines as well and use the guillotine !! Caslon was always a favourite type face and very popular. Oh how I miss those days.

    Thank you GA for bringing back such happy memories.

  7. David Antscherl permalink
    December 17, 2020

    Like Pauline, I cut my teeth in graphic design on letterpress machines. The packaged type ready for delivery made me smile. It was like Christmas; opening the package and seeing the bright, shiny new type ready for distribution!

    Thank you for some good memories. And Caslon is still a very handsome face.

  8. Frank Rizzo permalink
    December 17, 2020

    Terrific pics. Loved the info about the Caslon family, too. I worked for a financial printer for years and saw the business change dramatically, from a time when we had an actual print shop in the building and would perform “Photoshopping” with physical materials and a can of Spray Mount; to everything being digital. Your article spoke to the font nerd in me. Thanks for sharing!

  9. December 17, 2020

    Some dames may ask for furs and jewels, but I long for a F. P. Rosback perforator!
    I saw a 100-year-old version of it in an amazing print shop/education center in Cleveland Ohio
    (The Morgan Art of Papermaking & Educational Foundation) and was smitten.

    Thank you for this amazing post. The smell of the ink! The rattle of the presses! The clattering key strokes! The continuous expanse of wooden type drawers! PAPER in all its glory! Wow.

  10. December 17, 2020

    As an apprenticed compositor in the early 1960s, a regular errand would send me to Stevenson Blake Typefounders in Aldersgate Street, just around the corner from Chiswell Street. Our company still used an Albion Press featured on your picture of Caslon’s printing Room. Not sure of the picture of printers’ supplies including type cases, forme trolleys and electro cabinets, we used wooden type cases and pushed heavy forme trolleys around the factory, but I’ve not heard of an electro cabinet.

  11. paul loften permalink
    December 17, 2020

    Where have all the workers gone?
    Long time passing
    Where have all the workers gone?
    Long time ago
    Where have all the workers gone?
    Gone to print outs every one
    Oh, when will you ever learn?
    Oh, when will you ever learn?

  12. Pauline Taylor permalink
    December 17, 2020

    Does anyone, David perhaps, remember the lay of the case? Somewhere I still have my copy (printed on paper) and we had to learn that off by heart so that we could set the type with our eyes shut ~~~ well almost.
    I was interested to read about the Caslon family using Whitecross Street as that is where my grandfather was born so maybe he would have recognized them. And someone else mentioning the smell of the ink and the rattle of the presses, it was wonderful, nothing like it !!

  13. Derek Bailey permalink
    December 17, 2020

    And here for all these years in my Font Styles on my PC I had wondered who was Caslon and now I know …. thanks.

  14. Geoff Moor permalink
    December 18, 2020

    Pauline Taylor – you may care to check out David Bolton, of Alembic Press in Oxford, web page of type case lays. Fascinating to see just how many variations there are.

  15. Mike Kay permalink
    December 18, 2020

    Wonderful stuff. Am I the only old printer who can’t quite stand fount spelled without the “u”?

  16. David Green permalink
    December 21, 2020

    Ah, the death of type and proper typesetting; never do you see properly kerned letter pairs any longer; rivers of white space and widows and orphans abound. What drives me utterly berserk is seeing two hyphens at the end of two consecutive rows. Folks who do that need their ears boxed.

    As someone who’s been in the printing industry for 25 years as well as having done a lot of industrial documentary photography, these photos are golden!

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