MY favourite bookmark is a chunky piece of brown card with, at the top, a horned and tailed red devil sprinting with a sheaf of paper and, underneath, ‘I became a Printer’s Devil at Robert Smail’s’. The old print unions wouldn’t allow me to tinker with type in the newspaper composing rooms, but Smail’s positively encouraged it. I was allowed to pick up the metal upper- and lower-case letters and compose my name in Rockwell type, which is generally used for theatrical posters. I did become a printer’s devil—the bookmark has my name clearly printed on it.
Smail’s is an old Victorian printing works set up in 1866 in the high street of the small Scottish border town of Innerleithen. It printed everything the community might need—letterheads, wedding announcements, flyers and, between 1893 and 1916, a weekly newspaper, although you might wonder how such a small town could fill out enough pages with local news. The print works staggered on until 1986, still owned by the Smail family, when, in an act of brilliant foresight, the entire works and its contents were bought by the National Trust for Scotland.
It was, essentially, still a Victorian printworks, with boxes of moveable metal type and handcarved wooden type for large capitals. Its printing machines included an Arab clamshell press, which was treadle-powered and a belt-driven Wharfedale Reliance originally run by water power, having its own waterwheel. Its drawers are still filled with such objects as sealing wax, pen nibs and bottles of ink. It’s an essential pilgrimage for anyone with a love of printing.
I looked up the origin of ‘printer’s devil’ and found that, generally, it meant the young boy apprentices learning the trade. They would usually be covered in printing ink and black from head to toe. Famous devils include Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain and President Lyndon Johnson.
Another suggestion was that the original printer’s devil was a sprite that haunted composing rooms. This fiend would turn type upside down and cause spelling mistakes. It would ‘pie’ complete pages of set type— dropping the whole made-up page to the ground where it split into thousands of pieces and looked like a pie.
It’s easy to understand, from my time in newspaper composing rooms, why printers felt they were bedevilled. If anything could go wrong with moveable type, it would—just like when favourite knives and essential spectacles go missing in the home. (My parents used to be convinced that a poltergeist was at work in our house.) Further suggestions are that William Caxton had an apprentice called ‘Deville’ and that early printing was thought to be a work of the Devil—rather how some of us view computers today.
Smail’s has another attraction: I bought a dozen or so ‘rubbish’ pads there. These are pads of miscellaneous offcuts of paper of all colours and textures, some with prints of old bicycles, the Forth Bridge and announcements of events in Innerleithen. One side of paper is always clear, but my current pad has one sheet printed with an oldfashioned pointing finger and ‘This Way for Fun’. Its front cover announces: ‘Rubbish… this notepad is produced using printer’s waste sheets. The text and images are produced with reusable type AND blocks. It is printed on the Arab Clamshell Press which is treadle powered.’ The whole is in a mixture of types—bold, italic, sans serif and serif.
I’ve ordered another load of rubbish pads from Smail’s. I love them: they’re a classier style of shopping list and seem to last forever and Hew has been converted from boring, white paper pads. I’ll be a printer’s devil yet!
‘This fiend would turn type upside down and cause spelling mistakes’