Fastest Typesetter in the East (or West)

George Dawson portrait, from A Collection of Family Records
George Dawson

Was Mr. George Dawson, eventually editor of the Albany Evening Journal, one of the fastest typesetters of his day? Well, the Printer’s Circular seemed to think so. Though he was much much more than that.

In order to understand this, readers will need a little familiarity with the terms. At the time, all type was set one character at a time. There were no keyboards, no machinery. Typesetters (sometimes called compositors) picked individual letters from trays (job cases, the staple of antiques stores for the last 40 years) and arranged them in forms called chases. And because it was direct impression printing, they did it all backward. Therefore, the size of the typeface mattered (technically, though we’re giving up on this distinction, a font is both the typeface and its size) in determining speed for reasons of dexterity. An em was a measure of type equal to its point size (named for the letter ‘M’ which was usually the largest letter). And while we use point sizes today, it was common in the 19th century to use the English names, so that Agate is 5-1/2 point type; Brevier is 8 pt.; Pica is 12 point. (Those old enough to have grown up on typewriters will remember Pica vs. Elite.)

The American Encyclopaedia of Printing reprinted an account from the Circular from February 1870 by a correspondent who had kept a record of newspaper accounts of fast typesetting, in which Dawson’s extreme level of skill was noted:

“There is a long list of compositors who would set 2000 ems an hour, as they claimed, and their friends have asserted. Rapid compositors for an hour, however, do not always possess endurance. Yet there are not wanting instances of extraordinary endurance combined with great speed. For instance, in 1845, John J. Hand, deputy foreman of the American Republican, of New York, undertook, upon a wager, to set up 32,000 ems of solid Minion [7 pt.] in twenty-four hours. He failed by 32 ems only. Mr. Robert Bonner – now the mighty man of the New York Ledger – was employed on the American Republican also, and is said to have set up 25,500 ems in twenty hours and twenty-eight minutes, without a moment’s rest.

Mr. George Dawson, now one of the proprietors of the Albany Evening Journal, was reported in the Rochester papers, where he was an apprentice, to have set up 27,000 ems of solid Brevier [8 pt.] in ten hours. This being so incredible a performance – although published in the newspapers – I inquired of Mr. Dawson (begging pardon of the newspapers that published it), who asserts that it was an honest 22,022 ems, done in a day of something more than ten hours; he thinks thirteen hours. As Mr. Dawson has been ever since – probably about forty years – employed upon newspapers as compositor, foreman, editor, and proprietor, his assertion cannot be gainsaid.”

George Dawson was born in Falkirk, Scotland in 1813, and was brought to this country at the age of five. At 11, he was placed in the printing office of the Niagara Gleaner, and moved to Rochester in 1826 where he was employed by the Anti-Masonic Inquirer, edited by Thurlow Weed. He came to Albany with Weed in 1830 and became foreman of the Evening Journal. He went back to Rochester, then to Detroit, back to Rochester, and then returned to Albany in 1846 as associate editor. When Weed retired in 1862, Dawson became senior editor and proprietor, which he remained through 1877. He was also postmaster of Albany from 1861-67. (Most of this from Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 1887.)

Howell (in his Bi-Centennial History of Albany) says of Dawson,

“it is said by those who knew him in the printing-office, that he was an accomplished, practical printer – at the case, a rapid and correct compositor; as a foreman, perfect in order and discipline; courteous and amiable in his intercourse with the employees of the office. It was not long before he began contributing to the columns of the Journal, and his contributions bore the impress of a master hand, adding largely to the ability and influence of the paper.”

This, of course, was at a time when newspapers, particularly Albany newspapers, were beyond political. Thurlow Weed was a kingmaker, and the Evening Journal dictated party politics not only in New York but frequently nationally. Dawson, when he went to Detroit, was a founder of the new Whig party, which absorbed elements of the Anti-Masonic Party. When he was enticed back to Albany by Weed, the Journal was still an absolute authority in its politics, as Howell relates:

“It gave the word of command and the lesser organs made haste to regard its behest. The orders which all obeyed, came from the capital. The Journal spoke with authority. It dictated party policies, controlled appointments, and marshaled all the forces of political campaigns. In the management of the Evening Journal, Mr. Dawson shared with his senior the enjoyment of the ‘power behind the throne;’ was thoroughly acquainted with his plans, proved an able lieutenant in his political encounters, and fully indorsed his political and journalistic views.”

Dawson sold off his interest in 1877, but came back a few years later when he had apparently “got reform” and sounded off against political machines and boss rule. If we believe Howell, Dawson was no demagogue, and did not unduly profit from his position. He was an avid angler who weighed the better fishing in the Rochester area against the opportunity in Albany when he was asked to come back, and indeed wrote a book titled “Pleasures of Angling with Rod and Reel for Trout and Salmon.” He was instrumental in the building of the 1877 Tabernacle Baptist Church at the corner of Clinton Avenue and Ten Broeck Street, which he both contributed to and supervised in its construction. So, by all accounts, George Dawson led an extraordinary 19th century life. But we have a soft spot for the old printing industry, so we hope that Dawson remained proud of his typesetting capabilities until the day he died, in 1883.

Need we say it? Like all good Albanians, he is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.

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