“Have you ever seen Type Lice?”
Well, back in the day of hot metal printing, these legendary little critters were know to hide out in the dark corners of the print composing room.
In order to make up a page for printing, long galleys (trays) of news stories which were cast into lead strips had to be placed into a chase (steel frame), combined with the headlines of handset or lead cast headlines, including the adverting materials; then the whole thing was locked into place.
These forms were then lifted up into the printing presses, ready for the press run.
Print Shops back in the day would hire apprentices to learn the trade, from the bottom up. These young people soon became know as the printers’ devil.
This was because of the extremely hot and heavy work that would be bestowed on them. Printers’ devils were required to clean ink from the finished press forms, they had to disassemble the type and shovel the used lead strips into a melting pot.
Then, the cast for new lead pigs would be in and ready (cooling off) for the next day’s (or week’s) work.
The old journeymen printers came up with an initiation ritual for the young printers’ devil.
The galleys of lead strips (also called slugs) had to be delivered from the Linotype machines (which created them) onto the composing room.
This is where the compositors put together the pages of the newspapers, as described above.
When no one was looking, one of the sly old journeymen would loosen up the space between the lead slugs of type and proceed to slosh in some soapy water, then sneak off, appearing that he was continuing to get back to work.
Soon, he would then call the apprentice over and say, “Hey, have you ever seen type lice?”
Of course the printers’ devil was cautious at first, but then he was prompted by his older work mate to look just a little bit closer.
“Oh, you have to look real close to see them!”
Curiosity got the best of the unsuspecting novice and he would lean in close for a look. That is when the seasoned veteran would smack the end of the galley of type with a mallet, and the soapy water would shoot into the face of the poor Lad.
Needless to say, the printers’ devil wouldn’t be suckered in a second time and so the legend of type lice continued through the decades of hot metal printing.