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The Swifts

Printers in the Age of Typesetting Races
Walker Rumble

BUY Cloth · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813921617 · $33.00 · Apr 2003

On a December day in 1885, Bill Barnes, a journeyman from the New York World, and Joe McCann, representing the New York Herald, faced off in a match race of Swifts, compositors who set type by hand, individually, letter by letter, with incredible accuracy and speed. McCann got off to a slow start, but at the end of the four-hour race, he joined shopfloor legends Clinton "The Kid" DeJarnatt and the "Velocipede" George Arensberg as a working-class hero. It was not the last race of its kind between Swifts, but already looming were changes both social and technological that would cause these gifted tramp printers to disappear.

In The Swifts, Walker Rumble, himself a printer and printing historian, follows the trail of these colorful compositors who became famous by winning typesetting races. Tellingly, at the same time that the most celebrated contests were taking place, technological and cultural forces were threatening the Swifts' way of life. First women printers vied for shopfloor legitimacy; then, in the mid-1880s, typesetting machines such as Mergenthaler's Linotype arrived, replacing the artisans forever.

With the spread of digital technologies at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are experiencing a revolution in printing matched only by two previous events: Gutenberg's fifteenth-century invention of movable type and the advent of typesetting machines that replaced the Swifts. Joining narrative historians of technology such as Robert Darnton, Henry Petroski, Dava Sobel, and Ross King, Rumble tells a fascinating story that will entertain aficionados of print culture while explaining the larger cultural dislocations wrought by technological change.


In a lively and colorful manner, Walker Rumble captures the excitement and suspense of typesetting races and the men and women who participated in them. In doing so, he recovers a little-known and fascinating corner of American life.

Michael Winship, University of Texas, Austin, author of American Literary Publishing in the Mid-Nineteenth Century

[Walker Rumble] uses shop-floor savvy and a doctoral background in history to conjure a vivid lost world of irreverent, often hard-drinking Swifts who composed fast and died young, lead dust and tuberculosis getting many of them before 40.

Chronicle of Higher Education

The Swifts makes a notable contribution to the narrow slice of nineteenth-century American history on which Rumble focuses.... It is a model of clarity and inclusion.

Henry Petroski, author of The Evolution of Useful Thingsand The Pencil

About the Author(s): 

Walker Rumble is the editor and publisher of Oat City Press in East Providence, Rhode Island. The author of numerous articles on the history of printing, Rumble holds a doctorate in American history and has worked as a compositor and type manager.

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