Flong time, no see

How a paper mold transformed the growth of newspapers

Flong transformed printing as one component of many 19th century advancements.
A flong, also known as a stereotype matrix or “mat,” was cast as a flat or curved metal plate—a stereotype.

You spin me right round, baby, like a cylinder press

The earliest illustration of typesetting and a printing press (1499), “The Dance of Death.”
Type locked up for a Gutenberg-style hand press at Tipoteca in Italy (photo: Kristian Bjornard)
William Caxton showing page proofs as a printer toils (Harper’s Weekly, 1877; originally from The Graphic in London)
The Fourdrinier machine for continuous papermaking
A 10-cylinder Hoe cylinder press from 1856. Yes, all those workers are separately feeding paper as the type cylinder rotates around and prints. (Illustration from 1877)

Efforts made from the middle of the last century to lock movable type on the outside of rotating cylinders was only partially successful although many presses were made on this principle.

On a big central cylinder were wedged the pages of type, secured by ingenious devices in “turtles” to prevent the letters from being flung out by the centrifugal force of rotation. With the best of them some types were always sure to work out, marring the print.

Napier’s press had a tendency to throw the type out, as did indeed all the presses up to his time.

An 1877 Hoe double-sided rotary press being fed with a roll of paper and a folding apparatus at the far end.

Far-flong ideas finally come to fruition

Stereotype comes from the Greek roots στερεός (stereos) for solid or firm τύπος (typos) for blow or impression. The French printer Firmin Didot coined it in the late 1700s as an adjective. It began to be used as a noun in English, while the French often referred to plates as clichés (for the sound they make) or les planches solides—“solid plates.”

Very complicated and not terrifically good methods predated paper molds.

Since I know you’re wondering, flong is how the English pronounced flan, the name given in France ostensibly because the material’s wet form resembled a custard. A flong may also be called a “mat.” (Allegedly, an early stereotyping firm’s head came up with the term flong because as a young man he used to eat a lot of flan in Paris.)

This consists in beating into the face of the type, with a heavy brush, a prepared sheet, with a body almost like paper pulp, and somewhat thicker than heavy railroad card. The type form, with this wet blanket kind of mold beaten into it, is then placed on a steam bed to drive out the moisture and harden the mold, which, in a few minutes, can be taken off almost as hard as a sheet of card board, but holding a perfect impression of the type.

Flong being removed from a forme in 1953 (photo: Deutsche Fotothek)
Casting could be either flat (left) for job presses, or curved, for rotary presses
A press man labels a stereotype at the New York Times in 1942 (photo: Marjory Collins, U.S. Farm Security Administration)
This is just a tiny part of the electrotyping process, which seems absurdly complicated even compared to stereotyping, but produced high-quality results.

The question of damage to type during the process of stereotyping is one of some importance, and it mainly steps in when a high temperature is employed for drying. If the forme is very tightly locked up in the chase it may, in expanding and softening under the heat, become elongated while on the other hand it may become shortened by the pressure of the drying press. These two circumstances tend to make a newspaper fount become of unequal height, and the fount is rendered useless.

It’s not the heat, it’s the humidor

Advertising flong. You can see “Store Name” for the newspaper to cut that part out and then drop in the local information. It also includes details for the printer about the ad’s size.
Clip art flong from 1949: sports, meat, and even a little religion
Flong had to be built up on the back side in empty areas (where no raised metal would be set) or the weight of the metal could cause those areas to sag and fill in during casting. Reverse side of a comic strip shown here.
Popular Mechanics (1927) shows how flongs were made from comic strips (top/middle) and newspapers later create flat stereo plates for cutting up from those flongs (bottom)
A stereo-casting form for small flongs (from Paul Aken’s Platen Press Museum)
Comic strip flongs were packaged and shipped to newspapers (Popular Mechanics, 1927)
Which duplication technique will reign supreme? Both—for different purposes.
This 1940s-era video shows the process on Fleet Street in London from typewriting copy to folded papers.

Update: My friend Chris Phin interviewed in this video below his colleague, Steve Finan, about Steve’s recollections of flong/mats and stereos. Chris and Steve work for a division of D.C. Thomson, a Dundee, Scotland-based publishing company that dates in its current form to 1905. Steve has worked across the metal, photo, and digital eras. Steve is describing in particular the use of what’s called a “fudge box” for “stop press”: dropping in late-breaking news live into a press’s ongoing printing. I particularly like Steve’s description of the plate makers as “washers, bashers, and squashers.”

Fling the flong

Not well loved, this clip-art flong from the Metro Newspaper Service
Two of the six strips in a mat from Doonesbury’s syndicate for the week of May 7, 1973
This Raleigh cigarette ad stereotype from the 1970s that I acquired was used for job printing, so it’s flat.
A book bound in flong!

Flong, but not forgotten

Before the introduction of the linotype it required 16 compositors for approximately seven hours to set sufficient type for four pages of a representative newspaper at that time. Distribution of the type required about one-half that number for the same length of time, while other hands necessary in composing-room work would probably bring the personnel on a 4-page daily newspaper to about 40.

In one typical establishment, for example, the average daily issues consisted of 12 pages in 1896, 24 pages in 1916, and 36 pages in 1926. The Sunday issues contained an average of 48 pages in 1896, of 54 pages in 1916, and of 60 pages in 1926.

Far easier to melt it all down than to sort it! (photo: 1929 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report)

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Technology journalist, editor, letterpress printer, and two-time Jeopardy! champion. I seem to know everyone #glenning

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Glenn Fleishman

Technology journalist, editor, letterpress printer, and two-time Jeopardy! champion. I seem to know everyone #glenning