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

What’s the utility of creating a mold when you’ve already typeset a page and it’s ready to go on press just as you’ve made it? The answer encompasses a lot of elements: cost, durability, speed, mechanics, and efficiency.

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)
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

The idea of stereotypes didn’t arise just because newfangled presses required curved plates. Rather, printers had been tinkering for centuries on a way to create molds and reusable plates — flat ones befitting contemporary presses. The term stereotype means “solid” or “durable” type, and was coined decades or centuries after printers began experiments.

Very complicated and not terrifically good methods predated paper molds.
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.

It’s not the heat, it’s the humidor

Rather than use a complicated process of multiple layers of paper and paste, dry flong was spongy in its raw form. It was often “made from wood pulp or from a mixture of rag and chemical pulp or repulped waste papers containing these fibers,” according to Stereotyping and Electrotyping. It was kept damp (but not wet)in a humidor before it was placed under pressure in content with a forme or components to be duplicated.

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.

Fling the flong

There are very few flongs or stereotypes left in the world. When flongs and stereotypes were in heavy use, there was little reason to retain them, and they weren’t precious. Flongs were destroyed in the process of making plates, but anything left over was typically discarded or burned.

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

Why devote 6,000 words to flong and stereotypes? Almost entirely because they were forgotten. They require a scale of operation no longer needed for letterpress along with an astonishing amount of specialized equipment and training to use them.

An afternote on typesetting

As a former/recovering typesetter, I couldn’t let the transition from handset type to Linotype go without a brief mention in the context of newspaper efficiency and production.

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

Select sources

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Productivity of Labor in Newspaper Printing (Government Printing Office, 1929)
  • The Encyclopædia Britannica with American Revisions and Additions (1896, page 1276)
  • Harper’s Magazine (July 1887, page 176)
  • The Inland Printer (June 1922)
  • Journal of the Royal Society of Arts (August 22, 1890, page 844)
  • Scientific American (May 31, 1873, page 337)
  • Albert Sidney Bolles, Industrial History of the United States (the Henry Bill Publishing Company, 1878)
  • Charles Henry Cochrane, The Wonders of Modern Mechanism (J.B. Lippincott Company, 1899)
  • Ben Dalgin, Advertising Production (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1948)
  • George Kubler, A New History of Stereotyping (self-published by his firm, the Certified Dry Mat Corporation, 1941)
  • Charles Summer Partridge, Stereotyping, the Papier Mache Process (A.N. Kellogg Newspaper Co., 1892)
  • Frederick Wilson, Stereotyping & Electrotyping (E. Menken, 1898)
  • Arthur Winter, Stereotyping and Electrotyping (Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd., 1948)
  • Conversations with Celene Aubry, Paul Aken, and Rob Miller at the 2019 Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum Wayzgoose event

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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