A – Alphabetical Order

J and U come after Z?

All of my type, the individual metal letters I use to create texts, is located in trays called California Job Cases. Each tray holds all the letters and symbols of one size and font of type. So if I want to create a block of text in 12 pt Stymie, I pull the appropriate tray labelled ‘Stymie 12” and use it to compose the text. If I want to add a title to this text in 14pt Stymie, I pull a different tray labeled ‘Stymie 14.’ This means that a printer needs to have a lot of trays on hand to meet the needs of various compositions and clients –I have approximately 120 cases.

Each tray of the California Job Case is divided into 89 compartments of varying size and each compartment holds the typeface of one letter or symbol.  These compartments are not labelled and are not in a traditional alphabetical order.  This means that the typesetter needs to memorize the lay of the case—much like learning to type on a keyboard.

california case

Notice that the tray above is broadly organized into three sections. The left two sections hold the lowercase letters and the right sections holds the uppercase letters.  The lower case letters seem in a somewhat random order, but the uppercase letters follow in almost alphabetical order (except for J and U…they appear after z).  The order and size of the compartments for the lowercase letters is based on frequency of use. For instance, the letter ‘e’ is the most frequently used letter and therefore has the most central and largest compartment. So why are J and U displaced in the capital letters? J and U were not in common usage until movable type and type cases were well established and so were placed in the open compartments after Z when they did become commonly used.

So, like someone skilled at typing on keyboard, a type setter must learn the case layout and build muscle memory. Traditionally, the compartments are not labelled. The typesetter must be able to pick the letters without looking.  The hard part, for me, lies in memorizing the Capital Letters that are so close to alphabetical order. It’s hard to skip J and U…it’s hard to break ones own memory.



13 thoughts on “A – Alphabetical Order

  1. I love these stories of how something has evolved. I remember learning to type and asking the same questions about why letters were where they were. Now, it’s just natural that my fingers find the right letters. I guess that’s true of typesetters, too. Good start to the challenge! Looking forward to reading more! Amy Morris-Jones


  2. Fascinating. My older sister did some work with type setting many years ago, and it’s always seemed mysterious and beautiful to me. I like that you start this A-Z month by letting us knew that J and U actually come after Z!


  3. Wow – what a fascinating post! I absolutely love the mechanical, real-world nature of a non-digital printing press. The letters and words with an actual 3-D form, emphasising their importance. The smell of the ink and the wood. How fabulous. What does your press print? And how did you come by all the trays? Are they easy to get hold of, complete with blocks, now?


  4. I really enjoyed reading this post, as I admit to not having any knowledge of typesetting. I tried to memorise the layout of the case but it’s not easy to unlearn something that’s ingrained. Until it becomes muscle memory, something needs to be unlearned for the new to be learned.


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