Newspapermaking: Printing “The Christian Science Monitor”

In the composing room of The Christian Science Monitor, the first steps in making printing plates for the newspaper were taken, six days a week. Photograph circa 1930. Church Archives, Box 21140, Folder 125369.

The first issue of The Christian Science Monitor came off the presses nearly 110 years ago. But just how was it printed? This month we’re featuring one of eleven printing plates from that November 25, 1908, edition, housed in our archive. All the plates are remarkably well-preserved—examples of a nearly extinct printing process that marked an important part of the publication’s history.

In its earliest days, when this printing plate was molded, the Monitor used what Erwin Canham (Editor from 1939 to 1964) described as “a little Goss Straightline two-page-width press.” He went on to say, “It was thought very grand at the time, but it could only print 20,000 twelve-page papers an hour.” With rapid growth in circulation, larger and faster presses were soon required.1

From 1908 to 1970 the Monitor, like all newspapers, was printed using the “hot type” process (this plate is a little different from the ones used later on). Developed in the late nineteenth century, it was an alternative to older, slower methods. DeWitt John (Editor from 1964 to 1970) described this long-standing process:

The conventional letter-press method involves setting slugs of raised type which are made up into page-size forms. A mat of tough, flexible cardboardlike material is press-molded to the form to capture the impression of the raised type. This mat is then used in molding from hot lead a curved plate about one-half inch thick that is fastened on the cylinder of a massive newspaper letterpress.2

A metal plate of The Christian Science Monitor (up close)

A metal plate of The Christian Science Monitor (full image)

This metal plate was likely used in the printing of the editorial page for the first issue of The Christian Science Monitor on November 25, 1908. Click here to read Mary Baker Eddy’s editorial “Something in a Name,” from that edition. Church Archives, Box 532828, Folder 294754.

Although labor-intensive and expensive, the hot type process added much speed to printing; it virtually created the newspaper industry. Canham noted that in February 1909 the Monitor employed 99 people, with nearly half (47) involved in composition and printing rather than editorial work.3

The growing size and circulation of the paper required an increasing number of press workers and compositors over the years. In addition to higher production expenditures, the Monitor faced another challenge: delivery. As an international newspaper, it had (and still has) subscribers all over the globe. In 1958, 90 percent received their copies by mail.4 Airmailing papers to locations around the United States helped speed up delivery. So did flying the mats used to mold printing plates for remote printing of the Monitor in London and Los Angeles. But still these methods did not eliminate delivery issues.5

By the late 1960s it was clear that hot type printing technology (which had changed very little since 1908) could not produce a Monitor that most readers would receive on the day of publication. Fortunately new technologies were becoming available. “Cold type” newspaper publishing was then on its way, and the Monitor was among the first papers to utilize this innovation. DeWitt John explained to Monitor readers how this worked and why it was needed:

…a picture of the newspaper page needed to produce…a negative can be transmitted electronically from one city to another over special telephone wires just like the wirephotos that appear daily in modern newspapers. This facsimile transmission eventually will replace flying of negatives to our remote printing sites. You can readily see how much time this is going to save, for one can transmit a reproduction proof of a whole newspaper page by that method in just a few minutes…. It is a lot cheaper and quicker to manufacture a newspaper by this computer-photocomposition-offset method than by the old hot-type system. In the process you can even get the computer to project the news story via cathode-ray tube onto a television screen, or something resembling it, where the editor can edit the copy and make changes in the story by applying a special pencil to the image on the screen! That’s the direction in which the Monitor is headed.6

In the near half-century since John envisioned the future of print journalism, much has changed (and continues to change) in the way newspapers are published and delivered. Today The Christian Science Monitor is issued weekly in print, with an online edition updated daily.

See film footage of the Monitor’s printing processes in the following videos:  Assignment Mankind (1958) and An inside look at The Christian Science Monitor (1976).7

This article could not have been written without the help of Frank Romano and his colleagues at the Museum of Printing in Haverhill, Massachusetts. They provided clear explanations of hot type printing and platemaking. Many thanks for their invaluable assistance!

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  1. Erwin D. Canham, Commitment to Freedom: The Story of The Christian Science Monitor (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), 414.
  2. DeWitt John, “Reaching the world quickly,” The Christian Science Monitor, June 8, 1970.
  3. Canham, Commitment to Freedom, 38.
  4. Canham, Commitment to Freedom, 396.
  5. “Time, Space, News,” The Christian Science Monitor, October 24, 1960.
  6. John, “Reaching the world quickly.”
  7. Monitor production, from the 1958 film “Assignment: Mankind.” Church Archives, Box 531824, Folder 258419; Monitor production, from the 1976 film “An Inside Look at the Monitor.” Church Archives, Box 50213, Folder 295482.