Scottish Women Compositors in the Late Nineteenth Century

Robyn Pritzker is a graduate of McGill University and the University of Edinburgh. Her doctoral research involves the Stevenson family, the Victorian print trade, women, authorship, digital humanities, and many additional things, depending on the week. Otherwise, Robyn is an avid ghost story reader with heterochromia and a penchant for the outdoors.

In February of 1886, a correspondent to the Scottish Typographical Circular wrote that “if [women] were more largely gifted” with the skills of rapid typesetting, “they would, indeed, be very dangerous rivals.”[1] The man’s sentiment came about twenty years too late, as in Scotland, women had in fact been dangerously rivalling men in their typographical jobs for quite some time. In the same issue of the Circular, a young woman calling herself “Ella,” and identifying herself as a type-lifter, wrote a poem imploring the men in the trade to finally give her and her women colleagues the recognition they deserved. Ella and the other correspondent represent a fierce and contentious battle between the men and women of the Scottish typographical trade, one which has remained on the margins of book history, and which sorely deserves greater recognition. Women’s bookmaking work was often similar to what was expected of them in the home, allowing a new engagement with certain aspects of print culture. As women joined the workforce as proof-readers and typesetters, they became more involved with the complex web of authorship instrumental to the production and circulation of literary texts. Women typesetters like Ella have been especially hard to investigate given the largely negative opinions of their vocal male counterparts, but understanding their role in the trajectory of women’s book history is essential to uncovering patterns and theories of books and literature by and large.

Throughout the later decades of the nineteenth century, the faction of Scottish women engaged as printers’ readers and compositors was evolving from a small minority into a force to be reckoned with. In Edinburgh, the introduction of women into publishers’ case-rooms, where typesetting and printing took place, began around 1860, with the start of a new campaign for women’s employment by the Social Science Association.[2] In the 1870s, a significant number of print tradesmen went on strike hoping for improved wages and hours, and scores of women eagerly took their places for less pay and longer working weeks.[3] Edinburgh’s print trade strikes led to greater competition than in other British cities, as men had few other opportunities in heavy industry, and women had fewer points of access to textile factories.[4] Yet, at least as seen in newsletters and circulars from Scottish typographers, it wasn’t until the very end of that 1870s that men started labelling the new population of women compositors as dangerous and threatening. In and around London, typographers’ unions were able to leverage their own power to keep women out of the print offices. T.E. Naylor, of the London Society of Compositors, stated in 1908 that “if it were not for the Union, I venture to think that women would be all over the London trade.”[5] North of the Scottish border, however, women were gaining significant ground as typesetters, and thus Edinburgh served as a fundamental site of change in typographical class and gender distribution.

By 1880, the Scottish Typographical Circular indicates men were realising how hard it would be to reverse the push towards women’s employment. A militant sense of brotherhood had always inundated the case-rooms, and the small number of women who were in the trade in before the mid-century had been expected to limit themselves to tasks requiring less physical strain, such as sewing, and stitching. Women typesetters were subject to the same discriminations as other professional women, and they also had to endure backlash from a highly established group of male workers renowned for their sense of brotherhood and masculinity. Once women were more commonly found in the printing offices, men found themselves at a stalemate with their own biases, as it became hard to deny that many supposedly ‘feminine’ skills (dexterity and attention to detail, for example) in fact made a person perfectly suited to typesetting. This impasse extended to wages, and many typographers were “in low-paid jobs because they were women, while the jobs were low-paid because women did them.”[6] Yet, in the face of this hostility, women fought back, and they remained in tight competition with the journeymen for the rest of the century. Ella the typesetter, who wrote to the Circular in 1886, gave a voice to many other women who worked in offices dominated by men opposing their right to work. Though men often felt the depression affecting printing was a result of female involvement in the trade, nevertheless week after week Scotland saw books produced and circulated with the help of women.

Ella wrote to the Circular in poetry and prose on the issues surrounding her employment: mainly recognition of skill and the matter of payment. In the letters she defended herself and her female co-workers against the growing number of hateful articles about the “perversity of the female disposition,”[7] and against attempts to pretend they did not exist in the trade at all. On February 1, 1886, the Circular published her first poem, “A Remonstrance,” in their correspondence section.[8] Ella’s poem is sharp and clever, and she implores the Circular‘s editors,

Do not prate arrant nonsense about a woman’s sphere,
For that humbug’s exploded this many a year––
To be wife and mother might perfectly suit a
Compositrix’s desires, but not out of Utah
Is such a thing possible; though willing for it, the
Lords of Creation are in the minority.[9]

The patronising responses to Ella’s poem in the next issues of the Circular suggest Ella couldn’t possibly understand the complexities of the wage dynamic or the apprenticeship process. A few men used Ella’s poem as a clarion call to argue that others were not taking the dangerous presence of women seriously. One D. Reid, in fact, asks the readers of the Circular, “can we insist that [women’s] presence is an evil and at the same time decline to recognise their existence?”[10] This question embodies the records of women in the trade: the common dual response of antagonism and wilful ignorance makes it much more difficult to discern what was really happening. Another man responding to Ella’s poem with his own addresses her directly,

Yet, let me ask you now, were you a father––
Which you are not, of course–– would you feel rather
Pleased to serve seven years to learn your trade,
Then get dismissed, or starved, to let new-made
Compesses do men’s work, or reading, at less than half the wage?
Then, is it not a little hard on men
To do the navvy work for girls of ten––[11]

Making comments about the importance of male pride over the livelihoods of women was an easy way of sidestepping the larger issue. The wider pool of employees was changing permanently, and employers were picking and choosing who they would hire for certain tasks based on economic incentive rather than on the long-standing traditions of the trade. The complaints about wages and dismissal were valid, but aimed at the wrong targets. Many men were feeling for the first time what it was like to be exploited, and hampered by external expectations, and they preferred to blame women rather than any of the systemic forces responsible for the changes in the trade.

Understanding what role women played in the typographical trade is difficult due to this criticism, or “arrant nonsense,” in Ella’s words, from their male colleagues. It is no simple matter to find accounts that provide clear information about what women actually did each day in the offices and how they felt about their work. While some women’s letters were published by the Circular, divergent and contradictory opinions from men have been a huge setback in any attempt to associate women with the changes and progress made in the book trade at the end of the century. Knowing women were in the printing offices and understanding how they affected day-to-day work are very separate matters, and both must be addressed before we can fully appreciate the impact they made on the trade.

What we do know for sure about the Scottish women typographers of this period is that men saw them as dangerous, and that their persistence ought to be recognised. No matter how much evidence we have on the state of women’s typographical work, the reality is that the majority of writing on the topic is by men whose interests were best served by ousting those women from the offices. The lives and livelihoods of typographical women have been often forgotten due to men’s responses to these ‘dangerous rivals.’[12]  If perhaps the communication from Ella was falling on deaf ears in 1886, we as historians must receive the message. Reading the stories of women like Ella, we might return them to their rightful place in the history of dangerous women. Leaving these stories behind would be the most dangerous possibility of all.



Works Cited

Gillespie, Sarah C. A Hundred Years of Progress; the Record of the Scottish Typographical Association, 1853 to 1952. Glasgow: Printed for the Association by R. Maclehose, 1953.

Reynolds, Siân. Britannica’s typesetters: women compositors in Edwardian Edinburgh. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989.

Scottish Typographical Circular, Series III, Volume XI. 1886.


[1] “A Remonstrance.” Scottish Typographical Circular (Hereafter Circular). Series III, Vol. XI. 1 February 1886.  306.

[2] Gillespie, Sarah C. A Hundred Years of Progress; the Record of the Scottish Typographical Association, 1853 to 1952. Glasgow: Printed for the Association by R. Maclehose, 1953. 102.

[3] Reynolds, Siân. Britannica’s Typesetters: Women Compositors in Edwardian Edinburgh. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989. 43.

[4] Ibid., 5.

[5] Ibid., 47.

[6]  Ibid., 26.

[7] “Our Female Rivals.” Circular, Series III, Vol. XI. 1 February 1886. 305.

[8] “A Remonstrance,” ibid., 309.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Correspondence.” Circular. Series III, Vol. XI. 1 March 1886. 318.

[11] “Bad Rhyme (To Ella) With a Little Reason. Another Remonstrance,” ibid., 320.

[12] Reynolds 27.