railroaders often passed on their accurate pocket watches to their sons. Sons
and grandsons inherited swords from their military forebears. Lawmen handed down
their badges or favorite gun. I've got my granddad's heavy brass pica pole. |
a relic of the vanished hot type era, a pica pole used to be as integral to the
newspaper business as servers are to Web sites. So what’s a pica pole? That's
archaic newspaper speak for ruler. (Other definitions of extinct newspaper jargon
will follow in parens, old newspaper speak for parenthesis.) A thin length of
brass (the older ones) or aluminum, a pica pole measures inches on one side, ems
or picas, on the other.
In the pre-computer days, pica poles played a
small but fundamental part in the newspaper production process. Everyone on the
copy desk (where newspapers got edited, layed out and proof read) and virtually
everyone in the back shop (where the linotypes clattered and the hell box of molten
lead shimmered) had one. Even after the advent of cold type, the person pasting
up a page still needed a pica pole.
For a makeup editor, uually known as
the slot man, a pica pole protruding from a hip pocket spoke of authority every
bit as much as a British military officer’s swagger stick. A paper could not be
put to bed without this printer's tool. A copy editor separated wire stories with
his pica pole, ripping through the narrow AP or UPI pulp paper printouts (the
word "printout" wasn't used then, of course) layed out his page dummies with his
pica pole, and on and on.
The pica pole arguably was the most utilitarian
piece of equipment in a newspaper office. It measured, cut, made permanent the
folds in a linotype-ready story of pasted-together typewriten pulp papges and
At all three of the dailies I worked for way back when, I never
saw a reporter issued a pica pole. Copy editors and back shop folks had them by
what seemed devine right. The only way a reporter could get one was to steal one
or find one left in a desk drawer by whoever had the desk before you. That person
probably had stolen the pole he left behind.
Indeed, my old aluminum AP
pica pole bears someone eles's name. I scratched over it as best I could and added
Those who had not yet had a chance to acquire someone's pica
pole had to get by on lead column rules from the backshop or wooden rulers, often
distributed by the newspaper as an advertising item.
While editors used
pica poles to design pages and measure type, a reporter’s primary use of this
instrument came in clipping stories out of the previous edition for rewrting and
updating or reference. You’d lay the pole on the edge of the story you needed
and tear the page. I could cut paper with my pica pole faster than anyone using
a pair of scissors.
asked an old friend of mine who's still in the newspaper business
if he remembered any good pica pole stories from the hot metal days of our reportorial
"One time I wrote this short and turned it in,” he said. “Rudy
Powell (who was in the slot) looked at it, then stuck his pica pole under it and
lifted it off the desk and walked up to me, with my story on the pole like it
was a piece of toxic waste.
"'Mr. Garcia,' he said, 'There are seven misspelled
words on this page. Find 'em."
Another friend, who started out in the newspaper
business as copy boy (essentially an office boy who sooner or later, usually because
no one else was available, got to write something) the same way I did, remembers
how editors used pica poles to underscore a point, namely irritation.
It was not a good sign to see an editor walking toward your desk while slapping
a pica pole against his thigh. A pica pole slapped hard on a desk also was a good
sign of editorial anger.
A pica pole could be used as a weapon, but I
never saw anyone hit someone with one. I did witness a slot man and the night
city editor get in a fight one time, but they used fists, not pica poles.
Pica poles served as swords in playful combat, as well as excellent catapults
for rubber cement balls. (Rubber cement was used when the “paste” function in
writing was literal.) When the food editor brought in a cake to try out on the
staff after it had been photographed for the food page, a pica pole made a good
On slow news nights, I perfected the ability to play a pica
pole like a musical instrument. I found that I could produce varying notes by
holding a pica pole down on a desk top and strumming it. Changing the length of
the pole from the desk changed the notes.
I haven’t worked full time on
a newspaper in more than a quarter century now, but I still use that pica pole
I inherited from my grandfather. It's been clipping stories from newspapers since
the Lindberg kidnapping and never needs sharpening, not to mention a software
© Mike Cox
10, 2010 column
Books by Mike Cox - Order Now|| |