Plots and Blots

SOME magazine just lately quoted David Brinkley, who seems to be an authority, who said American politicking has degenerated into a 60-second TV shot with a picture of the candidate and a lot of adjectives. American politicking has certainly degenerated, but there's not one thing new about a picture of the candidate and a lot of adjectives. I most earnestly hope some museum somewhere has a collection of American political blotters and will offer to show them to David. He's much too young to remember them when they were in bloom, and is probably much too young to remember plain old blotters.

A blotter was used to sop up excess ink when you wrote with the kind of pen you had to dip in an inkwell about three times a sentence. Blotters could be bought in stationery stores, but mostly they came gratis with printed advertising on them. A firm would have them for stuffers when the monthly bills went out. Bookstores always stuck a blotter into a new book for a bookmark. And if a hot political campaign came along, every home in town would get blotters enough for 10 years.

It was a great day in school, in the bygones, when tots were big enough to begin on ink and the lead pencil retreated. All school desks had inkwells, but for two-three grades, no ink. Then teacher would distribute penstocks and nibs (there's one to look up!) and elucidate their functions.

Next, trustworthy pupils, usually the biggest boy and girl, would pass up and down the aisles and pour a few drops of ink into each inkwell. The big bottle came wholesale and was kept in the schoolroom closet except on ink days. After the ink exercises, unused ink was retrieved. And along with learning to write with ink came instructions about using the blotter.

Then one day somebody invented the ball-point pen. (I have skipped the fountain pen era with the thought that it may make quite another essay someday.)

When a man decided to run for public office, he would go first to a photographer's studio and have a ``head-and-shoulders.'' Next he would visit a photoengraver's and get a ``halftone.'' This was a zinc engraving always 13 picas wide, because in those days a ``country column'' in the local weekly newspaper was 13 picas wide. There was method in this.

Next, the candidate visited the sanctum of the local weekly newspaper and passed through the door from the office into the chapel, where the rack-and-clang of the Chandler & Price job press was symphony to the graphic arts. He would then order his political blotters from the foreman, handing over the zinc cut.

The foreman would tell Hank the blotters would be ready Tuesday. Blotting paper came in great sheets that the printer cut to size as ordered, and as it was a specialty paper with varying porosity it took a capable pressman to run off a batch.

Some printers were known as ``good on blotters.'' So what you had, when Tuesday came and Hank came to pick up his print job, was a picture of the candidate and a lot of adjectives. Honest, Able, and Fearless were great favorites, but variations prevailed. ``The People's Choice!'' was always good, and ``For The Common Man!'' was popular. Any such slogan naturally ended with a ``screamer,'' which is an exclamation point. Offset printing hadn't even been thought of.

And when Hank got his blotters, he would leave a handful on the counter in the printing office where people could help themselves while paying their subscriptions, and then he would step into the editor's office, shake hands, and leave his cut.

A 13-pica zinc halftone, in those days, would cost as much as $1.50, and it was a rare editor who would pass up the chance to trim a column with a free zinc. There was a drawback to running for office then.

THAT same editor who graciously gave you a puff because you paid for the cut was the same editor whose infinite wisdom made you pay cash. No credit on political blotters. Cash on the barrelhead. Here today, but whereabouts tomorrow?

Some of our biggest swindlers are on blotter record as honest, able, and fearless friends of man and pillars of rectitude. But they paid cash for their political printing. Editors weren't that foolish!

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