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Friday, 21 January 2022

A Spike in Newspaper History: H.L. Mencken's 'Copy Hook'

Print newspaper journalists who worked in the good old days of 'hard' typewritten copy and hot metal will know what this is, and what it was used for. It was indispensable to editors, the more so on those occasions when they found themselves having to deal with the kind of copy which these days gets published, unchecked, online. But I wonder if even those old-time journos know how these things were made? Where were the “raw materials” obtained from? Clue: something used in Linotype machines was a key component.

It’s a copy spike, but the one in the Stanley Farrar photo (top of post) is no ordinary copy spike. This was the spike “souvenired” by H.L. Mencken when he was city editor of the Baltimore Morning Herald, after the Great Baltimore Fire had swept through downtown Baltimore on February 7, 1904, destroying the Herald building on the northwest corner of St Paul and East Fayette streets. (In exchange for providing photos of the fire to the Washington Post, the Post printed an edition of the Herald on the first night of the fire. For the next five weeks the Herald was printed by the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph and transported 100 miles to Baltimore on a special train, provided free of charge by the B&O Railroad.)

As he dug with his hands through the ruins of the fire, the only thing worth saving that Mencken could find was what he called his “copy hook”. He kept it until he died on January 29, 1956. Fellow journalist H. Allen Smith had asked Mencken to pass the spike on to him and some weeks after Mencken died it was sent to Smith in a custom-made, velvet-lined box. Smith moved to Alpine, Texas, in 1967, and kept the spike on a shelf in his study. In 1974 University of Texas journalism lecturer Martin L. “Red” Gibson asked Smith to pass the spike on to him, and Smith did so. Smith died on February 24, 1976. Gibson died in Austin, Texas, on May 22, 1993, after a brief battle with lung cancer, and the present whereabouts of the spike is unknown. 
However, writing about the history of the spike in the Baltimore Sun on February 5, 1978, Gibson said, “Don’t write and inquire about my health and suggest that I ought to be making plans to pass the Mencken spike along to younger hands. I may take it with me.”

1 comment:

Ted said...

Made from Linotype slug lead, of course. We had a few ingots in the print shop left over from the hot type days. By the time I started working there, the Chandler & Price was just used for scoring, embossing & die-cutting. We used the ingots to weigh down the leading edges of paper stacks for padding operations. I had a couple of them up to about 10 years ago, covered in decades of dried padding compound. No idea where they are now. Lost to time, I suppose, like Mencken's copy spike. (: