Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Upper Case, Lower Case

Upper case, lower case – I remember learning to recognize upper case letters (CAPITALS) and lower case letters (non-capitals) in grade school. Did you ever wonder why they’re called that, though? Upper case and lower case are old printing terms that date back to the earliest days of letterpress.

When most letterpress printers (my husband and I included) set type, they use case brackets to hold the cases in easy reach over the case stands (see picture above). A set of case brackets can hold 2 full sized type cases. Most early type cases were designed to hold either capital letters or non-capital letters. The capital letter type case sat on the top section of the case brackets. The non-capital letter type cases with more frequently used letters went in easy reach below the capitals. So capitals became known as upper case, and non-capitals as lower case. The terms are so common now that we recognize them immediately.

Feeling out of sorts? That’s another old printing term. “Sorts” are extra pieces of type that keep a font of type from running out of a letter. They can be ordered from a type foundry or cast in-house, if you have the equipment. Some old time printers had their own casting machine to create “sorts” when letters got low. If you ran completely out of an important letter such as “e” in the middle of setting a printed piece, there was no way to finish it without casting more sorts. Then you certainly might feel “out of sorts”.

If you’re meeting someone new socially or going on a job interview, one of your primary concerns is making a good impression. “Making a good impression” is the primary goal of letterpress. Inked type presses into paper, creating an image or impression. Blurry, smeary, or illegible images make a poor impression; clear, clean, well inked ones create a good impression. You might even say that a letterpress printer makes a good impression by making good impressions!

One more printer’s expression that’s made its way into the language is the old saying, “Mind your P’s and Q’s.” It means to be careful about what you do in the smallest detail. Printing type is set into a composing stick in the opposite direction from the way we normally see it. Printers get used to it, but to most people it’s upward down (see photo below). Turn a lower case p and a lower case q upside down, and they can be hard to tell apart. For that matter, a lower case b and a lower case d are easy to confuse, too. So the old expression maybe should have been, “Mind your P’s and Q’s and B’s and D’s!”

To me it’s fascinating how printing expressions have become an everyday part of the English language. So the next time you use upper case or lower case letters, feel out of sorts, mind your p’s and q’s, or try to make a good impression, you’ll know how the whole thing got started!

Can you read the letters in this composing stick?


  1. I love this post. That's so interesting how terms in printing became everyday expressions in language. I'm starting from the left: BPQD. (Where if you were looking at it not knowing what it was and had to guess the letters, pbdq. I'll feel really silly if I goofed!

  2. BPQD -- perfect Lynn, A for the day! You can feel proud of yourself. I used to demonstrate letterpress printing at Faust Park and showed visitors a composing stick with these letters in it. Nobody ever identified them correctly, even after I told people the letters were upside down!

  3. Hi Ms. Mullen

    I'm currently co-writing a typography textbook with Denise Gonzales Crisp (published by Thames and Hudson) and would very much appreciate the opportunity to use your photography of letterpress equipment in this publication. Would you be willing to contact me with an email address so I might send a formal letter of request?

    Thanks so much for your time.
    Will Temple, Independent Scholar
    919.841.3110 cell

  4. Hi!
    I love your site, I grew up helping my grandfather in his old fashion print shop. I basically grew up running is 1898 Chandler and Price printing press. I miss it, it was such a great experience, and provided me with great leg exercises!
    I came across your site because I was searching for an image for "Mind your P's and Q's." I am in the elementary education program at USU and have to develop a website for class. The website I am making is titled "Mind your P's and Q's" because I heard my grandpa say that all of the time (but he always added "and B's and D's). I introduced the site with a brief description of printing, and I think this picture would be perfect for it. I was wondering if you would allow me to use it? I would be really grateful! Please let me know!.
    Feel free to email me at

    I love your site!

    Brianne Richardson