Once upon a time, communication was heavily based on print: things you had to read. Yes, you must be able to read things posted on social media (except for those high-tech people who post only video.) But back in those elder days, things which had been printed were fixed on a page with ink. The writer could not go back and change a spelling or a word if something other than the intended meaning was coming across.
Books had their errors. (I have seen a copy of the Wicked Bible, accidentally printed without one tiny word, so that the commandment read “Thou Shalt Commit Adultery”; heads rolled.) Magazines, which came out more often and had to be assembled more quickly, were a riper field for errors, Newspapers were better: those had to be put out every day in the big city, and in smaller communities had to be put together by a small staff chosen for gumption and correct politics than for any ability with words.
But people seeking the accidental joke lived for their church newsletters and church bulletins. These were often written by some employee who was also opening the mail, talking to congregation members who wanted something done immediately about that hideous doormat in the vestibule, getting in the coal to heat the church, and taking care of other odd jobs. Small town religious institutions, operating on small budgets and often depending directly on what came in the offering plate, could not afford to hire a superhero who could be an accountant, secretary, librarian, Sunday School teacher, AND journalist. The result ornamented many a joke column in the cold, unfeeling world.
It is not quite fifty years ago that I did my stint in the world of religious journalism, preparing a weekly bulletin and a monthly newsletter, almost all of which had to be written by yours truly. Once I had the hymn numbers in, the names of the lay readers, and the Scripture texts for the service, I was entirely on my own. And empty space was a sign of failure.
Now, filling space with words has always kind of come naturally to me. (My blog posts have inspired writers who tell me, “And here I thought I shouldn’t write anything until I had something to say!”) When I had to, I could fill space with an entirely uncalled-for editorial. These large blocks of type served their purpose: they took up space and the reader’s eye skimmed past them, looking for more interesting things to read in the Prayers for the Sick and Wedding Announcements. In any case, I never had any complaints. (The only complaint I ever got was for my Wedding Announcements, where I frequently wished the newlyweds the best of luck. An angry reader demanded to know why luck was being referred to in a godly publication. I reworded my wishes, not so much to be more godly as to be less of a cliché.)
But over my writing hung the deadline, enhanced by the technology at hand. Everything I wrote had to be typed to work on a mimeograph machine: an ink-filled monster which could run off copies of what had been typed onto a stencil sheet. This was a porous pink or green sheet which the typewriter (no ribbon) cut into so the ink would flow through the letters and print on the page. Bad enough that the typewriter might cut out too much on a zero or the letter O, causing a black oval on the page, but any spelling error could only be fixed by typing over the letter—immediately obvious—or retyping the whole page.
After the page was printed, there was no going back: you either had to throw everything away and retype, or go with what you’d printed. A second printing, if you found you didn’t have enough copies, was intricate: ten to one that stencil sheet, now sodden with ink, would fold over. No matter how carefully you smoothed it out (getting ink all over), you would have wrinkle lines on the page, showing you’d goofed again.
Then, if you were mailing the newsletter, you had the joy of using the stencil addressing machinery. You took ink-stained rectangles, each with an address, loaded them into an ink-stained feeder, and hoped they would move as they were supposed to, printing each envelope just as it was SUPPOSED to (and presumably will…in Heaven.)
If I created any bloopers in this process good enough to be sent in to a joke column, no one told me, or sent me any royalties. But my sympathies are with the newsletter writers, whatever postcard publishers made of the unwary sins they committed on the page. (Though I will say this one has given me some sleepless nights.)