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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Pica Pole

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Old 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.

Now 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 more.

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 my name.

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.

I 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 youth.

"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 cake cutter.

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 update.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" June 10, 2010 column

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