Q What is the story with single color or duo color Sundays? How did this come about and what percentage of papers ran these versus full color? Did the cartoonists provide the tones for these versions?
A Four color printing is a royal pain for newspapers. Each color printed on a page requires that the paper be run through the press, and that means that for four color printing the paper has to run four times. Not only that, each time the pages are run through they must be given a little time to dry to prevent smudging, and great care must be taken on each run to make sure that the paper runs through exactly ‘on register’. That means that each of the colors is overlaid on the page to agree with the positioning of the previously printed colors. Failure to do this correctly results in a page that prints ‘off register’, a problem you’ve certainly seen where one or more colors print outside of the area where they’re supposed to go.
Until the 1920s it was a practically universal practice to print one side of the broadsheet in full four color glory, and to cheat on the other side, printing two, three, or even just a single colored ink. This shortcut would be hidden from the newspaper buyer by always making the less attractive side the inside of the section. Major papers would tend to just drop down to two or three color, while smaller papers often went so far as to print interiors in monocolor.
In the 1920s this practice started to fall out of favor, but even into the thirties and forties many newspapers, even the major papers in big cities, took the shortcut on some interior pages. The Boston Globe, for instance, kept printing some pages in mono-color right up into the 1950s. However, most papers dropped the practice by the mid-30s.
From the cartoonist’s perspective the number of colors was important in that they were responsible for producing color guides. Rarely did cartoonists produce a fully colored version of their strips for the print shop. Rather they would, either on their original art or on a black and white proof, indicate which colors were to be used where by means of splotches of color or color code numbers. For instance, if George McManus was producing a color guide for a Bringing Up Father strip, he would indicate only once per page that Jiggs’ vest was to be colored red. The bullpen employee or colorist in the print shop was left with the responsibility when making the color proofs of making sure the vest was properly colored red in each panel.
Until the 1920s, when newspapers started going away from the previous standard of full color on the outside, 1-2- or 3-color on the inside, cartoonists did color guides based on the number of colors that would be used for their strip in the home paper. For instance, I have a Bobby Make-Believe Sunday from 1918 that was evidently slated to appear on an inside page of the Chicago Tribune, and Frank King colored the art all in shades of tan. This would have been given to someone who would use it to produce a two-color proof (black and tan). A proof would also probably have been made for one-color printing, where the tan shades would get substituted with tones of grey, and only a single proof would be used to produce the page. However, as far as I know, there would have been no proof made that utilized three or four colors, so a client paper was limited on that strip to printing it in the interior pages of their section. They could, of course, substitute a different color for the tan, but if they wanted to print the strip in more colors, it would be up to them to make up their own custom proofs.
By the twenties, though, this practice seems to have died out. All Sunday strips, as far as I know, received the full four color treatment in syndicate proofs. There would have had to be proofs made for 1-2- and 3-color versions, but I can’t recall having ever seen examples. In any case, by the 20s there was no longer much thought put into producing less than four color proof, whereas in the 00s and 10s a great deal of effort was made at some syndicates to make these shortcut versions make the most of the colors that were used.