The Yellow Kid Blues

We all know the old tale, first spun by Moses Koenigsberg, that the Yellow Kid was originally colored yellow in order for pressmen to have a large space in which to test troublesome yellow ink. We also know that the story is almost certainly just that, a story. Two facts indicate that the story is false; first, that newspapers were printing yellows with no apparent problem before the advent of the Kid; and second, because the kid was initially colored blue, not yellow at all.

But most stories do have a grain of truth about them, and I wonder if I might just have stumbled across that grain. Below you will find an article from the June 1893 issue of American Pressman, in which a correspondent is complaining that they are having trouble with blue ink. The problem described is exactly that described by Koenigsberg, just not the color he claimed. And the date is telling, because this is just the time when the New York World was starting to print in color (albeit long before the Yellow Kid would make his appearance).

Did the World’s early troubles with blue ink somehow get mixed up with the story of the initially blue Kid, and ended up combined as a single, somewhat mangled, tall tale? No way to tell, but interesting nevertheless.

Working Colors on Each Other
(American Pressman, June 1893)

How to work a job in two, three or four colors, on top of each other, and keep the colors true, so that there shall be no amalgamation, is a problem that has so often puzzled pressmen.

We have before us an anxious inquiry from one who has a large cut on the press in three colors—certain shades of yellow, red and blue. He worked his yellow first, after striking his key-form; then he put on his red and ran that off. These two colors seemed to go all right, and to “stay put” but when he got on his blue the trouble showed itself, and he found he was stumped because, as he says himself, “the impression showed up with a fatty or mottled look, especially after it had lain for some time; and the color wasn’t true, wasn’t what was wanted.”

The remedy is an easy one. Have your sheets thoroughly dusted over with powdered magnesia, in the same way as you use bronze powder, and you will find the trouble disappear, for the reason that the inks will be prevented from amalgamating.

This is precisely the same treatment as you would give either a black or colored form, whether cut or type, on top of which you had to print in gold bronze—powder it with magnesia dust. By this means you can print anything that goes on a press on top of a dozen colors.

The secret of the trouble of working colors on top of each other is that the oil of the fresh ink softens the oil of the ink that has already been worked, and which is supposed to be dry. There is life in oil, as there is life in water (though neither has affinity for the other, yet both work in many respects in the same way). As soon as the under ink is set free by its fellow, the fresh ink, both begin to caper about and spread and run together, and of course they carry with them the coloring matter they hold, which now also partially released, breaks up into particles and presents the “fatty or mottled look” which our correspondent complains of.

Blue is a hard color to work sometimes, even alone, as many pressmen have experienced, especially with type of heavy face or cuts with solid surfaces. If the operator would stop to consider, he would find that there is grease somewhere, on his rollers, on his form, or on his distributing plate. Blue ink of all kinds, and certain blues more than others, rebel against the slightest suspicion of foreign grease, and instantly show their dislike for the stranger by assuming a mottled or spotted character. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty from dirt and everything else that injures. Keep everything clean.

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