Death of a Pressman

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By: Fritz Swanson | August 21, 2012

A remembrance of Tom Trumble, letterpress pressman, and a meditation on preservation and nostalgia

A remembrance of Tom Trumble, letterpress pressman, and a meditation on preservation and nostalgia

“In an era of stress and anxiety, when the present seems unstable and the future unlikely, the natural response is to retreat and withdraw from reality, taking recourse . . . in modified visions of a half-imagined past.” Adrian Veidt, Watchmen

A letterpress pressman has died in America.

In 2010, there were more than 200,100 printing-machine operators working in the United States, a modest growth from the 140,000 pressmen and their assistants employed in 1975. The increase precisely mirrors the population growth over the same period. But absent in the numbers is the fact that over that time, letterpress printing has gone from being a declining but still important technology to a virtually extinct practice. Once, letterpress machines were at the center of the printing industry, their care and use taught in high schools across the country. Today, the majority of the pressmen who run monstrous web-fed offset presses would see a clacking Gordon-style jobber press as, at best, a quaint toy; at worst, an irritating and cumbersome relic.

And yet, according to Don Black, the owner of Don Black Linecasting, a major letterpress-equipment dealer based in Toronto, the value of a Vandercook press today is five times what it was just a decade ago. A generation has grown up in a world where Gutenberg’s metal type has been replaced by cascades of style sheets and the infinite white landscape of an InDesign work space. As commercial pressmen retire or die, tens of thousands of young designers, old tinkerers, and assorted enthusiasts step in as impromptu preservationists. While a vanishing few are old hands, most of these people have only a little letterpress experience. But they have wholly bought into the idea, the myth, of letterpress. I am one of these people, one of these “preservationists.” But what are we preserving?

* * *

Letterpress printing has been dying for more than a century. This year, we are celebrating (approximately) the 120th birthday of the nostalgia for traditional printing. It was in 1891 that William Morris founded his famous Kelmscott Press, where he set out to reinvigorate the traditional printing methods of Gutenberg, Jenson, and Caxton. And it was in 1892 that worsening conditions in the handset-type business forced 23 of the largest remaining type foundries in America to consolidate into the American Type Founders Company, where Henry Lewis Bullen began collecting one of the country’s largest type-founding and printing libraries, now housed at Columbia University, in New York.1 By the late 19th century, anxieties over the loss of the old ways of printing were already crystalizing.

In 1895 the mood turned from anxiety into opportunity when Elbert Hubbard started his imitation of the Kelmscott Press. Hubbard, a thriving soap salesman, founded the Roycroft Campus in East Aurora, New York, and brought arts-and-crafts design to a mass audience. In 1898, William Morris died.

What exactly are we mourning, and when, precisely, did it die? Are we mourning the age of Gutenberg and the world of the wooden common press? The type foundries of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, with their ranks of punch cutters and their battalions of castors and finishers? The iron presses of the early 19th century, operated by those lonely country printers? The massive mid-19th-century composing-room floors, where hundreds of compositors stood pole-straight in front of their cases, stick in hand, processing tons of lead a year, letter by letter?

How can we date the death of this massive, indescribable thing? The perfection of a reliable web-fed press by William Bullock, in 1865, certainly challenged the traditional notion of a single pressman hand-feeding and caring for his machine. And in the 1880s, Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine, coupled with Linn Boyd Benton’s punch cutter, laid waste to the traditional economics of both the type-founding business and the composing room. And with Ira Rubel’s offset press of 1905, and then the coupling of the press with a web-feed system during the First World War . . .

Do you see how hard this is? Like a French scene, characters stream in and out, innovations rise, old methods fall, very little vanishes, but the energy and focus of printing is protean, unfolding. Where do we draw the line?

In 1907, Elbert Hubbard wanted desperately for William Morris’s daughter to visit the Roycroft campus and imbue it with the mystical energy of her father’s potent and originalist nostalgia. She is reported to have replied, “I most certainly will not go to East Aurora, nor do I have any desire to see that obnoxious imitator of my dear father.”

Nostalgia is always in tension with authenticity, one pulling toward the other; but they can never meet. Today we call it letterpress, and with that word we mean all things old in printing, from all periods, in an undifferentiated and anachronistic mass. We conjure halcyon days of bodkins and ink balls and jovial, balding men, their pudgy bellies draped with inky aprons, peering down through half-moon lenses at cases of sorts, the room yellowy and warm with the whale-oil light of their lanterns. For some, it’s punchcutters; for others, engraving machines. For some, it’s the devil’s tail of an old iron press, while others are seduced by the wheezing and whirling of a windmill’s automatic feeder. Morris was drawn to it, Bullen and the other old lions of the 19th-century industrial world were driven to it, and Hubbard, always the salesman in search of an angle, realized that he could market it. And we are all living with it.

We see deeply impressed wedding invitations in Martha Stewart’s magazines. CNN markets “American Democracy” with the faux authenticity of underinked gothic letters, while Chrysler has tried to anchor its line of Ram trucks to the masculine work ethic of handset metal type. Just the other day, I saw the characteristic faded-ink distribution of poor wood-type printing reproduced on the side of a McDonald’s plastic cup.

For 120 years, letterpress has been dying. This is nostalgia, bottled. It is mourning, framed on the wall. Printing has been dying while it lives. Its pallbearers are lining up around the block, and the hired mourners have been wailing in shifts day and night for decades.

But what are we mourning? Whom?

A pressman has died in America. His name was Tom Trumble. I’m mourning him. Let me tell you about him, and about the nostalgia we call letterpress.

“There are many kinds of work here that we are responsible for, any one of which could be a life’s work.” Theo Rehak

Tom Trumble was a letterpress pressman. It wasn’t the only thing he ever did, but it was his first and longest love, the thing he returned to again and again throughout his life.

He started in 1957, when he came to work for Lee Chamberlain2 at the Parma News Publishing Company in Parma, Michigan. Tom was 17, a junior in high school, and eager to get going with his life. Lee said, “
Well, I need somebody with experience.” Tom answered, “How am I going to get experience if you don’t hire me?”

Tom was with Lee for less than a year when, after he was caught skipping school with a friend, the assistant principal gave him a choice: serve detention and miss work (and thereby lose his job) or get kicked out of school. “Tom never liked having things put to him,” Susie Trumble, Tom’s widow, told me. Tom chose printing and left school.

Lee Chamberlain and his pressman, Tom Trumble, in 1957, shortly after Tom was hired

Lee Chamberlain and his pressman, Tom Trumble, in 1957, shortly after Tom was hired

Lee himself was a young man at the time. He was 36 when he hired Tom, and only 25 when he had bought The Parma News, shortly after the war. Like Tom, he had started printing when he was a boy, at 18. Lee had been trained as a Linotype operator while working at the The Springport Signal and then The Albion Recorder, two small-town newspapers. The training that Lee got was pragmatic and characteristic of its time. The old guy next to Lee brought his smelly bulldog to work every day, and it laid down right between them, next to the old guy’s spittoon. Occasionally the old guy would look over at what Lee was working on and declare, “That’s not the way you do that.” That was how Lee learned the trade.

While Lee served in the Pacific during World War II, he took comfort in printing. Once while on shore leave in Auckland, New Zealand, after living through the horrors of Guadalcanal, he reoriented himself by running a Linotype at a local printer’s office for a day, for fun. “Just to get a taste of home,” Lee says.

As much as any pair in America, Tom and Lee could be said to represent classic, old-school, professional letterpress printing. Lee and his wife practically slept at the shop (one of their children had a daybed, under the paper cutter, where she took her afternoon nap), and Tom lived and breathed the business too. “Of all the people I employed over the years,” Lee says, “he was by far the best. He could do anything. When we didn’t have any printing, he’d be doing some carpentry work or something. He became my very best friend.”

Lee had one big contract with a company called Park-O-Meter, producing what are called overtime parking tickets, which Tom printed. These crisp and disposable forms were printed on the Heidelberg and assembled in the shop for municipal clients all around mid-Michigan. Lee explains the job this way:

“At that time, if you got a ticket at a meter, it had a place below that you could pay your fine right there. It told you how much, everything. We printed the coin envelope, the ticket, the whole package. And we produced those by the millions. The cover sheet was carbonized. We did the carbonizing on the Heidelberg with soft carbon. It’s a nasty job. About once a month, we’d get them done in big batches, ahead of time, because that carbon ink, which looked a lot like ink, would drift. It would get all over the shop. It would get on your hands, in your eyes and hair, everywhere. Tom did all the carbonizing.”

The flag for The Parma News was handset by Lee in 72-point Goudy Bold. He made the change for the September 25, 1947, issue. The typeface was used until November 16, 1966, around the time that Tom left. (No one is exactly sure when Tom quit.) By then, Lee had had a cut made of the flag, and reduced it by 33 percent or so. The type was put back in the cabinet.

The flag for The Parma News was handset by Lee in 72-point Goudy Bold. He made the change for the September 25, 1947, issue. The typeface was used until November 16, 1966, around the time that Tom left. (No one is exactly sure when Tom quit.) By then, Lee had had a cut made of the flag, and reduced it by 33 percent or so. The type was put back in the cabinet.

The Parma News. This newspaper flag is set in 72-point Goudy Bold, designed by Morris Fuller Benton in 1918, and based on the famous Goudy Old Style face designed by Frederic Goudy in 1915.

The Parma News. This newspaper flag is set in 72-point Goudy Bold, designed by Morris Fuller Benton in 1918, and based on the famous Goudy Old Style face designed by Frederic Goudy in 1915.

om Trumble and “his” 10-by-15 Heidelberg Platen Blackball. When Lee bought the Heidelberg in 1958, Tom Trumble was trained on it. In the background I believe Lee is gluing together parking tickets using a padding machine of his own invention. Park-O-Meter, a parking-ticket company from Sandstone, Michigan, was their largest account.

Tom Trumble and “his” 10-by-15 Heidelberg Platen Blackball. When Lee bought the Heidelberg in 1958, Tom Trumble was trained on it. In the background I believe Lee is gluing together parking tickets using a padding machine of his own invention. Park-O-Meter, a parking-ticket company from Sandstone, Michigan, was their largest account.

After a decade of jobs like this, the precision of letterpress work was drilled into Tom. As Lee explains it, the “aesthetic” of this work (if you want to call it that) was extremely utilitarian: “With good letterpress printing, you don’t want any impression showing at all. You want to kiss it and do a good job but not push the paper down.”

No Park-O-Meter tickets or envelopes from this period can be found, and certainly none that can be ascribed to Lee or Tom.3 Like much of what Parma printed, they were designed to be thrown away. If we looked at them now, they would be unremarkable—perfectly flat with perfectly even ink coverage. We would find it difficult to distinguish them from something printed on an offset press or even from a home computer’s printer.

Without realizing it, Lee and Tom were executing an essential dictum of typography, described by Beatrice Warde:

Imagine that you have before you a flagon of wine. . . . You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether or not you are a connoisseur of wine. For if you have no feelings about wine one way or the other, you will want the sensation of drinking the stuff out of a vessel that may have cost thousands of pounds; but if you are a member of that vanishing tribe, the amateurs of fine vintages, you will choose the crystal, because everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain.

Utilitarian transparency is not something that we now typically associate with letterpress. Letterpress today is entirely about process, and in that way it seems to have become the gaudy golden cup that can obscure so much about its contents.

Consider, for example, the introduction to the book Impressive: Printmaking, Letterpress & Graphic Design, published in 201
0 by Gestalten:

Letterpress . . . offers a three-dimensional quality unrivaled by other printing methods—the physical bite into the paper adds its own topography, hills, troughs, and definition to crisp lines, patterns, and typography. . . . [T]he cheeky pleasures of overprinting, of deliberate mistakes, of smudges, splashes and splurges, add a personal signature to the finished product.

This “dimensionality” espouses, according to the author, a “self-reliant go-getter attitude” characteristic of the American Midwest’s newly rediscovered “maker spirit.”

When I read this kind of lyric, I can only imagine Tom. Tom was a lover of old junk, of fixing things and saving things and making things go. When I was a boy, my dad and Tom would rebuild old tractors together, and though I hated it at the time, I can now remember nothing so beautiful as watching blowtorch fire falling like hot rain from the fender of an old John Deere Model A or a Minneapolis Moline, as men cut the metal in Tom’s barn. I would sit on an old milk can, and the men would tell blue jokes that I wasn’t meant to hear, and slowly the machine would rise up from the floor into something that looked like it would run again.

But that feeling, that smell of oil, the satisfying look of gears meshing—as much as that was something Tom loved, you were never meant to see that in the printing. And so, though this letterpress aesthetic reminds me of Tom, it would have made him laugh, or yell.

Envelope with a faint hint of dimensionality

Envelope with a faint hint of dimensionality

I worry that the process and the product are getting confused; that we want the satisfaction of the making to come through in the thing made. But you don’t get that satisfaction, nameless consumer. I’m sorry.

Part of my heart says you didn’t earn it. Tom worked hard to hide it from you. He wasn’t always perfect, but that was the job of a workaday printer. He gets to keep that feeling. It’s not for you.

As Elbert Hubbard, that old phony, once wrote, “The love you liberate in your work is the only love you keep.” But this feeling is wrapped up in my sense of how Tom’s life played out.

Tom worked for Lee for ten years, from 1957 to 1967. He dropped out of school for the job, in part because he didn’t want anyone to put anything to him. He was, as they say, self-reliant. Or maybe we call that stubborn. “He was a stubborn SOB,” his widow, Susie, says to me, smiling.

There were a lot of things Lee and Tom did not always see eye to eye on. One day, Lee put it to him: Was he going to print or not? Tom never liked having things put to him.

Tom worked as a manufacturing foreman for Clark Equipment for many years after that, until the factory closed down at the end of the 1980s. Then he drove a truck, plowing roads for the county. But he never got away from printing.

Around this time, Lee was liquidating the printing company. Lee had sold the business on contract to three different groups of guys who couldn’t make a go of it, who couldn’t even run the presses right, and all along Tom watched from the sidelines, agonized to watch it fade away.

Lee had a Heidelberg cylinder, which was a huge machine, and he gave one of those fellows to whom he had sold the business permission to sell it. “He didn’t know how to run it, didn’t want it, and I told him he could sell it even though I was still holding him in contract,” Lee says. The movers came in, and they loaded it on a flatbed bound for Chicago.

“It was a beautiful machine,” Lee says. “I enjoyed running that machine. When that was installed, the man that installed it said, ‘Now, I’ll work with you for a week,’ which I think he did. And when he got the thing completely installed, at the high point on the press he stood a nickel up on end and ran it at top speed, which was pretty fast. Until the day I sold it, still that coin was standing there, just like that. That was just how smooth it was.”

On the way to Chicago, the movers got into a traffic accident, the press landed on the pavement, and the iron broke right in two.

After the fools faded away, Tom stepped in and bought all of the surviving letterpress equipment. This was an honest, earned nostalgia.

Around the same time as Lee was getting out and Tom was getting in, the American Type Founders Company went bankrupt for the last time, and its entire industrial holdings were auctioned off, mostly for scrap. This, like everything else, is the paradox of letterpress. We can call the late 1980s and early ’90s the final, ultimate, apocalyptic end of the bulk of commercial letterpress printing. But it was also the moment when old men, in their retirement, were saving presses from junkyards and failing businesses. As Tom was buying the fragments of little Lee Printing, Theo Rehak was salvaging the core of ATF to bolster his foundry at the Dale Guild.

Tom bought the type, the steel-type bank, two galley cabinets, a Ludlow caster and a bank of brass matrices, and a handful of press-room bits and bobs. And he bought the 10-by-15 Heidelberg Blackball Windmill (the brother of the destroyed cylinder) that he had been trained on as a boy.

* * *

When I was a boy around this time, I told my dad that I wanted to print my own books. I convinced him to buy me a scanner and a laser printer, which must have cost $1,200 on top of the computer he had just bought me. I, of course, was totally self-centered and had no idea that he had really put himself out to buy that stuff, but I was a kid, so there’s that. I wanted to make books. I wanted to print high-quality interiors, and then bind them.

When Dad saw that I was really excited about books and printing, he must have proudly told Tom about it. Dad came back with four strips of lead, each with one of our names on it in backward letters. One for me; one for my sister, Erika; one for Mom; and one for him. I didn’t understand it at the time, but Tom had cast these on his Ludlow. Tom was offering, my dad said, to train me as a printer. You know, after school, for fun. Tom had made me this bit of type, and, really, Dad said, I should do it.

But I hated having things put to me. I said no to the offer of being trained by Tom Trumble. I’ve regretted that decision every day of my adult life. It is a strange thing that the whims of boys should rule the lives of men.

* * *

Years later, I had still not shaken the feeling of that metal type. In 2005, I came across a listing on Briar Press in which a lady from Rochester, New York, was selling her entire print shop for $1,200. At the spur of the moment I called her and agreed to buy it, and then started planning how to get it. From there I called Tom Trumble, to get his advice.

It was an awful conversation. I didn’t know a platen from an ink disk; I didn’t remember the size of the press I was buying. He sniffed out my ignorance and uncertainty, and as men like that always do, he pressed me aggressively. I see now that he didn’t want me to make a foolish mistake, but I wasn’t having any of it.

I went ahead and bought that press. You can call it “self-reliant.” I’ll call it being a son of a bitch.

I never said anything really personal to Tom. I never asked about his time as a printer or his advice on how to print things. After passing up his offer years before, I was nervous, and I didn’t feel it was my place. I have no idea what he thought.

Talking to Tom reminded me of what the wrecker driver said to me as he helped me lower my press down into my basement: “With heavy things like this, you can’t control them. All you can do is influence them.”

“I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in ‘creation’s dawn.’ The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half made, becomes more beautiful every day.” John Muir

Letterpress printing died on June 4, 2011, of cancer. It was in his brain and his lungs and his bones.

I want him back.

I feel like I am printing now because I threw it away when I was a boy. I wonder if that’s how Tom felt too. I’m sure Tom would say, “It’s just printing.”

And that’s what it was to him. Just printing. Tom was never a preservationist. He was (and Lee still is4) entirely ignorant of the modern letterpress resurgence. When Tom opened up his basement print shop, Ye Olde Print Shoppe, he did it for money. He loved it, but he did it to make money. I’m not sure those two things were distinct for him. I wonder if the key to what he missed about printing for Lee was the primal pleasure of loving what you get paid to do. There is something pure about that. There is no distinction between art, craft, commercial, aesthetic. If it all lines up right, you are just rewarded for being who you are. What could be more beautiful?

“He’d be down there in that shop all day,” Susie says, affectionately. “Clack-clack-clack, that press would go. He loved that old Heidelberg.”

Tom’s big account in retirement was with a meat processor in Jackson, Michigan, called the Beef Barn. He printed what are called “meat slips” (slips of paper put into the packaging with cuts of meat that have been custom butchered, usually for a hunter who has a whole deer cut or a farmer who has a whole hog cut). His printing was utilitarian, and the impressions looked like Xerox prints. In fact, I wondered why the company didn’t just Xerox the slips in the first place, but Tom beat the copy machines on price.

Here was a letterpress printer in the 21st century, who had decades of experience, working on a Heidelberg Windmill that he had been trained on by the dealer when it was purchased new, and he was selling 1,000 prints for $7! It boggles the mind.

From a box of Beef Barn meat-slip slugs. Tom had these stored with his scrap lead, presumably to melt down.

From a box of Beef Barn meat-slip slugs. Tom had these stored with his scrap lead, presumably to melt down.

Proof of Beef Barn meat slips

Proof of Beef Barn meat slips. Susie had a hard time parting with this. There are only about four or five left. There will never be any more.

Beef Barn gift certificate

Beef Barn gift certificate. You can see the perfect, faintly indented kiss impression. Tom seems to have used a premade certificate sheet with an orange border. But he case the lead Ludlow slug type himself.

The Beef Barn

When Tom died, Susie called me to see if I could help her sell off the shop. She wanted it to go to people who had loved it the way he had. I couldn’t buy the heavy equipment, I had no place for the press or the Ludlow, but I did buy his galley cabinets. In them he had saved the most amazing things. He kept his own standing type, of course, ready to print new Beef Barn gift certificates and the like. But he also had forms from Lee Printing; from Don Purdy Printing, in Jackson; and from a lot of other places that he never wrote down. In those two cabinets was the unsigned output of a handful of workaday artists who designed and printed letterhead—not because it was their calling, and not to express themselves, but because it was the only thing they could think to do that made them money and made them happy.

All the more amazing, Tom seems not to have collected the forms out of any sentimentality. He had kept them together, and notwithstanding the dangers of moving precarious forms of hand-set type, and the problem of old string rotting away, they were in good shape when I found them. I think he hoped he could get new business from them. Ultimately, though, most of these little Jackson businesses aren’t prospects for a printer today. I interviewed many of the businesses represented in his collection, and nearly all of them have abandoned commercial printing altogether. When I asked one secretary if she had an example of her company’s current letterhead, she looked at me, confused. “We do all of that in Word,” she said. When I showed her a photo of the form with the old hand-set type, I might as well have been showing her a cuneiform tablet.

Tom knew that, though. His galleys were all built out of Ludlow slugs that he had cast himself, for clients who needed some special service. Most were perforated jobs, or jobs that required numbering. Only the meat slips seemed really mysterious, though when Tom died, and Susie tried to sell the last of the slips to the Beef Barn, she was told that they weren’t being used anymore. She ended up trading them for a meager amount of meat.

I discovered the more likely reason he had collected all of the forms when, while cleaning his shop, I found three large coffee cans behind his Ludlow machine. The cans were under the Ludlow’s lead pot, and there was metal dross that had splashed from the pot mixed in with the type.

Tom had been dumping these elegantly produced forms into the cans, and then melting the high-quality lead down into pigs of lead that he would feed into the machine. Beautiful early-20th-century typefaces like Cheltenham Condensed, Comstock, Bernhard Roman, and Bernhard Heavy, from foundries like ATF, Chicago, Detroit, that had been built up into interesting and elegant forms for companies long dead—they were all being melted down. He was turning them into forms for perfectly printed meat slips, overtime forms for the county road commission, and novelty cards with off-color jokes and insults that he printed and sold at local gas stations.

As I hefted one of the red coffee cans, an antique printer’s term tumbled out of my head. This pied type was meant for the furnace. This was what the old printers called a Hellbox.

What does any of this tell me about letterpress, nostalgia, preservation, the whole shot? It all seems so contradictory, so impenetrable. I wish Tom were alive so I could ask him, but I know he wouldn’t even want to understand the question.

In one box I found a novelty card that Tom had printed to sell at the Parma Citgo gas station, which is at exit 130, across the street from the local adult bookstore, the Velvet Touch. The card read: “I can only please one person a day, and today ain’t your day. (Tomorrow ain’t lookin too good either!)”

* * *

I decided I needed an expert opinion. I called my friend Kseniya Thomas, owner of Thomas-Printers and co-founder (with Jessica White, owner of Heroes and Criminals Press) of the letterpress community Ladies of Letterpress. Like me, she’s been doing this for about seven years. But while I’ve been printing as a hobby, she’s taking the letterpress resurgence to a
level of professionalism and commercial viability that perfectly matches the aesthetic moment. As much as anyone, she is contemporary letterpress. Her work is beautiful— clean, colorful, pillowy—and she makes money doing what she loves. Her business has grown every year since she has opened. Tom would smile.

As for my metaphysical anxiety about “authenticity” versus “nostalgia”? Her answer was a welcome bucket of cold water. “The kiss-versus-punch debate is a red herring. A crisp bite into the paper is the reality of most letterpress work. As there is bad no-impression printing and good, there is also bad dimensionality and good dimensionality. It is possible to push too hard into the paper, creating an unsightly crushed impression rather than a crisp one.”

The key, from her perspective, is the customer: “Customers expect letterpress today to have a deep impression. They expect it to look and feel, if not actually be, expensive. In a way, it’s like having a custom suit made, and it’s one of a few things in life that you can discuss with a maker and then have it made, if that makes sense. The client receives an education in making something, and helps make it.”

Even the letterpress community that she helped found has been turned to an entirely pragmatic purpose. It has 1,500 members so far, and they are all there to learn and to improve. “Most of our members are new to letterpress,” she says. “There are few traditionally trained letterpress printers around anymore, but I wish they would all join LOLP and tell us everything they know and remember. When you’re just starting out with letterpress, there’s a lot of reinventing the wheel that goes on. In lieu of being an apprentice for seven years or studying the printing trades in college, the best resources we have are people who have been printing for decades.

“We wanted a place where all the new printers starting out could get information and ask questions, all the while meeting other printers and feeling a part of a community. We also really wanted to convince all the new people getting presses and starting out that they were printers, and wanted them to feel invested in the history and importance of what they were doing.”

What I see in this is that modern letterpress printers are doing exactly what Tom and Lee did. They are serving customers, and making money by doing what they love. Letterpress is dead because customers want it to be dead. Paradoxically, this is the very thing that brings it back to life each day. If customers were ignorant or ambivalent toward the history, and of what has been lost, then the process would be truly dead.

Letterpress is always dying. That’s what it is supposed to do now. There is no bringing anything, or anyone, back just as it was. We can’t keep everything. But if it wasn’t dead, we couldn’t mourn it in so many beautiful ways. And we would be denied the pleasure of resurrecting it, print by print by print.

After most of Tom’s shop had been cleared out, all that remained was the Heidelberg and the Ludlow. Susie said, “I’m glad it’s not all going at once. I’m glad it’s just slowly moving out,” and then she started to cry. “I miss him,” she said, her voice trembling, “I really do.” I hugged her. That old soap salesman was right all along. The only thing we can keep is the love liberated in our work.

“All the songs I hated in the ’80s, I now love because they remind me of the ’80s.” Nathan Fillion

While on a recent tour of the venerable Edward Brothers Printing Company, in Ann Arbor, my group and I were shown the web-fed offset presses that are bigger than city buses and tended to by men working in shifts. These huge machines are the apex of their technology, the culmination of more than a century of development and refinement.

Then my group was shown the output quality of the company’s new digital presses, used to produce print-on-demand books. The machine was about the size of a Mini Cooper. I felt the crisp white page, with its characteristic raised letters, the very faint texture caused by the depositing of black toner onto the surface of the page.

I turned to a friend who, years before, had helped me move my old press and joked, “Someday we’ll be nostalgic for the feel of these prints.”

“Artisanal zines photocopied on vintage Xeroxes using traditional methods!” he crowed. “Just like the street punks of ye olden days!”

1. Donated by American Type Founders in 1941 as one of many cost-cutting measures prompted by the company’s slow half-century-long decline. 2. Lee, who sat for an interview with me two days after his 91st birthday, still lives in his home on Grove Street in the village of Parma, where I grew up. 3. The meters themselves, however, are often sold on eBay. Automobile nostalgists buy them. 4. For the whole three hours that I spoke with Lee, I’m not sure it ever sank in that letterpress printing was anything but a dead process from his youth. When I asked him when letterpress printing finally died, in his opinion, he paused and thought. Then, with finality, he said, “The 1940s.” Even though he ran a letterpress and offset shop his whole life, letterpress as a process was, to him, dead before he even bought the business.

August 2012 issue of Print

This article is from the August 2012 issue of Print, which is devoted to trash. You can also view the table of contents, purchase the issue, or download a PDF version.