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Diary of a Letterpress Printer, circa 1913

by James Cryer

The Romance of LetterpressThe story behind the story

I realise that it’s an uphill battle to ask anyone to become interested in their happy-snaps. It’s twice as hard when you tell them they’re your grandfather’s! 

This is the story of the discovery of a diary my grandfather had written, back in 1913-14, as he travelled across America as a newly-minted letterpress printer, having grown up in Sydney. He was 21. 

But this story is not “all about him” – I never actually met him, which is another twist – but there are many messages that flow from this story. It’s hard to imagine him, every night as he travelled across America, staying overnight in a bed-sitter or guesthouse, busily recording his day’s activities – he could never have imagined that his words would still echo down the corridors of time, over 100 years later.

We gain some insights into him, some into the state of the printing industry at that time, and some glimpses into what society looked like at that time – moments before the world was plunged into darkness with the outbreak of WW I. Bear in mind, he was only a lowly tradesman, working “on the factory floor” so his words or observations were not sophisticated or well-informed as they may have been if they were the writings of a manager or an historian. They were, however, a “first hand” account by someone who was there, on the spot

Bear in mind also, this was a pivotal era, as up to this time society was literally a “horse-and-buggy” one, but it was unique in that horses shared the roads with cars, and square-rigged sailing vessels shared the seas with steam-powered ships. 

But in only a few years, as the world emerged from the other side of the war, it would be capable of building sophisticated machinery. And yes, it may be regrettable that the technology used, post-war, to build high-speed printing presses was based on lessons learnt in how to build machine-guns and tanks, but that’s the funny old world we live in.


Discovering the diary

But let me backtrack: it must be said that it was an amazing discovery to find this diary – containing nearly 200 pages all neatly written in pencil (which was typical of that time). As an aside, it must be said, that bearing in mind he probably left school at age 15-16, to join his father’s printery, his handwriting and spelling were almost perfect: I think I counted three spelling mistakes and two grammatical errors – and one of those was debatable! Was does that tell you about modern standards of teaching, 100 years later! This may also be a very rare example of such a diary still being around, ie, not having been thrown out, over 100 years later.

But there was another twist: about four years ago, when I busily started typing out the written word, I was intrigued to occasionally stumble across a reference to “p/c’’ – as in “I sent/received a p/c”. I assumed this meant “parcel” but eventually worked out it meant … “postcard”. Bearing in mind that this described events over 100 years ago, it was inconceivable that the “p/c’s” could have miraculously re-appeared. But they did! By an absolute fluke, one of my cousins had inherited the postcards (all 150-odd that he’d sent during his 10-month trip) and we can thank her for scanning them in between playing golf.

The one thing we should be thankful for, however, is that he had a fiancé, who encouraged him to send all those postcards – and luckily he married her, so they got passed down to her descendants (who didn’t throw them out!!!)

The reason all this has special significance is because I never got to meet this gentleman – he died the year before I was born. And so this prompted me to occasionally reflect on what sort of man he was. He was a very good man by all accounts – widely respected throughout the printing fraternity, a Mason, a Methodist and a member of the Lindfield church choir – he ticked all the boxes! But I had long since given up any hope of “communicating” with him, unless it was with the help of a ouija-board.


Difficulties in interpreting something written 100 years ago

And so it was an amazing experience that I should stumble upon this diary when going through my late father’s study. Upon picking it up and turning to the first page (which referred to him embarking on a ship leaving Sydney, in November, 1913) I knew immediately it was him!

However, there are some challenges in grappling with something written in another era. As mentioned, his hand-writing was perfect (better than our own kids!) but he would occasionally use a word, or term, that completely floored me. Suppose you’d attempted this task, 20 years ago – of typing out the diary – how would you unravel the following -

1) the D&RG?

2) the Jack Rabbit?

3) dobying?

You’d spend all day at the local library and drawn a blank. These days a 10-year old could probably Google/Wikipedia and find the answers in a matter of minutes.

It’d be like us driving over the harbour bridge and (assuming it got demolished soon after) and saying, “I drove across the SHB …”.One hundred years later “SHB” could be a complete mystery.

(OK, in case you’re wondering: 1) Denver & Rio Grande Railway – long since gone, 2) then the world’s highest roller-coaster ride, in Chicago – long since gone, and 3) doing one’s own laundry, actually “dhobying” (originally a naval term, long since gone.)


Grandparents, their role in society

This “discovery” has made me think about the role of grandparents, who over the centuries have been either useful, or not so useful. And after the last war, my parents, for example, didn’t want to be reminded of a bygone era (depressions, wars, old-fashioned clothing, etc) - so ourparents didn’t tell us much about theirparents – probably thinking we wouldn’t be interested! 

And so it was, that I grew up knowing nothing about my own father’s father – as if he’d never existed. (How things have changed: no longer are grandparents ignored – they’re now indispensable, as cheap baby-sitters!!!)


The reason for the trip

Moving right along … the reason for the trip? Back then, it was almost like a ritual, the boss would send his first-born son (no daughters!) off to England or America to learn the trade. His father had established the “family business” (Gibbs, Cryer Pty Ltd, a small printery in Druitt St, Sydney) in 1903, and would have said (something like), “Now, son, off you go, you’re a good Methodist so you’re not meant to have a good time – you’re there to work - and to call on as many printing companies and suppliers as you can and gain as much information about what’s going on in printing on the other side of the world!”

And that’s exactly what he did - along the way, he did in fact contact many printing companies, as well as manufacturers of printing presses, suppliers of inks, paper, etc – so we assume his father would have been proud of him. Just how much having a fiancé back in Sydney kept him “on the straight and narrow” we’ll never know – but - I should allude to the occasional reference he made to “L”, as in “I took “L” to the park” or “I took “L” home”. More on that later.


Off to America

And so, my grandfather jumped on a ship and shovelled coal across the Pacific, disembarking in San Francisco, on the very last day of 1913 – into the teeth of a howling blizzard. Having left a balmy Sydney summer, welcome to the Northern Hemisphere! 

To add to his woes he couldn’t get a job – America was going through one of its mini-depressions, largely caused by its very precarious banking system, where every man and his dog could set up a bank on the nearest street-corner – and then promptly go bust.

And so he jumped on a train and went to Utah, where he got a job (as a letterpress printer) in Salt Lake City. That didn’t last long, so he took another train trip to the Midwest where he got another job, which also didn’t last long.


A clashing of cultures

It was during this stint that he had “an argument with the boss”.This would normally not be a good look – until you realise the context: a collision of cultures. Australia had just passed, in 1909, the world’s most enlightened workplace laws granting such things as overtime, penalty rates, the whole schemozzle (maybe they were too generous, but that’s another debate.) Fast-forward to America, which had (and may still have) the toughest, most brutal work regime virtually unregulated and based on the notion of “rugged individualism”. And so working six days in a row, or working on a Saturday, made not the slightest difference – it was all at the same (low) rate. 

Because of this quite brutal, dog-eat-dog atmosphere, the unions were just starting to exert some influence – eg, the innocuously-named “traveller’s card” which was an attempt to force bosses to only employ tradesman. This is a stain on America’s industrial relations record, as even in the 1920s, various States would try and introduce such fair work laws, only to have them chucked out by the US Supreme Court on the grounds they infringed civil liberties!


Print: becoming a part of everyday life

At that time, printed products were starting to intrude more and more into peoples’ lives - even such mundane things as railway timetables, menus, business cards/stationery, etc. But America was starting to show its flair for marketing, even then. There began to spring up, things called “novelty shops” which sold what we would call, personalised- or branded-printing – like coffee-mugs, baseball-caps, etc. 

One of the classic examples was womens’ powder-compacts – which banks would use as “give-aways”. So the stylish woman of 1913 would stop in downtown Chicago to put her lippy on using a compact with “First National City Bank” plastered all over it. I suspect the women soon realised they were being duped – but Hollywood to the rescue! They “invented” Jean Harlow and flogged her image to the newly-emerging salaried women – who saw no problem in brandishing a picture of the latest Hollywood starlet. Yes, the printing industry was the beneficiary, but not without its challenges: try printing subtle skin-tones onto metal or ceramic!

This is just one example of how printing was making its presence felt. But also how clients were demanding the impossible and the printing industry had to rise to the occasion.


The role of postcards and the advent of ‘three-colour printing’

Arguably, the most dramatic example of this, was the humble postcard. Surprisingly, postcards experienced what they called a “golden era” way back, even before WW I – between 1905-12, when literally millions of postcards were whirling around the globe, like a swarm of locusts. And people didn’t even have to travel – you could send one to your pen-friend in Scotland or Canada, saying “How are you?”and they’d send one back say “Very well, how are YOU?”(Are you getting scary feelings of comparisons with modern “social media”?).

The problem was, demand was far outstripping the industry’s capacity to supply    due to the slowness of the printing process– and – the cost of printing even a humble postcard put them in the “luxury” category. But where there’s a will there’s a way and somebody worked out that you could speed-up the process if you eliminated one colour – ie, from CMYK, back to three colours. But which three? Basically it was the three primary colours – minus black – which if tweaked slightly, could achieve a masterful reproduction of most scenes. (Jet black doesn’t appear too much in nature.)

Another example of how one industry, in this case travel by the burgeoning middle classes, was able to push the print industry to new heights. Plenty of printing companies, back then, made lots of money producing the humble postcard. In making postcards better and more affordable, it probably also helped promote more tourism!

But consider another problem: these days to achieve four-colour reproductions, we apply rigid standards: colour is calibrated, inks are made to consistent standards, paper is made to various standards of opacity, porosity, reflectance. Imagine back then, you’re a printing company charged with reproducing a printed image of a scene, to closely match the original.



There were no colour standards, no ink standards and no paper standards – a printing company had to be its own “laboratory” - testing, by trial-and-error all the ingredients – and don’t forget colour-matching was very much in the eye of the beholder, as interior-lighting was also all over the place – and – it was basically up to each tradesman

to colour-match the outcome – and there was a one in 20 chance he could be colour-blind!

But in spite of all these impediments, or perhaps because of them, we persevered and the humble postcard became the rock upon which print got a massive technological kick-start. Hard to imagine now.

The “need” for three-colour quickly evaporated with the outbreak of WW I, and the technology developed by the big engineering companies to make rapidly-reciprocating machine-guns, gave them the know-how to manufacture another rapidly-reciprocating machine, namely the four-colour printing-press.

The other death-knell for three-colour printing was the explosion in packaging in the 1920s, as more companies tried to catch the eye of the consumer with bright colours, which could not be achieved with the “muddy” outcomes of three colours.

Another aside: three-colour printing was one of those chapters in our history that’s “been and gone”, with insufficient recognition, in my opinion. It was an important plank in our evolution, but has never been acknowledged. I suspect there’s a “PhD” in it for someone – or at the very least, a learned body such as a print museum, to try and replicate the three-colour process, as an experiment, and see how close you can get to printing a scene – as well as they did back then.


Tramp printers – who showed more allegiance to craft than to their employer

Another phenomena which has come and gone, was the idea of the “tramp printer”. Somewhat unique to America, given its wide open spaces, during the 1880s, there arose a new breed of artisan/mechanics (and sometimes the demarcation was blurred) who roamed from town to town, operating presses for however long they were needed – before moving on. This of course was before the advent of apprenticeships in printing so you just had to grab whoever you could. But the best candidates were motor-mechanics who were familiar with fixing agricultural equipment or pumps! Not too much artistry there, but you worked with what you could get. 

Australia never had a direct equivalent, although the itinerant shearer springs to mind as a brother-in-arms. That’s truer than we may think, as both groups shared two things: 1) a loyalty more to their craft than to any one employer, and 2) they were both sources of foment against oppressive employers of that era, which later lead to the birth of the union movement.


Chicago – the location of the world’s biggest everything

Anyway, after meeting with mixed success in trying to find employment in the Midwest, someone said “Go to Chicago!”– which he did, and immediately found secure employment – well, for four months, anyway!

It happened to be with Chicago’s largest printer (which, made it also the world’slargest printer) – RR Donnelly, running a new high-speed (by those standards) rotary-letterpress machine (which meant it printed using rotating cylinders, rather than the slower, flatbed presses). This device would have been like driving a Ferrari – expensive, fast, sophisticated – even prestigious, although we don’t know his fiance’s reaction, if in fact she had one).

And what was he printing? The world’s largest print job (based on my own research – can somebody prove me wrong!). At that time Chicago had the world’s largest (do you see a pattern here?) mail-order company: Sears-Roebuck, which had built a fortune not as a bricks-and-mortar retailer but entirely as a mail-order business. Probably hundreds of 1,000s of huge directories (the size of two house-bricks) would be sent out to probably millions of families across America’s Midwest, who would spend their entire winter huddled round the fireside, from Texas to Montana, eagerly ordering everything from corsets to tractor-parts from these huge, fully illustrated directories.

It must be remembered that at that time Chicago was experiencing a kind of growth spurt, both industrially and culturally. It was the centre of America’s vast agricultural empire which made it the biggest railhead, with the world’s biggest abattoir, as well as the newly-emerging “prairie school of architecture” (from whence came Walter Burley Griffin, who won the prize to design Canberra, back in 1913). Companies were flocking to Chicago, as well as immigrants from Europe, and consequently (as printing is a derivative industry) it became the world’s major print hub.


The ‘Inland Printer’Magazine

An interesting sidelight is the name of the world’s largest printing trade-magazine. Started in the 1880s, it featured a different painting on the cover of each edition, to stress that printing was still considered more of a craft than a science and that (notwithstanding our “tramp printers”) a good printer required a degree of artistic abilities to be considered a true craftsman. But the name of this magazine … “The Inland Printer”. Inland??? Yes, that was a nod to the fact that it was nota New York publication – this was Chicago asserting itself as bold and confident, a place that actually made stuff, unlike New York which was just a financial centre and nothing more. Ah, more blokey rivalry! The magazine continued under that name until about the 1970s.


Australia’s ‘Lone Hand’– the magazine no one has heard of

Closer to home, one of the few times I could not decipher his hand-writing was when he wrote something that looked like “Lane Pine”? …“ HomePain”? Eventually I got it – “The Lone Hand”! Even then, it meant nothing to me – which is a shame as it’s one of Australia’s greatest publishing lights which burned so brightly just before WW I, but which faded into oblivion in the 1920s – but not before leaving an indelible impact on Australian magazine publishing. 

It was the brainchild of JF Archbold, founder of “The Bulletin”,who saw an opportunity to launch a magazine reflecting Australia’s bold, new sense of confidence, even superiority, over the moribund “old world” of the Northern Hemisphere. It used quality art-paper and published edgy articles from readers (who it paid) and burst on the local scene like an exploding firecracker. (For more background, Google it.)


Working conditions in 1913 – life in the pressroom

Back then, virtually all the presses he ran required several helpers (we call them “offsiders”) to assist – including “feeders” who literally fed sheets of paper into the gaping jaws of the press. Feeders were invariably women, why? I know this question may prompt facetious responses, but the truth is, that women were/are more dexterous, skilful and conscientious, not to mention reliable, than their male counterparts. Admittedly, standing all day for eight-hours, tossing sheets of paper at a machine takes a special kind of dedication – and blokes just couldn’t cut it!

Feeding (called “flying” when applied to the larger sheet-sizes) is much harder than you’d think: you have to riffle the top sheet to break the static electricity and “suction” that sticks it to the sheet below – then you have to waggle the sides in such a way that sets it up to be “pushed” (try pushing a piece of string) in a rapid motion into the press making sure the leading-edge is perfectly in line with the gripper-bar – all in the space of two or three seconds – and then keep doing that all day! And run the risk of incurring the wrath of the (male) pressman if you mis-fed too often.*

* With today’s obsession with quotas in the workplace to ensure “equal opportunity” for both genders, imagine if there’d been a rule, then, that said 50% of all feeders must be men! There’d be lots of upset, unemployed women, and lots of presses standing idle. Quotas aren’t always the answer!

Note: this ceiling, in terms of how fast a human could hand-feed was the “limit to growth” that stood in the way of improving press efficiency – the presses could actually run faster but were governed by the ability of feeders to “fly” the sheets. Eventually (soon after WW I) the first automatic-feeders appeared and allowed the presses to double their speed (let’s say to 2-3,000 iph [impressions per hour] – still slow by modern standards, of up to 18,000 iph)

But there was another disadvantaged group who, as a printer, he also unashamedly referred to (but in a favourable way) - “the Niggers”, who also assisted around the press. That was just the way we talked then. It may make us cringe now, but it was not meant with malice, and at least there were no signs of racism as blacks and whites seemed to work harmoniously together (even if there was an implied “master/servant” relationship, which could not be denied).

While we’re in the pressroom, let’s take a closer look at the conditions -

… in reality printing was still a dangerous business. Not only did many typesetters of that era succumb to lead-poisoning – and apart from the risk of being blown-up by a disgruntled union activist [as happened in LA as a protest against the automation of typesetting] - the presses themselves were disasters waiting to happen. Our newly-minted printer mentions several instances of flames bursting out – usually due to rollers over-heating. Whether automatic fire-extinguishers were handy was never mentioned – but we can be sure there was no health cover and that “normal’’ standards of occupational work safety did not exist!

In fact, the printing press of that era was more akin to a wild animal – with wildly-swinging arms, spinning fly-wheels and fully-exposed toothed gear-wheels that would rip your arms off, given half the chance – and great gaping jaws that would snap shut, usually without guards or dead-man stop buttons. Not to mention unguarded paper-trimmers and guillotines and other assorted mechanisms all with an evil glint in their eye.

But if that wasn’t enough – and you survived – there were other long-term issues from working with a pot-pourriof chemicals – the inks of that era being strictly solvent-based. And of course you “washed-up” after most jobs (no, not the printer – the machine’s rollers!) using kerosene – so your hands suffered horrible cracks and burns. Even the so-called “lead” type contained a cocktail of metals including tin, antimony and copper. 

And so, the typical print-shop of that era was a veritable disaster-zone where virtually every surface you touched, or the very air you breathed, could cause a whole miscellany of problems, from dermatitis to respiratory ailments – often not manifesting themselves until afteryou’d retired. But never mind, there were luxuriously-appointed sanitariums up in the Rockies (especially in Colorado) were you could at least die in clean air.

(This is an excerpt from my draft manuscript, titled “The Romance of Letterpress”.)


A tribute to the Linotype machine

There may be no uglier piece of equipment which has done so much for humanity. Brave words, but Thomas Edison himself (inventor of the light-bulb, and no slouch himself when it came to disruptive technology, back in the 1880s) heaped praise on the humble Linotype as perhaps the most complex piece of machinery ever devised.

After some research, I’m inclined to agree with him! Prompted by the “New York Tribune’s”request for a mechanical contraption to minimise /eliminate hand-composition, it unleashed a tempest of social upheaval and disruption, as unions grappled with the brutal realities of automation and its impact on employment of white, Anglo-Saxon, mature-age males (sound familiar?). 

It’s a fascinating story, particularly as its inventor, young German émigré, Otmar Merganthaler got it “so right” in that his design continued virtually unchanged for the next 80-odd years. Try driving an 80-year car around the neighbourhood and see what the locals think!


A whimsical take on letterpress – and how values change

… in the late 20th century there began a return to the more craft-based origins of many industries. The “perfection of imperfection’’ – where there was something to be admired, not condemned, in there being imperceptible differences in each item – and not spat off an assembly-line. People (or some, anyway) began to admire the more visceral nature of producing things – be it in the making of pottery, jewelry, metal-working, textiles or in achieving a “printed” outcome: there was work to be done: heavy lifting, pushing, shoving – the physicality itself was part of the reward! What did Marshal McLuhan say – “the medium is the message” – so too, was the effort involved an important part of the process!

Call it a reaction against mass-production, call it a protest against man becoming subservient to the machine. Whatever we may call it, the return to letterpress is simply part of the wider global trend to re-visiting our heritage. (Think of the return to vinyl records!)

In fact, the very word “letterpress” evokes primordial emotions as it reaches into the inner recesses of our childhood. It reminds us – perhaps in a subliminal way – of the first time a teacher pressed a rubber-stamp on the back of our hand to reward us for being a good boy or girl. We didn’t know it at the time, but the very notion of “letter-press” was being deeply ingrained upon our soul.

On a humorous note, it must be said: modern letterpress printers are not brutal people. However, they do enjoy giving the page a decent “whack” so as to achieve an “impression”, which gives the printed page a touchy-feely sensation. This is directly at odds with “traditional” letterpress printing orthodoxy, which insisted upon leaving the page with noevidence of being impacted, i.e., the so-called “kiss-contact”, as opposed to the modern trend in letterpress, which is to virtually de-boss upon impact (which one can do with thick, cotton-rag paper). Oh, well, we can’t adopt everythingour fathers did!

But, on a broader palette, letterpress is simply the printing industry’s equivalent to steam trains, or vintage cars or classic sailing boats. Where (deep down) we know we can go faster, more efficiently, even more comfortably, but it’s the “sensation”, the experience, that counts.

And so, letterpress is making a come-back, not to replace offset, but to fill a niche and to act as a metaphor for our reaction against mass-production. A silent protest movement, if you like.

(This is an excerpt from my draft manuscript, titled “The Romance of Letterpress”.)

And finally: who was the mysterious Elle? – a mystery unravelled

Another typographical mystery was the occasional reference to “L” in his handwritten journal entries. This would normally not arose much prurient curiosity, but, he was a happily-engaged man, far, far from home, yet every so often, he’d say “Took “L” to the park” or “Took “L” home” this being in Chicago. And then some time later “Took “L” to Coney Island” – and I’m thinking, wow, not only did he have a girlfriend in Chicago – but she’s now followed him to New York! What do I tell the grandkids???

Fortunately (or not, depending whose side you’re on) the mysterious “L” turned out to be the brand new elevated-railways popping up in both New York and Chicago (not to be outdone!). America’s answer to London’s Underground, these exciting new modes of mass-transit were lovingly referred to as the “L”.

Too much information – maybe I should draw a veil over the mysterious “L”.

To allay any lingering concerns, he returned to Sydney, married Ruby, his fiancé – had three kids (including my father) – and the rest is history!

Postcard 7 RMS Aorangi.jpg
Postcard 57 Lake Shore Dr Chicago.jpg
Postcard 51 The more vot you see of Chic
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