handset type

printing press

tramp printers

traveling printers

hot type

Mark Twain




printing history

Excerpts from the book "TRAMP PRINTERS"
by John Howells and Marion Dearman

(Discovery Press, copyright 1996)
out of print, all rights reserved

Tramp Printers through history

THIS IS A PIECE OF HISTORY that needs to be set in type before it vanishes into the dusty corners of time. The story’s theme is printing—the “art preservative of all arts.” But the focus is on a group of legendary characters who called themselves tramp printers, craftsmen who traveled the world at will, wandering from town to town—sometimes from country to country—as freelance artisans of typography. Pride, dignity and uncompromising independence were their badges. Skills, artistry, and solidarity with fellow printers, were their tools.

As years increase the distance between old, traditional printing methods and new, computer-generated photographic or laser beam techniques of producing printed material, the secrets, traditions and close-knit fraternalism of printers are fading into the past. Since “hot type” printers have all but disappeared, it’s not surprising that itinerant tramp printers are also extinct.

Before we go any farther, let’s define the term tramp printer. The origin is obscure, but please understand that “tramp printer,” has nothing in common with the terms “hobo,” “bum,” or “tramp” in the sense of someone who doesn’t work, can’t work, or won’t work. On the contrary, a tramp printer was a craftsman who traveled about the world in search of work.

In the United States and Canada, for over a century and a half (possibly even longer) the term “tramp printer” described an itinerant typesetter who preferred to travel from print shop to print shop, rather than work at the same job for life. For most of tramp printers, this was a temporary lifestyle, for eventually a good job and a community they liked, would lure them to abandon traveling and take up residence for the rest of their days.  Some, of course, preferred the adventures of the road, and made a career of traveling and printing. These were the true "tramps," the others called "tourists."

Typically, a tramp printer was highly skilled, capable of demanding high wages, and above average in literacy. He was the archetype of Robert Service’s “race of men that don’t fit in.” Many were addicted to drink, as well as to travel, and often held a cavalier attitude toward responsibility. For any frivolous reason, tramp printers could quit a job and move on, because they were -- as Robert Service so correctly pointed out -- “always tired of things that are, and want the strange and new.”

An interesting aspect of this free spirit was that membership in the typesetters’ labor organization, the International Typographical Union, made traveling almost absurdly easy. A system of substitutes and overtime sharing ensured that at least some work was available. Yet all tramp printers were not union members. Non-union workers — particularly those skilled in “country-weekly” publications — also enjoyed the freedom, mobility, and dignity their trade provided. They had the additional advantage of knowing all phases of printing, for in a small shop one needed to be skilled in presswork, stereotype, and bookbinding—as well as knowing how to run and repair a Linotype. They proudly called themselves “all-round printers.” Since small-town weeklies were chronically desperate for help, printers knew full well they could quit one job and find another one without missing a day’s work. Country printers also held a bargaining position and power over their employers; if the only printer in a one-man printshop quit, a publisher knew he’d find himself in deep, deep trouble. Consequently country printers were usually accorded great respect from employers.

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Pages by John Howells and Marion Dearman, authors of "Tramp Printers"
Copyright and all rights reserved.

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