by John Howells and Marion Dearman
(Discovery Press, copyright 1996)

Touring Printers and Tramp Printers

Some tramps confined their travels to one area of the country, seldom staying long in one place, always restless and moving on. Others became well-known in shops from coast to coast. The more celebrated of them acquired nicknames which lived long in the annals of printerdom, and are only now dying out as old-time printers expire. Their travels equipped them with stories unending of varied experiences, and with gossip of the craft, which they often related with much gusto. Such printers were not tramps by necessity, but from choice.

Motivation for travel varied between individuals. When an apprentice printer finished his time, he was urged to “get out and learn something.” Printing styles and techniques were slightly different in each print shop; there was much for a fledgling to learn.

Some tramps took to the road in order to broaden themselves mentally and to see the country, and savor adventures related by other tramp printers. Others traveled to escape an unhappy marriage or stiff alimony. Some merely found the life of a tramp a convenience, a way to shirk responsibility, to indulge themselves. The first two categories of tramp printers were usually temporary. That last category, permanent.

In the old days, the trade afforded a good living to the itinerant printer when work was plentiful, and at least survival when work was slow. In fact, sometimes tramp printers made more than regulars—those who wanted to work, that is—because they had to “show up” every shift, sometimes twice a day, to catch a full week’s work. And regular situation holders were tempted to hire and therefore often worked less than substitutes. 

Tramps knew where the big money was to be made: at special events like legislative sessions, rodeos, state fairs, or any other place where extraordinary overtime would be required. When telephone books were being prepared, loads of overtime could be counted on.

The tramp printer was a salty character, as interesting as he was salty. He was an individualist, sworn to personal freedom of action. He had an insatiable urge to be on the go. He could not be anchored to a regular job for long. He spent what he earned, occasionally spending what he had not earned. He was irresponsible and profligate. His home was where he hung his hat and coat, and sometimes had not where to lay his head. He was habitually without funds. He was rough and ready, rude and often profane. He drank hard liquor and enjoyed life to the fullest.

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