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


The King of the Tramps
from John Edward Hicks (about 1890)

In his book Adventures of a Tramp Printer, Hicks tells of Peter Bartlett Lee, who was proud of his moniker of  “king of the tramp printers.” Peter Bartlett was a stately man whose attire included fashionable spike-tailed coats and  wide-brimmed hats and, should the occasion suggest it, a tall silk hat. He wore a heavy gold watch chain and never was without it. Despite his flambouyant attire, the "king" came and went in a quiet sort of way and little was said of his coming or going.  No one knew precisely how or when he arrived in a town or what mode of travel would take him away. Sometimes he walked, at other times he rode boxcars and, depending on the king's finances, he would occasionally "ride the cushions." 

He usually carried a number of newspapers which he had picked up off the exchange desk of the last newspaper office he had worked on.  He liked to pass these out to farmers where he would be an overnight visitor, as partial payment of his board and room. Newspapers were especially welcome; reading matter was scarce in the country. Peter Bartlett was always welcome because of his entertaining conversation, his courteous demeanor and gentlemanly bearing.

He was one of the best-read of the many well-read printers who roamed the country in those days. He would sit at the foreman’s desk for a while with a sheaf of papers and when he handed the result over it would be an editorial that for breadth and depth exceeded anything the regular editorial force might devise. It was a genuine tribute to his ability to observe and put the result of his observations cogently on paper that his editorials invariably were printed and welcome.

He was an effortless typesetter, and his product was remarkably free from errors. What is more, when he dumped a take, it would lift. And that, as all printers in the handset days knew, was a desirable accomplishment. He was always, in my opinion, at least, a sort of prince-ambassador between the journeymen and the employers. The latter recognized him as an unusually capable workman and respected his learning as equal to if not superior to their own. 

I am sure that many of us lesser lights of traveling printers were many times hospitably received in our travels because there was the hope, though unvoiced and perhaps only subconsciously entertained, that we would turn out to have some of the qualities that so highly recommended Peter Bartlett Lee, the king of the tramps.


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Pages by John Howells and Marion Dearman, authors of "Tramp Printers"
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ex-tramp printers encouraged to send e-mail to:
johnhowells40@gmail.com