Excerpts from the book "TRAMP PRINTERS"
by John Howells and Marion Dearman
 (Discovery Press, copyright 1996)

The journeyman printer-journalist

Back in the 19th century, it was common for a journeyman printer to be called to temporary duty as a newswriter or reporter.  He would be sent out to cover a late-breaking story or put to work on the telegraph desk, selecting interesting copy for the morning’s edition. Many printer-journalists went on to become successful editors, publishers, or authors. Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) is a prime example of a tramp printer who eventually moved into higher realms.

He spoke of his beginnings in the trade in the following speech to United Typotheth’ of America during the late 1800’s. Clemens relates the duties of the apprentice—the printer’s devil—and observes that power of freedom of the press formerly was held by the subscribers, the readers. There is little doubt that this power today is held by advertisers.

by Samuel L. Clemens
                 about 1889

“I am somewhat of an antiquity. All things change in the procession of years, and it may be that I am among strangers. It may be that the printer of today is not the printer of 35 years ago.

“I was no stranger to him. I knew him well. I built his fire for him in the winter mornings; I brought his water from the village pump; I swept up his office; I picked up his type from under his stand, and when he was there to see I put the good type in his case and the broken ones in the hell matter, and if he wasn’t there to see, I dumped it all among the pi on the imposing stone—for that was the furtive fashion of the cub, and I was a cub.

“I wetted down the paper Saturdays; I turned it Sundays—for this was a country weekly—I rolled; I washed the rollers; I washed the forms; I folded the papers; I carried them round at dawn Thursday mornings. I enveloped the papers that were for the mail—we had a hundred town subscribers and 350 country ones; the town subscribers paid in groceries and the country ones in cabbages and cordwood—when they paid at all, which was merely sometimes, and then we always stated the fact in the paper and gave them a puff; and if we forgot it they stopped the paper.

“Every man on the town list helped edit the thing—that is, he gave orders as to how it was to be edited, dictated its opinions, marked out its course for it, and every time the boss failed to connect, he stopped his paper. We were just infested with critics, and we tried to satisfy them all.

“We had one subscriber who paid cash, and he was more trouble to us than all the rest. He bought us, once a year, body and soul, for $2. We used to modify our politics every which way, and he made us change our religion four times in five years. If we ever tried to reason with him, he would threaten to stop his paper, and, of course, that meant bankruptcy and destruction.

“Life was easy with us; if we pied a form, we suspended till next week, and we suspended every now and then when fishing was good, and explained it by the illness of the editor—a paltry excuse, because that kind of a paper was just as well off with a sick editor as a well one, and better off with a dead one than either of them.

“All this was over 35 years ago, when the man who could set 700 ems an hour could put on as many airs as he wanted to; and if these New York men who recently on a wager set 2,000 an hour solid minion four hours on a stretch had appeared in that old office, they would have been received as accomplishers of the supremely impossible, and drenched with hospitality beer till the brewery was bankrupt.

“I can see that printing-office of prehistoric times yet, with its horse bills on the walls; its ‘d’ boxes clogged with tallow (because we always stood the candle in the ‘k’ box at night; its towel), which was not considered soiled until it could stand alone, and other signs and symbols that marked the establishment of that kind in the Mississippi Valley. I can see also the tramping journeyman, who flitted up in the summer and tarried a day, with his wallet stuffed with one shirt and a hatfull of handbills; for if he couldn’t get any type to set, he would do a temperance lecture. His way of life was simple, his needs not complex; all he wanted was plate and bed and money enough to get drunk on and he was satisfied.

“But it may be, as I have said, that I am among strangers, and sing the glories of a forgotten age to unfamiliar ears, so I will make even and stop.”

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Pages by John Howells and Marion Dearman, authors of "Tramp Printers"
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