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

Demise of the tramp printer

THE DEMISE OF tramp printers has been prematurely predicted several times in the past. When the Linotype burst upon the scene in the 1890s, a general feeling of malaise filled composing rooms all over the continent, with everyone agreeing that printing would change and itinerant compositors were a thing of the past. This of course didn’t happen. Again, when the 1930s depression hit, things looked gloomy for workers in all sectors of industry. Yet tramp printers increased, forced to travel to survive. But today, it isn’t necessary to predict the future of tramp printers; they can truly be described in the past tense. The following essay was written in the 1890s, during the depths of Linotype pessimism. The author is unknown.
Vanished from the Scene
“The story of the tramp printer now is a tale that is told and has passed into legend. Once in their myriad numbers they covered this country... from coast to coast and from the lakes to the gulf. But now they come no more to their accustomed haunts. One of the most picturesque and interesting characters in the annals of America’s folk history has vanished from the scene. The most romantic page in the history of American journalism has been written by these flitting troubadours, who came with a story in lieu of a song, stayed their little day or two and vanished into the mists, even as now their entire tribe has vanished, save in the mists of memory...
“Essentially poets at heart, theirs was a puckish attitude toward life and its responsibilities. Shrewd they were and frank in their appraisal of men, yet they had in their makeup a little of the child, artless and whimsical; something of the philosopher, disillusioned and made cynical by their experiences; careless alike of their manner of living and the manner of their dying, they were gentle stoics and tender cynics to the end.

“That vast and vagulous army is no more. Those carefree artisans are vanished from their old haunts, while the paths they wandered now are trod only in the dreams of old men’s retrospection ... they come no more.”

TRAMP PRINTERS can be described many ways, depending upon where in the printing industry one was situated. Publishers, print shop owners, and some homeguards will have diametrically opposed recollections from the fond memories of traveling printers themselves. Since both authors of this book were tramp printers, the reader can expect to see a more romantic, idealized version of our old compatriots. This is only natural, and we do not apologize for our biases.

The section below, adapted from John Edward Hicks’ "ADVENTURES OF A TRAMP PRINTER" probably sums up many rank and file printers’ opinions of itinerant typesetters around the turn of the century. The characterization, although somewhat idealized, describes profiles of traveling printers of a hundred years ago, but the description would be not much different when the era ended in the 1970s.

The Day of the Tramp Printer
describing the era from 1880 to 1910

In those days, a printer was not really considered bonafide—his education was not considered complete and he was not accepted by his fellows—until he had done some wandering. The days after the Civil War to the end of the century was the day of the tramp printer. The tales of travel related by the veteran tramps glittered with romance and were listened to with eager ears by the novice, who was filled with a longing for adventure.
For the most part, those were days of class struggle, with proprietors and publishers always striving for lower wages, with printers determined to maintain working conditions as best they could. Foremen were often dictatorial and without restraint. A tramp printer’s insurance policy was solidarity with other tramp printers and his brother typositors who held steady jobs.

The traveling printer, as a usual thing, did not marry early, but if married, he had things so arranged that he could make his departure from town without delay, and when things became disagreeable he left quickly, without even a good-by. His home was wherever he happened to be—a convenient hotel, a boarding house—and a steady job was merely a matter of temporary convenience. He didn’t own anything, never expected to, and wouldn’t know what to do with it if he did. He liked to say, “When my overcoat is buttoned, my luggage is packed.”

Two or three days’ work in each town was all the tramp printer wanted or would expect. Offers of permanent or semi-permanent jobs were turned down, sometimes scornfully. He was always on the move—going nowhere in particular—but moving, nevertheless. In the old days, he typically arrived in a town on an early-morning freight train, and left the same way, under cover of darkness, a few nights later. (author's note: In later years, he arrived in an older-model used car, or by Greyhound bus.)

Many traveling printers were intelligent and brilliant conversationalists on many subjects, but they often avoided personal history other than a brief resume of their travels, and perhaps to relate an experience or two that gave a hint as to why they preferred the road to a steady job. They were reluctant to tell a great deal about themselves. They seldom mentioned families or revealed anything about their life history. They accepted the world day by day and proceeded on the theory that tomorrow would take care of itself. They lived an easy-going life and made no attempt to resist the lure of the open road.

Tramp printers were usually masters of their craft. Few “blacksmiths,” or “jacklegs” (as poor workmen were called) were among them. A tramp was, quite often, fairly well self-educated; acquainted with the topics of the day; good company either in editorial sanctum, tavern, boarding house or saloon. The “home guards,” as the stay-at-homes were called, were ever glad to see the tramp printer, for he brought many a new story and told of his work on the great daily newspapers and publishing plants. All foremen were “wolves,” he said, and editors were ignorant. The thoughts that fashioned commonwealths flowed through his mind and fingers to the public.

--John Edward Hicks (circa 1920)

A History of Tramp Printing

Mark Twain and the Country weekly

Early Demise of the Tramp Printer

The Missouri River Pirates

and a Battered Suitcase in Hand

The Duke who Came to Dinner

Saratoga Printing Museum

Some early printing offices

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