A Personal Reminiscence of J.L. Frazier

J.L. Frazier

The writer was one of the many men who were inspired to a love of good typography by the late editor of The Inland Printer. Here are some personal memories of the virtuoso of typographic criticism whose “Specimen Review” pages were the Bible for compositors for almost half a century.

In October of 1965, I attended a meeting of the Typocrafters in Chicago, the purpose of which was to honor J.L. Frazier, the retired editor of this periodical and the guiding spirit behind that friendly group of type men known as the Typocrafters, who gather annually for a weekend of typographic fact and gossip.

“J.L.” appeared to be so happy to be back with so many of his old friends and to be “talking type” again, that he belied his 80 years, 68 of which he had spent in and about the craft of printing. It was therefore a shock to learn that J.L. Frazier had survived that meeting by just four months. His passing removes from the scene one of the warmest-hearted and most knowledgeable printers that this country has ever produced—a credit to his craft and possesses of an untiring devotion to all of its causes.

By the time this column appears in the magazine, there will no doubt have been a completely documented account of Frazier’s life and his contributions as a long-time editor. It is my wish, therefore, to offer but a few personal reminiscences of J.L., since his career had some bearing upon my own. And of course he was most interested in the composing room, of all the specialties with which he was acquainted.

In 1928, the year that Frazier became editor of The Inland Printer, I had the good fortune to try my own luck in the composing room. Here, within a week or so, I became acquainted with the magazine through the agency of an old-timer who had retired from the case and spent his days traveling from shop to shop peddling such supplies as tweezers and gauges, in addition to copies of IP. Almost all of the comps in this particular shop purchased the magazine, read it, and discussed its features at lunch time the day it arrived. At 40 cents a copy, it was a real drain on the wages of most shop boys, but I have never had cause to regret it, as it supplied the spark to get me excited about typography.

Many years later, in a discussion with J.L. about his influence on my decision to make printing a career, he nodded his head in appreciation. “I’m mighty pleased that you mention it,” he said, “but it probably wouldn’t happen right now. The printing business has changed too much. The Inland Printer used to be a back-shop magazine, and all our contributors were practical printers. Most of the work we showed was submitted by compositors, but there’s not much opportunity for a comp to show his originality any more. For a while most of the people who call themselves typographers were men who had set type at the frame, but not any longer.

“I wouldn’t say that the changes are all bad. Sure, many of the so-called typographers today have never pulled out a case of type, but that doesn’t mean that they are not capable of turning out good work. Maybe our responsibility now is to make sure that they have an opportunity to learn how to love type.”

Frazier’s first connection with IP came when he submitted specimens of his work. Later, he became an instructor in the correspondence courses offered by the publication in conjunction with the International Typographical Union. In all of his varied activities, he was undoubtedly happiest in conducting the department call “Specimen Review,” which he continued long after his retirement as editor, relinquishing it only in 1960. This feature has undoubtedly been one of the most successful sections in the magazine, inspiring countless young typographers to send in their best work, hoping for reproduction of—failing that—to receive a few words of approval in the commentary.

During his 47-year tenure in assembling “Specimen Review, ” J.L. praised his contributors most of the time, but he could be caustic on occasion, blasting shoddy work without hesitation. He was particularly annoyed by stunt typography, coining the term “cockroach typography” to describe some of the excesses in style and legibility which came to his attentive mind.

It was rare, however, that J.L. simply panned a piece of typography out of hand. In almost every instance, he attempted to criticize constructively and with painstaking detail. He had all of the attributes of a first-rate teacher—always seeking to instruct and improve, and of course, to share his love for the world of print with anyone who would listen.

I recall one evening with him in a hotel room along with six type enthusiasts. for about three hours, J.L. conversed simultaneously with all seven of us and never ran out of breath.

Month after month, Frazier was the recipient of printed material from every part of the United States and from many foreign countries. He carefully selected a number for reproduction. In addition, he commented editorially on 30 to 40 items, discussing them in detail. Seeking a random example of his performance, I thumbed through a bound volume of the magazine, selecting one month from 1922. The critique contained 17 reproductions with descriptive captions, in addition to 5,000 words of commentary to 39 printing plants and individuals who had submitted specimens. In this single issue, some of the individuals asking J.L. to look at their work were men of first-class reputation—Douglas C. McMurtrie, Haywood Hunt, George Trenholm, Albert Schiller, and L.A. Braverman. And he repeated this performance 12 times a year for almost half a century!

The present writer is but one of the many hundreds of printers who have been fortunate in being inspired and encouraged b this hard-working and enthusiastic man, who never relaxed his standards of perfection and who gave the best that he had in him all of the time. We are all saddened by his passing, yes, but we can perpetuate his memory by continuing to exercise his judgments concerning this craft he loved so well.

This article first appeared in the June 1966 issue of The Inland Printer/American Lithographer.

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