January 17

If any printer doesn’t know that his patron saint was born upon this day in 1706, he must be a hibernating mammal, as each year the printing industry uses Benjamin Franklin‘s birthday as an excuse to stand up and shout, “Look at me, I’m a printer, too!”

Possibly a hundred years ago this date was an occasion for quiet pride in an honest craft. Printers gathered to do honor to the greatest man of his era, who happened to be a printer, and who took real pride in that accomplishment, even after winning acclaim as a statesman, scientist, and philosopher. But that was a long time ago. Nowadays the celebration of Franklin’s birth is used to put on a public relations pitch. It also affords an opportunity for printing executives to invite their customers to share in the festivities.

Over fifty years ago the original concept of the commemoration began to change. H.L. Bullen wrote in 1907: “Printers are associated together; we attend their national meetings and their dinners. Do we hear anything about the art? No, we are enthralled by eloquent statisticians, and excited by the contending schools of cost and profit finders. In a long course of annual dinners, ostensibly in honor of Doctor Franklin, a great printer, I have never heard one serious attempt to do anything else than get some fun out of the occasion; and the annual conventions of the undertakers are really much more funny.”

Bullen should be around now. Had he heard just a few of the subjects treated by the principal speakers at Printing Week Dinners during the last few years, he would have been informed about the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Growing Appreciation of Capitalism in Russia, the Communist Menace in the Press, What the Government Should Do About the Schools, etc., etc.

And then, of course, January 17th is an excellent time to give a general a medal, or to honor a former member of the Cabinet, or perhaps an ambassador—even the mayor will do if a national figure cannot be persuaded to put in an attendance. At one recent banquet the speaker acknowledged his introduction, nervously fingered his notes, smiled knowingly, and said, “Ben Franklin! You know he was quite a guy with the gals!” When the laughs had subsided, he then said, “Now about these communists getting into the unions. . . .”

For a number of years now, the International Association of Printing House Craftsmen, the National Graphic Arts Education Association, and similar organizations have been promoting Printing Week at the time of Franklin’s birthday. This practice started with the commendable idea of introducing those young people who were attending printing classes to a group activity which included printers. Very quickly other organizations recognized the publicity value of the affair and took over, so that now the audience at a Printing Week banquet would actually feel cheated if someone were to get up and present a major address on the subject of printing.

Besides, there wouldn’t be time, as the winner of the Miss Printing Week Award has to be introduced to the admiring wolf whistles of the males in attendance. So it’s all rather confusing to a person who attends with the notion that Dr. Franklin is to be honored. Before he’s settled in his chair, he’ll undoubtedly entertain the uncomfortable notion that his secretary gave him the tickets to the wrong affair.

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