May 1

“On the first day of May, 1826, we set our initial stickful of types, followed by three more on the same day, all in brevier, besides laying a font of job type. It was our first day in any printing-office, and a high day it was, for we believe we leaped deerlike over every housetop and cellar door on our way homeward at dark. What happened between that day and this we may not here tell, save that some hours were so bright that earth was almost heavenly; others were not so, but, though very dark, the hereafter may show that they had important uses, nevertheless.”

With this one paragraph autobiography, one of the great American printers of the 19th century resigned the editorship of The Typographic Advertiser to his son, in 1886. He was Thomas MacKellar, typefounder, for long the head of the principal American typefoundry, MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan of Philadelphia—an outgrowth of the first American foundry, Binny & Ronaldson.

During the final thirty-five years of the last century, nearly every apprentice in the land learned his trade with a copy of MacKellar’s The American Printer at his elbow. First published in 1866, this manual went into eighteen editions before it was supplanted by De Vinne’s four-volume Practice of Typography, appearing in the years 1900–04. The Typographic Advertiser, first published in 1855, was a printing journal which, although it served as a house organ for the foundry, was according to the printing historian, H.L. Bullen, the first journal to be devoted exclusively to printing. In its pages MacKellar indulged in flights of poetry, of which he later published two volumes. His best known bit of versifying, still from time to time reprinted in the printing periodicals, is The Song of the Printer, beginning, “Pick and click/Goes the type in the stick.”

In the July, 1863 issue, published on the eve of Gettysburg, a notice appeared: “The lateness of the present number of the Advertiser is due to the interruption of business caused by the rebel invasion of the State. We had previously contributed about a company to the grand army of the Union, and we felt that we had filled our quota, but when the tramp of hostile footsteps profaned the soil of our good old State, we gave a God’s-speed—(as we had before to our only son)—to those of our remaining operatives whose patriotism impelled them to shoulder the musket to meet the new emergency. About a third of our entire force have gone to the battlefield in defense of the Union and Constitution of the Land.”

MacKellar’s interest in retired and indigent printers was unusual in a day when geriatrics was an unknown science. He wrote in his magazine as early as 1855 about the establishment of an “Asylum for Decayed Printers.” His sympathetic interest excited the cooperation of George W. Childs, the Philadelphia newspaper publisher, who later endowed the Union Printers’ Home in Colorado Springs. This institution has for the past seventy years taken excellent care of indigent members of the International Typographical Union.

Wooster College, in Ohio, presented MacKellar with an honorary Ph.D., possibly the first honorary degree ever to be given to a member of the printing craft in the United States.

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