May 10

It might have been Thin Space McGill, but more likely it was Small Cap Jones, who—feeling poorly on this day in 1881—did something mighty unusual for a peregrinating printer; he stopped off to visit a doctor. The sawbones examined him and suggested that all he needed was a little more fresh air while sleeping. “Hell, doc,” spluttered Small Cap, “what do you want me to do, kick out a few spokes? I’m sleeping under a wagon now, these nights!”

The predicament was not an uncommon one for that independent breed of man, the itinerant printer, euphemistically called journeyman, but more frequently labeled tramp. Ever since the invention of movable type, printers traditionally accepted the term journeyman to mean just that, spending at least part of their careers in traveling from place to place. In the United States the tradition reached its peak in the post-Civil War period. It declined after the turn of the century, when the introduction of the Linotype made it possible for the daily newspaper to maintain a steady work force without dependence upon the wayfaring typo who might pop in at any moment and leave just as quickly.

It was a colorful period in the history of the craft. Many an old-timer recalls somewhat nostalgically the romantic stories he heard in his youth from fellow workers who had either “tramped” or knew many printers who had. Many of the tourist typos objected strenuously to the appellation of tramp, insisting that they were simply journeymen. Indeed a number of them were just that, being sober and industrious printers who brought skill and experience into many a small town printing office. Their traveling was in such instances more footloose than fanciful, and they did not readily accept inclusion in the questionable reputation of many of their fellows. Even at that, they could not accept the disapprobation of their group in some sections of the country, primarily the East and the South, where social mores were more solidly established.

A majority of the tales of the traveling typesetters have to do with their phenomenal ability to handle the jug. Of course drinking has been a traditional pastime of the fraternity of printers, due in part to the long hours and arduous labors common to the craft. Joseph Moxon, the first writer to record working conditions in printing offices, wrote as early as 1683 that a newcomer could not become a member of the chapel unless he paid a “benvenue” which amounted to treating the journeymen to beer. It was common until late in the 19th century to “rush the growler” during the working day; that is, to send the apprentice out for beer for the journeymen, to give them the stamina to complete their labors. Benjamin Franklin wrote that he was considered odd when he worked in London and refused to drink beer.

A compositor working on the New York Tribune wrote that, “No one familiar with the route of the morning daily marveled at the proverbial dissipation of the old-time printer. He came from under the hot gas-light in the morning, exhausted and pale as a church bug. No wonder his coppers got hot pretty often. He needed rest, but was prone to substitute stimulants. . . .” The saloons in the vicinity of a large daily newspaper office did a roaring business at the close of the working shift. When the thirsty printers ran out of money they signed chits. It was not unusual to see bartenders lined up with typos at the pay window each week.

The excuses brought forth for the hard drinking did have some basis in fact. Printers were afraid of lead poisoning. Other prevailing diseases in printing offices in the hand-set days were tuberculosis and rheumatism. Up until the first decades of this century, the life expectancy of the printer was but forty years, giving some justification to the printer who sought relief in alcohol, while at the same time interfering with the longer life he hoped to attain

Many of the tales of the tramp days are concerned with the addiction to the cheering cup. From this distance it now seems that perhaps undue emphasis was given to just one of the problems encountered by printers at work a century ago. The touring typo is still around, but in nowhere near the numbers of earlier times. The present-day traveler is today more likely to be seeking broader trade experience before settling down. His last desire would be to appear romantic or to participate in a tradition.

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