Rollins: Master Printer in the Best Tradition Of His Craft


Carl Purington Rollins

Carl Purington Rollins

The year 1880 was certainly a prime one for 20th century American typography, and fortunately we are still feeling the effects. We could, in fact, use a few more years like it, for in that one calendar period William A Dwiggins, Thomas Maitland Cleland and Carl Purington Rollins were born, into homes in such disparate locations as Martinsville, Ohio, Brooklyn, N.Y., and West Newbury, Mass. respectively. Somebody, somewhere, should mount a Threesome Centennial Celebration this year to assure’ that we won’t forget the many and significant contributions to the art and craft of printing in this republic made by these practitioners.

Already Yale University is making sounds about honoring Rollins on March 31, and well it should, having awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 1949, one of the very few honorary degrees to go to any American printer. It may be noted that Yale has for some time offered a series of lectures in his name, commemorating his 30 years in residence at the institution, 20 of which were spent as Printer to the University. The Carl Purington Rollins Printing-Office of the Yale University Press is also maintained in New Haven.

It might therefore seem that printer Rollins has not been forgotten, particularly in a corner of Connecticut, but he deserves wider recognition, and perhaps during this centennial year he may receive it. In his long career of notable service to the graphic arts, he constantly sought excellence, in his own work, in his relationships with his fellows, and in the promotion of his principles.

Rollins was introduced to printing at 12 years of age when his father gave him a table-top Golding press. While attending Newburyport High School he edited and printed a stamp journal, issued each month for two years. In addition, he turned out a great variety of small jobs to help pay for the operation of his little shop.

His mother had hoped that he would go to Massachusetts Institute of Technology but he elected to try Harvard. In order to pursue his own always independent interests, he did not enroll in a degree program but spent three years at the college as a special student, happily taking what ever courses appealed to him. It was here that he became involved in the study of social theories and the development of industrialism, two subjects which were to engage his attention for many years.

After leaving Cambridge he took a job with a country newspaper in Georgetown, Mass., but his involvement with practical printing once again became a dominant concern. Bringing specimens of his work, he visited Daniel B. Updike at the Merrymount Press in Boston and discussed employment with him. Apparently Updike was interested in the young man, but he set up the condition that if hired Rollins was never to think about starting his own shop. Rollins gave two days of thought to this proposal and then wrote to Updike refusing it.

Since he could not make a connection with one of Boston’s fine printers, he now turned to another—the redoubtable Carl Heintzemann who had, established his printing shop in 1879 and had since become noted for his espousal of traditional typographic excellence. Rollins became an apprentice compositor in the Heintzemann plant and learned at first hand the practical approach to typography which served him for the rest of his career. In the summer of 1903 Heintzemann recommended him as printer to a newly formed Utopian religious community called New Clairvaux, situated in western Massachusetts near the village of Montague.

It was expected that Rollins would remain for a summer and help straighten out the tiny print shop and then return to Boston. It didn’t take the young printer very long to perform the first task. He promptly consigned the types to the hell box and replaced them with Caslon, a type which he was to champion all of his life and which earned him his eventual reputation as America’s “Caslon printer.” As for the second part of the bargain with Heintzemann, he never returned to the Boston establishment.

He was initially attracted by the idealism of the new community, but his primary reason for staying was that he delighted in the countryside. Thus, he acquired the equipment in the shop and set himself up as proprietor of The New Clairvaux Press. However, there was very little business in such a small community and after he accidentally suffered the loss of an eye during his first year, he drifted into farming in order to support himself.

He left Montague and spent the next three years at several other jobs, including a term during which he ran the graphic arts department at the Jamestown Exhibition. But in 1908 he returned to the community and purchased the Dyke Mill in Montague and fully settled down to being a printer once again.

Over the next few years he established his reputation as a careful printer who worked in the best tradition of the craft. His shop became a gathering place for some of the outstanding graphic arts personalities of the time. Bruce Rogers came to Montague and worked with Rollins in a notable partnership which resulted in the printing of Maurice Guerin’s The Centaur in 1915, the first book to be composed in the Centaur type of Rogers.

By 1918 Rollins was married, with a family to support. He required a steady income, which could not be supplied by the little shop. He therefore accepted an offer from Yale University Press to manage its manufacturing department. Although his salary was but $1800 a year, he prevailed upon the director of the Press to allow him to bring to New Haven the types and equipment of the Montague Press which he continued to operate as a hobby. During the next 30 years at Yale he became internationally recognized as one of America’s most distinguished printers.

He became a gifted book designer, bringing simple clarity to the printed pace. As many as 59 of his books were selected for the Fifty Books Exhibitions of the American Institute of Graphic Arts but he never restricted himself to the book alone. He turned out countless pieces of ephemeral job printing, all of which bore the mark of a designer who was never satisfied by anything but the highest quality.

It was the opportunity to turn out “ordinary” work well which had attracted Carl Rollins to the tiny shop in Montague in the first place, and this practice became the guiding principle of his life.

The idealism of his youth remained with him always. It was as a teacher, writer, and lecturer that he wielded his influence in American typography. As early as1909 he contributed a long essay to The Printing Art titled “The Call of the Country to the Craftsman Printer.” Here he sought to interest printers in removing from city shops to the rural areas where they could get away from locations where “our crafts get messed up with the factory system.” This article is full of youthful fervor for the spirit of craftsmanship.

Much later—in 1936—in a nostalgic address before the Society of Printers in Boston, which he titled, “Whither Now, Typographer, ” Rollins added more mature judgments to his earlier concepts. He discussed the overwhelming number of types then available to the typographer, suggesting the economy of scarcity as helping, and not hindering the perfection of typographic style. He stated his belief that the printer must take his profession seriously and that he should make it his business to know a good deal about its history and its past practice. He described his own introduction to printing and mentioned that he came to the realization that “printing was something else, or rather something more, than merely setting type and impressing it on paper, that there was an esthetics of printing. . . .”

All his life, up to his death in 1960, Rollins spoke out against what he believed to be the overwhelming commercialism of printing in the 20th century in which the increasing size of plants tended to stifle the individual approach of the craftsman. In a talk at the New School of Social Research in New York in 1932, he closed his remarks with the statement:

“The great fabric of commercialism may crumble away, but the love of reading for pleasure and information and edification will continue. And to restore to the production of reading matter some of the artistic and esthetic qualities it now lacks, and more, to give human beings pleasure in their work, we must bring about harmony between the hand, which is as old as Adam, and the machine, which in its present development is only a few decades old. We must preserve the machine so far as it is useful, but no farther. We must dominate it and not let it dominate us.”

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the March 1980 issue of Printing Impressions.

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