I spend the better part of the afternoon watching YouTube video’s about people who still work with letterpress and I nearly gave up on this post. Almost all of them were more or less grumpy or disgruntled human beings who could just barely hide the fact that they hated this modern day world filled with (gasp) com-pu-ters (aaaarg!!!! He said the C-word!!! Vade Retro, Satanas!!!!)
Eventually, I did find one who seemed to just be happy doing what he did without resenting the rest of the world…
This video takes us to Hatch Show Print, a more than 125-year-old print shop in Nashville, Tennessee. It is one of only a handful of letterpress shops which still exist in America and as you will see it is a thriving little business. Their first clients were vaudeville, circus and minstrel shows, later they did posters for country music but also for Elvis Presley, Duke Ellington and B.B. King and nowadays contemporary musicians once again want this distinctive typography to adorn their posters and CD-covers.
Letterpress printing uses letters made of wood or lead to print and whenever I see people handling those little pieces of lead I get filled with quite a bit of nostalgia because my father used to do this for a living. He was one of about 50 men (yes, all men…) who’s job it was to compose whatever needed to be printed with those leaden letters. Later on, when the first “computer” arrived he was one of 3 men (three!) who had to learn how to work with this pre-macintoshian device. (It was called a CR-Tronic. For some reason I still remember that name, although it is now probably more than 30 years ago…) I didn’t think I would be able to find a picture of it, but I did.
This is exactly the thing my father worked on. The little screen didn’t show you the page you were working on, it was filled with text and code describing the properties of the text (such as margins, letter size, etc…) I remember my dad studying like crazy to remember all these codes.
I also remember my dad being happy working with the little letters of lead, and being just as happy working on his CR-Tronic. On both he was able to do what he loved best, coming up with beautiful typographic compositions. And I’m sure he would have loved working with modern day computers just as well.