Death of a Pressman

Death of a Pressman, by Fritz Swanson: A remembrance of Tom Trumble, letterpress pressman, and a meditation on preservation and nostalgia

In 2010, there were more than 200,100 printing-machine operators working in the United States, a modest growth from the 140,000 pressmen and their assistants employed in 1975. The increase precisely mirrors the population growth over the same period. But absent in the numbers is the fact that over that time, letterpress printing has gone from being a declining but still important technology to a virtually extinct practice. Once, letterpress machines were at the center of the printing industry, their care and use taught in high schools across the country. Today, the majority of the pressmen who run monstrous web-fed offset presses would see a clacking Gordon-style jobber press as, at best, a quaint toy; at worst, an irritating and cumbersome relic.

And yet, according to Don Black, the owner of Don Black Linecasting, a major letterpress-equipment dealer based in Toronto, the value of a Vandercook press today is five times what it was just a decade ago. A generation has grown up in a world where Gutenberg’s metal type has been replaced by cascades of style sheets and the infinite white landscape of an InDesign work space. As commercial pressmen retire or die, tens of thousands of young designers, old tinkerers, and assorted enthusiasts step in as impromptu preservationists. While a vanishing few are old hands, most of these people have only a little letterpress experience. But they have wholly bought into the idea, the myth, of letterpress. I am one of these people, one of these “preservationists.” But what are we preserving?

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