As the fourth generation of his family in print, James Cryer uncovered a unique historical record of the printing industry when he discovered his grandfather’s handwritten journal among his father’s papers.

Despite having never met his grandfather, the older man’s references to the letterpress, blocks, inks and other familiar elements of the printing trade resonate deeply with James. As a “tramp printer,” his grandfather undertook a 10-month journey from Australia through the United States in the early 1900s working for companies in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, and Chicago. 

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, tramp printers moved around the U.S. Midwest to wherever they could get work. Their key defining trait was loyalty to their trade as letterpress printers instead of any particular employer. This trait—coupled with the differences between labor relations in Australia versus the U.S.—set the stage for the elder Cryer to experience a kind of cultural collision and his own individual conflict with an employer.

In this fascinating interview with Print Media Centr’s Deborah Corn, James shares details of his grandfather’s first-hand account of life in the print industry of the early 1900s. Journey back to when print was the most technologically advanced industry. How did postcards transform the industry? What did it mean when someone was “flying the sheets?” Just how big of a deal was the Sears Roebuck catalog? What publication’s name was a direct snub from the printer’s row in Chicago to the printers in New York City?

This journal—which James is working to transcribe—may be the only surviving account of the print industry, handwritten from the factory floor by someone who had to scrimp and save as opposed to a perspective from management. After you listen, we’re sure you’ll agree that “The Romance of the Letterpress” needs to find its way to printing museums worldwide.

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