men of letters
In the grayscale pallette of history, there’s a photograph that’s been in our family longer than I have: an older man hunches slightly forward in concentration over the work before him. He’s building a document to be printed. We don’t know what type of project Orville Brumagen Congdon was working on in that picture - it could be a newspaper story, an invitation, a menu … anything. Five hundred years before this photo, Johannes Gutenberg introduced the process of printing with movable type to the western world, and it revolutionized the way the human race communicated, shared and stored information. It was a monumental improvement over writing everything by hand.
Over the centuries, some efficiencies developed, but hand-setting a page is still a painstaking process from a time when putting ink on paper was an artform. Each letter, punctuation mark and space is determined by a piece of wood or metal, specifically selected for its size and position on the page. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but when you begin, the final picture is only notional - there’s no sample to look at, and the pieces are scattered around the shop in various drawers and cabinets. You have to go find them.
Then, after hours of investment, when you’ve finished the puzzle and printed the document, all of the pieces have to be cleaned and separated and put back into exactly the same drawer they came out of, so that they may be found and used again.
I never met OB, but I revere him, first for having an awesome name, and second as the beginning of a line printers which ran for four generations. He was my great grandfather.
Russell Eugene looked just like his dad, and he was a pretty good typesetter, too. My Grampa was the most patient man I ever knew - how could you not be, in a career as exacting as this?
But Russell didn’t do everything by hand - he was a whiz with that gloriously complex typesetting machine, the Linotype. An ungraceful, topheavy collection of gears, pulleys, and levers - it was like a garage-sale of miscellaneous equipment stuck together: a lead-melting pot, an elaborate keyboard, angle-iron, screws, springs - all of it hung on a massively heavy cast-iron frame. The word “contraption” seems perfect. What it did was melt lead and press it into little brass molds, and after a bunch of clicking and clacking and jingling, it would spit out an entire line of shiny, perfectly-set type. It was a huge productivity improvement over selecting each letter from a drawer, but you had to get it right the first time because it’s molded into metal. One mistake and the entire line would have to be reset. A good Linotype operator was a better typist than your secretary, a better grammarian than Mrs. Juhl, an artist and a mechanic.
After the type was set, Grampa would occasionally let me print something. Still short enough that I’d have to stand on a wooden box, he’d have me feed an old Chandler & Price clamshell press: it’s jaws open and you get about a second to grab the piece it just printed and stick a fresh one in before it clamped shut again. I always imagined being a split second too slow, the machine crushing my hand, and continuing to chew it to a bloody pulp for as long as it took my other flailing arm to turn the damned thing off. I was scared to death of it, but thrilled to be trusted with an actual job.
Print shops of that era were working museums: libraries of foundry fonts appropriate for your wedding invitations, social announcements and type-intensive publications. But Richard Jean was a man of the future as the industry transitioned into a new way of working. My dad had big dreams of catalogs, magazines, books and full-color brochures. It was a gutsy step as he invested in the first four-color offset press to be installed in the county - a Heidelberg MOV from Germany. It was a big day when it arrived in wooden crates the size of garden sheds. Riggers came with cranes to put it together and the newspaper showed up to take pictures. As time went on, I’d learn the ins and outs of how that press worked - indeed, how the whole process worked.
You could say that I was born a printer, and raised a printer. From hot lead to lasers, I’m old enough and young enough to have seen it all as the business changed from heavy metal to high tech. As soon as I was old enough to find my way from Lincoln Elementary School to the print shop downtown, I’d walk there a couple of times a week. Mostly I’d climb on the stacks of paper, pretend to drive the forklift, and sneak ice cold Cokes from the fridge, but by the time I was twelve, I had my first regular work schedule, loading envelopes into the stuffing machines for a big weekly project.
Through junior high, high school, college and beyond, I learned and did everything in the shop: bindery, driving the delivery truck, folding, cutting, making plates, assembling film, estimating and billing. I tried my hand at management and wasn’t very good at it and when my dad sold the business, I stayed and worked for the new owners for three years, landing back in the prepress department where I rediscovered that I enjoyed making things with my hands.
I wouldn’t trade what I do now for what I did then, but I get nostalgic from time to time. There was something special about having Grampa and Gramma in the office - bringing lunch, fussing at each other in that endearing way that couples do when they’ve been married for 50 years, puttering with small projects and poking their noses into what you’re doing. One learns to appreciate their genuine interest, and the experience that only years in the business can provide. And for a son to work with his father is a chance to understand those late nights and why Dad was always bringing work home on the weekends: he was providing for us, he felt responsible for his employees, he was building something big.
Today, I’m still at it with the words and pictures. They pay me to be the full-time media guy at my church. I get to write, and shoot and edit and build pages just like OB did, but with completely different tools.
The print shop I grew up in and the one I left eight years ago were in the same location, but vastly different in the ways they looked and worked. The shop of my childhood was a relic of the mechanical age: oily and unguarded. Belts, flywheels and blades were fully exposed. Solvents and cigarettes were held in the same hands. It was a place so obviously dangerous that I can’t remember ever needing to be told to be careful. When a youngster is allowed to grow up where a screw up can cost a limb, good shop skills will result.
A couple of decades later, the inks and solvents were still around, but the modern machinery kept the messes contained. We had laser imagesetters instead of Linotypes, and we knew exactly what a finished product would look like long before the ink ever hit the paper. Our presses could do the impossible job of placing tiny dots of ink into exactly the right positions to fool the human eye into seeing a full-color image - and do it perfectly, twelve thousand times in one hour. It never ceased to amaze me that the process actually worked. OB would have thought it was magic.
A constant over the years was the smell of the place. Maybe my oldest memory of my Dad is how he smelled when he came home from work. Hog farmers like to say their operations “smell like money”, but I prefer the aroma of a print shop. It’s a mix of paper, ink and solvents that’s sweet and sharp and bright, with overtones of acetone and undertones of wood and clay - like spray paint in a library. It’s a smell of archives and of new productivity. For twenty years I came home smelling like that, too. It’s in my hair, my clothes, my poores. Printing is a trade that permeates.
We did some beautiful work: art prints, gorgeous catalogs. Thirty years ago one of our artists designed a promo package that included an original photograph of the workings of a watch, and it maxed-out the technology of the day, reproduced in amazing detail with both gloss and dull varnishes to make the watchworks pop against the black background. It would still be stunning, today. It is still stunning today - the poster hangs in my library.
Esprit de Corps is that swagger you get when you know you were taught by the best, that your crew will look out for each other, pull-off the impossible, be the hero. We had that, and there’s something really special about standing in the middle of the pressroom, in a building with your name on the outside and just seeing it, hearing it and feeling it on one of those days that everything is running full blast. Each machine brought its own signature to the symphony: the fart-hiss of the Heidelberg Windmill, the loose rattle of the AB Dick, the slow roll of the KORD, the heavy pneumatics of the SORKZ and the MOV’s Teutonic tightness … the machine gun of the folder, the light-sabre swoosh of the cutter blade. Over it all is the shouting and swearing of a crew high on gettin’ it done. It’s easy to miss those days.
Not every day was like that, though and we got out of the business because it was time. The market was changing. Production processes were changing. We were under-capitalized and new technology was expensive. Competitively it was time to get out. Motivationally it was time to get out. Financially, we were past due.
But what an honorable industry to have been a part of: the one that first made beauty and ideas and information portable. I’m proud to have been one of those men of letters - not letters in front of our names or behind our names - but the As, Bs and Cs of the printed word. And, there’s something honest and rootsy, robust and healthy about the old-fashioned way we did it - following Dad to work and living in the process of learning.