Beginning with the invention of movable type in the 15th century, itinerant artisans roamed the highways and byways of the world, working where and when they pleased. It all ended five centuries later, when computer typesetting replaced humans. Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Horace Greely (along with legions of much less famous printers) plied their trade and enjoyed adventures as tramp printers until it all suddenly vanished in the mid 1970s. A sociological study, as seen through the eyes of tramp printers themselves. Footloose and carefree, these adventurers enjoyed 500 years of freedom, working where and when they pleased. A vanished breed, today they live on through recollections, anecdotes, and memories of how it used to be, when printers worked with “real type.”

Tramp Printers     John Howells & Marion Dearman

Recollections of traveling printers during the "hot metal" era. Beginning with Johannes Gutenberg's invention of movable type in the 15th Century to the end of a 500-year tradition with the beginning of computerized "cold type" in the 20th Century.

The way it was:  Stories, legends, and anecdotes of those quixotic, wandering craftsmen and masters of ancient printing skills who spread the knowledge of the "art preservative of all arts" from city to city, from town to town, throughout the world.  

From the earliest days, the traveling journeyman was a tradition.  His easily transferable skills and a consistent demand for printers, made it possible to find work just about anywhere the "tramp printer" would care to be.  This idyllic situation permitted wanderers and colorful characters to live a life of carefree travel, always on the move to new adventures.

Not all tramp printers fulfilled the romantic archetype of the hard-drinking, intellectual "rolling stone" whose life of hand-setting type or operating a Linotype was a goal in itself.  Many a young man, after completing his printing apprenticeship, typically used the  convenience of traveling from job to job as a way to locate the ideal community in which to settle down and raise a family. A few women became "tramp printers" -- their stories are also told in this book.

More than a collection of stories and legends, the book is also a serious study of the social structure of old-time printing plants and newspapers, and explains the functional attributes of traveling printers and the solidarity between printing craftsmen over the centuries.  The authors both have graduate degrees in social science (sociology and anthropology) and were themselves tramp printers before they finally located their ideal communities and settled down.