Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Purple Ink and No Composing Stick

Seventy-six years ago my late father Gary Hantke became a letterpress printer, trading his chemistry set for a 5 x 8 Baltimorean hand press, two fonts of Caslon, a tube of purple ink, some leads, and a lead cutter. The year was 1934, and he was 14 years old. Dad had become interested in printing through advertisements in the Kelsey catalog, which urged depression era boys to earn extra money with their own press.

With no type cases, no composing stick, and no instruction, the would-be printer faced challenges. The first time Dad printed his name, it came out upside down and backwards. But he was determined to learn. A school friend’s father owned a print shop, so Dad started helping out. Gradually his printing got better, as he termed it, “slowly, painfully, and without sensational results.”

The young entrepreneur discovered a gold mine in printing graduation name cards for seniors at his high school. He charged 40 cents a hundred and made a grand profit of 18 cents on every order. But everybody needed graduation name cards, and 1935 wasn’t a time of great wealth. Dad was encouraged by the jingle of change in his pockets. He bought a little more type, a composing stick, and a tube of black ink, “having gotten tired of purple by now.”

Then came a huge order for 50,000 envelopes. Dad started printing as fast as he could pump the handle of the little Baltimorean press. After several thousand pumps, though, he started thinking of ways to mechanize the operation.

A little cobbling came to the rescue. As Dad writes in his booklet, “Brief Biography of a Basement Printer”: “Quite by chance, our old washing machine, after years of faithful service, chose this time to spring a rather bad leak, necessitating replacement. With parts from the old washer and some odds and ends the press was motorized, and I was clicking off a thousand impressions per hour almost without effort. Although the press lacked a throwoff, misfeeds caused me little trouble, for by use of the washing machine’s wringer control gear mechanism, I was able not only to stop the press, but even reverse it when necessary.”

So the young printer’s hobby was launched. Dad printed for 56 years of his life, until his death in 1990. Along the way I learned from him, as did my husband Bob after we were married. We owe our printing heritage to my father. His Baltimorean hand press resides in our basement along with his other presses, and it is still being used.

Dad passed away 20 years ago today, on May 12, 1990. This series of printing remembrances, past and present, humorous and serious, is written in his honor. Dad, we hope you’re puttering around somewhere in an incredible print shop in another world with all your old friends. What marvelous things you’d be creating! Without you we wouldn’t be printers. Thank you for teaching us, and giving us this wonderful hobby to enjoy!

Dad's autobiography, "Brief Biography of a Basement Printer", printed in 1958.

Carole in the printshop with the Baltimorean, shortly after moving it in.


  1. What a good looking young man your dad! I love that he was determined to keep at his love for printing and what he ended up accomplishing--and then passing on to you. Wow!

  2. Thank you, Lynn! I feel fortunate that he stuck with printing, too.

  3. Carole,
    Is there a copy of your Dad's autobiography anywhere that I can read it? I assume he also printed it himself?

  4. Unfortunately not. I only have a couple of copies. I could scan it, but the type would probably be too small for anyone to read. If you're interested though, I could type the text into a word document and e-mail it to you. Thank you for your interest, and for reading the blog.

  5. zzAcornNut:

    By the way, yes, my dad printed it himself.

  6. That would be nice, to be able to read it. But I hate to have you go to that kind of trouble.

  7. No problem really. I'll email it to you as soon as I can get it typed out.