Tuesday, March 20, 2012

River Rat Printers

My husband and I have spent most of our lives along the Mississippi River, appreciating both old time letterpress printing and the romance of the steamboat era. We began in La Crosse, Wisconsin, moved downriver to Lynxville, Wisconsin, then to St. Louis, Missouri. We’ve learned that our twin interests are more linked than you might imagine: newspaper printing was the mass media of the 19th century, and riverboats a major form of transportation. The Mississippi was like a super highway in those days, and printers depended on it to deliver presses, type, and paper, and distribute news up and down the river.

As printers interested in history, we’ve done quite a few pieces relating to riverboats. Our first was “A Little Book of Steamboat Puns”, a small booklet of atrocious river puns we made up ourselves. Though the puns were bad, the booklet was nice. We gave a copy to the late John Hartford, musician and river lover, at one of his performances. Years later we met him again, and he actually remembered our booklet. Maybe it was because the puns were so awful.

While in St. Louis we became volunteers at the Golden Eagle River Museum, and got to use our riverboat cuts some more. We printed programs, name badges, and bookmarks for the group.

We also added to our riverboat cut collection through the generosity of Golden Eagle members. Irv Braun had worked for transportation printer Con Curran, and saved many railroad and riverboat cuts from oblivion when the company switched from letterpress to offset. And James Swift, known to everybody as Jimmy, was a writer and historian for the Waterways Journal, a St. Louis based river magazine. Jimmy bequeathed his collection of river cuts to us. Some of our cuts from Irv and Jimmy are shown below.

While in St. Louis, we actually had the opportunity to print on a steamboat. The Bibliographical Society of America hosted a Mississippi River cruise at its 2004 meeting. Bob and I hauled a Baltimorean table top press, paper, and supplies over uneven riverfront cobblestones and onto the boat, where we were offered a small, wobbly table to set up. We wondered if any of the attendees from major libraries and rare book rooms would want to bother printing our little bookmark. To our surprise, we had a long line. People were thrilled to have the opportunity to print something themselves.

Years later we once again find ourselves printing along the Mississippi River, this time back in our hometown of La Crosse. We’ve come full circle, and we wonder what links between letterpress printing and the river we’ll discover this time around!