Adventures of a Tramp Printer is Must-read for Any Nomadic Graphic Artist

What is a Tramp Printer, and why should I care? Well, I’ve been in printing one way or another for my entire career. And I’ve more or less been a tramp for the past 15+ years. That’s why I’ll forever be grateful to Joel at Carson Park Design for turning me on to Adventures of a Tramp Printer.

tl;dr Adventures of a Tramp Printer, 1800-1890 by John Edward Hicks tells the tale of typesetting troubadours who roamed the country for more than a century, train-hopping from newspaper to newspaper prior to automation of the printing industry.

This review is long overdue. But honestly, I’ve forgotten all the insightful feedback I thought I’d provide after reading this informative and enlightening biography of sorts. I say of sorts, because the tale does not follow the life of one man. The lead character is an amalgamation of those early itinerant typographers, with their world recreated as it was in the days before the machine.

If you should ask the name of the protagonist of this book, the answer would have to be that his name is legion. For his travels and experiences are but typical of the adventures met with in the planless rovings of every member of that extensive class of printers of the handset days.

Foreword, Adventures of a tramp printer

“Planless Rovings” sounds like our first few years on the road. Bouncing around between boondocking spots is my favorite way to travel. And we’re always working wherever we go, so I totally relate to this protagonist. Perhaps you’re starting to see already why I enjoyed this little book so much.

Get Adventures of a Tramp Printer

Adventures of a Tramp Printer: 1880-1890 (1999 Paperback)

Hardcover Edition – January 1, 1950

Download PDF from Carson Park Design

The Tramp Printers, Forgotten Trails of the Traveling Typographers by Charles Overbeck*

*Image of Eberhardt Press edition courtesy Carson Park Design

I’ve never used a composing stick. But I did always have my pica pole handy, up until we sold our graphics shop and hit the road in 2007. Still have it in storage I believe hope. My title, however, at the first print shop job I ever worked was Typesetter. But I never even touched the Linotron (phototypesetting machine) gathering dust in the corner. I operated the cutting edge Macintosh SE to design fliers and business cards in between kicking around an old AB Dick 360 (offset printing press).

It has been said that any man, no matter how small and insignificant the post he may have filled in life, who will faithfully record the events in which he has borne a share, even though incapable himself of deriving profits from the lessons he has learned, may still be of use to others-sometimes a guide, sometimes a warning.

charles lever
Epigraph from Adventures of a tramp printer

This quote from the front matter of Adventures of a Tramp Printer really resonates with me. It pretty much explains why I’ve been blogging ranting and raving here at Live Work Dream all along. Throughout our travels I’ve always enjoyed finding old print shops or presses in museums we’ve visited. And the only regret I have about our visit to Nashville was not taking the tour at Hatch Show Print. So now do you see why I enjoyed reading Adventures of a Tramp Printer?

Old Printing Press Carbon County Museum – Casper, Wyoming (May 2019)
Rene Operates Old Printing Press at NIC Fest – Casper, Wyoming (June 2019)

Why I Enjoyed Adventures of a Tramp Printer

tramp printer book

For starters, I learned quite a bit about printing, and the evolution of the newspaper industry by reading Adventures of a Tramp Printer. I’ll admit it. I didn’t know that the Tramp Printer was even a thing. Or person rather.

Thanks again Joel. And honestly, I always thought the “printer” was the guy who ran the press. (Yes Rene, or the gal, these days.) Technically that is the pressman, or press operator rather.

In those days a printer was not a printer…until he had done some wandering. It was the day of the tramp printer. The experiences of travel related by the veteran tramps glittered with romance and were listened to with eager ears by the novice, who was filled with a desire to go and do likewise.

Chapter 2, Adventures of a tramp printer

“Go and Do”, that’s another phrase I’ve always been fond of. In fact, when pondering domains to register for documenting our travels, I considered We quickly decided to keep LiveWorkDream, having previously used the site to promote the sale of our business. But I digress…

Tramp printers hopped trains, and got in trouble. They looked for work wherever they went. Competition was tough, and they never stayed long any any gig. Sounds a lot like some Workampers I’ve seen.

Letterpress Type at Hatch Show Print

Learn All About the Tramp Printer Life

Reading this book, I learned that the Tramp Printer played the key role in printing the paper. He composed the type that made up the stories. I say “he” because there were very few women in the trade. The book references plenty women of ill repute. But it also briefly mentions some of the “girl typesetters”.

Horace Greeley…took up the cudgels in behalf of the women as follows: “If you find yourselves troubled with too strong a competition from female workers, just prove yourselves worthy to be their husbands; provide good homes and earn the means of living comfortable, and we’ll warrant them never to annoy you thereafter by insisting on spending their days at the printing office setting type.

Chapter 26, Adventures of a tramp printer

That excerpt is from a chapter titled, On the Milk and Honey Route. It follows tramp printers among many Union Pacific rail yards throughout the Utah Northern, the Utah Central, and the Rio Grande Western lines. That was the Milk and Honey Route.

Tramps in those days called the road between Ogden and Salt Lake City “the milk and honey route” because of the extreme hospitality of the Mormon people who had settled in that country. And now you know why Utah state highway signs have a beehive on them.

Leadville, Colorado – October, 2018

I also enjoyed following the adventures of tramp printers who wandered many of the same back roads we’ve traveled over the years. Hicks tells tales of drunken debauchery, destitution, and deliverance in Deadwwod, Golden Colorado, Cañon City, and Leadville…

The first newspaper in Leadville had been the Reveille, the equipment for which was brought in by R. S. Allen, the proprietor, over rough mountain roads, by wagon and pack animals. At that time, 1878…the freight costing more than the equipment.

Chapter 11, Adventures of a tramp printer

See, you may learn something new whenever reading this blog. However unimportant it may seem!

Kinda like I learned this little hitchhiking trick by reading Adventures of a Tramp Printer…

Hitchhikers, of whom most persons think in connection with automobiles and hard-surfaced roads, were to be seen even in those days and in that sparsely-settled country. Company rules forbade drivers noticing ridebeggars, but it was permissible to halt and investigate any dead men along the highway. The tramps, who frequently traveled in small groups, soon got on to this. One would “play dead” and when the coach stopped the others would hide on the vehicle and ride as far as possible before the irate driver could get around to shooing them off.

Chapter 9, Adventures of a tramp printer

I doubt this would work very well anymore. But Adventures of a Tramp Printer is filled with fun anecdotes like this. It also includes a good dose of history about a certain class of workers who became in a certain sense social outcasts – nomads, their habitat the North American continent. Much like many of the fellow digital nomads we’ve met.

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