The history of itinerant printers is centuries old, dating back to the very first Apprentices who left the care of a Master Printer’s shop to become Journeymen. While visiting and working in other printshops, Journeymen would learn tricks and tips, along with different perspectives on printing. This accumulated knowledge was a key part of their growth as an artisan and craftsman, and after a number of years, these Journeymen would settle in different regions and begin their own printshops, completing their peregrination (literally and figuratively) from Apprentice to Master.
The peripatetic nature of printers was not only encouraged by the Journeymen stage of development common in the guilds of Europe, but also by more modern labor infrastructure like the International Typographical Union. Printers who carried a Union card could pick up work in almost any city (in America and beyond), standing in when overtime was necessary, filling in for injured or absent workers, or even being given a job simply because they were in the Union. The versatility, portability, and viability of a life on the road for a printer was an attractive reality to many of the men and women who possessed a stubborn and incorrigible nature (unlike yours truly). Tramp Printers, as they came to be called, were derided by some, esteemed by others, envied by many, but one thing is certain – they were an essential part of printing, from its earliest days until modern times.
Tramp printing became a lifestyle, but the lifestyle saw a decline and final demise that coincided with advances in printing technology. As printing progressed from handset type to linotype and Ludlow, then eventually phototypesetting and digital reproduction, less labor was needed to execute the same tasks in less time. Where there used to be need for overtime, printers were being laid off. Tramps couldn’t pick up work on the road, and if they found work, they often put down roots. By the mid 1900s, the itinerant lifestyle unique to printing that had begun in the age of the guild was no more. All the tramps had passed away or settled down.
The Itinerant Printer project is about reviving that sense of adventure in printing, along with the analog sharing of information. It’s about going out into the world, seeking work based on your skill set, making something with your hands, and delivering that object to someone. It’s about an exchange of ideas, of techniques, of information, of style, and of the culmination of all those things: prints.
Check out an (in)complete bibliography here.