June 16, 2014



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Folklore in Printing

June 16, 2014

I recently re-found this essay written by my Aunt, Betty Overbey Cary.  “Aunt Betty” was a English Teacher at Huguenot High School in Richmond. It is an interesting piece about the “customs” in the Letterpress printing trade that have been lost in the digital era.  – Jay

Folklore In Printing

Betty Overbey Cary

December 1975
Revised April, 1983

The humorous tales, the clever pranks, and the colorful terminology endemic to the printing industry offer a wealth of folklore. It can even be said that the industry has its folk hero, the tramp printer. Perhaps if an interested researcher were to gather tales from printers throughout the nation, quite an extensive work could be written about the folklore that abounds within the printing and allied trades industries. The tales recorded here offer only a glimpse into the vast realm of folklore which I believe to be existent in the printing industry.

To help me explore the subject of “Folklore in Printing,” I enlisted the help of my father, John R. Overbey, a Richmond, Virginia, printer since 1925, who arranged for me to meet with five long time, local printers on December 6, l975. ‘These gentlemen, who so graciously consented to discuss “the good old days in printing,” were Mr. Robert Beverley, Mr. William Butler, Mr. G. Edmond Massie, Jr., Mr. Howard Urbach, and Mr. McLean Whittet, Sr. In addition to providing me first-hand information, my father introduced me to a wonderful book, now out of print, Adventures of a Tramp Printer, l880-1890 by John Edward Hicks.

As I played the tapes of my meeting with the printers, I realized that I needed a working knowledge of some of the terminology of the printing trade, which I found readily available in the Dictionary of Printing Terms. I learned, for example, that “Pi” is defined as “a mass of type disarranged or mixed and in confusion; broken matter,” while a “galley” is “a long, shallow, metal or wooden tray, with three upright ledges, used for holding composed type matter as it is taken from the stick or typesetting
machine, while being proved, preparatory to making up, or before distribution after it has been used.” A “chase” is “a rectangular frame of iron or steel in which pages or forms of type are locked up for printing, or for the foundry when plates are to be made.”1

To “pi a galley,” or to “pi a chase” is a disaster in a printing shop, as the preparation of the form represents hours of labor, resulting in the loss of both time and money, Mr. William Butler explained, as he began to relate a story told to him by Mr. Bryant of The Times Dispatch, referred to by several of the printers as “the old Dispatch.” Mr. Butler explained that it was “in the early days, before linotype, when all type was set by hand.” An elderly porter was entrusted with two heavy “chases,” containing forms for two pages of print, which he was supposed to have transported from the composing room on the third floor to the pressroom on the first floor. The poor fellow, unfortunately, dropped the chases in the elevator. He hurried back upstairs, ran to Mr. Bryant, and said, “I don’t know what happened, Mr. Bryant, sir, but I saved the frame,” Obviously, this was of little consolation to Mr. Bryant.

My father, John R. Overbey, told a story of a similar incident that occurred many years ago when he worked at the Hill Company in Richmond. Two employees were taking a thirty—two page”form chase” from the composing room on the second floor to the pressroom on the first floor. They were only slightly luckier than the old porter, as they did make it to the first floor but not completely off the elevator, as there was a wide crack between the elevator floor and the pressroom floor. With great amusement my father said, “Well, sir, as they were walking the heavy chase along, trying to ease it off the elevator, it slipped right into the crack and down to the basement – – several days’ work.”

Mr. McLean Whittet, Sr., who chuckled gleefully at the tale, commented,”I’ll bet somebody caught hell.”2
In Adventures of a Tramp Printer, John Edward Hicks has quoted from a poem that he heard in St. Joseph, Missouri, entitled “Slug Fourteen,” which contained numerous verses and “told of the carryings-on in the Gazette composing room of a newcomer who was particularly inept at everything he undertook.” The poem begins, “One night we all remember well/ He pied a market galley all to hell.” Hicks remarked that “Only a printer could comprehend the disaster of which the first two lines told.”3

According to my father, “jeffing” has been a popular game among printing employees for many years, especially as a lunch-break pastime. Mr. Howard Urbach, in fact, had begun our informal printing discussion by asking us if we wanted “to jeff.”4 “Jeffing” is played with “em quads,” which is an abbreviation for “quadrat,” defined as “a block of metal, less than type high, cast in multiples of em lengths, used for spacing out lines, for indentions, and for filling in space at the ends of paragraphs.”5
The indentation in the “em quad” is referred to as a “nick,” as Mr. Urbach explained. Although there are, undoubtedly,variations of the game, it was generally agreed by the printers assembled that pennies were “put up,” and that the player who threw the “em quads” showing the most “nicks” won the pot.”6

Although Hicks has alluded to “jeffing” several times as a game in Adventures of a Tramp Printer he has cited one particular instance in which “jeffing” was a means by which a substitute compositor would be selected. When Hicks had just begun his career as a tramp printer on the Times in Leavenworth, Kansas, he has recalled that: “If several subs were idle, the regular who did not wish to show preference would ask the subs to jeff for the work. In jeffing, em quads were used, three throws, and those with the greatest number of nicks up would be the winners.”7

Mr. Robert Beverley, eighty-six years old at the time of our meeting, told a humorous tale in which a kind of “jetting” to gain employment was accomplished by the use of “a chew of tobacco” instead of by the means of “jeffing” with “em quads:”

Do any of you remember when the “old Dispatch” was down at Tenth and Bank
Streets? Well, the composing room was on the top floor, and there were always
extra compositors on the pavement below, but nobody was allowed upstairs until
he was called. Well, when they got to the place where they needed extra help, the
man would squeeze his chew of tobacco, throw it out of the window, onto the
pavement below, and pop, the first man up got the job.8

Mr. Beverley’s tale certainly substantiates the fact that humor abounds in the tales enjoyed by printers.
Howard Urbach’s emphasis in tales of the printing industry seems to be in the area of its terminology. His inquisitiveness is exhibited in two stories he told about his early days as an apprentice for Hankins and Hankins, a printing shop in Richmond, Virginia. Urbach recalled that one day he asked, “Mr. Hankins, where do you want me to put this tray?” Mr. Hankins replied, “It’s not a tray, it’s a galley.”
“Well, it looks like a tray to me. Why is it called a galley?” “Because that’s the name of it,” replied Hankins.

Mr. Urbach has never found a satisfactory answer to his question, nor did the printers gathered have the answer.

On another occasion, the young Urbach asked Mr. Hankins why he always sent his work to the bookbindery of Meister and Smethie, instead of to a Mr. Atkins, who ran a smaller business. Mr. Hankins replied, “Mr. Atkins is a ‘mutton thumper.'” “What’s a ‘mutton thumper,’ Mr. Hankins?”

“That’s a bookbinder who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing,” replied Hankins.9 The Dictionary of Printing Terms defines “mutton thumper” as “a slang name for a bungling bookbinder.”10
Humor is again evident in the tales that printers tell about the pranks played on apprentice boys. According to the printers there are many variations on the same theme. My father’s favorite prank was to send the young apprentice to borrow a “paper stretcher.” No telephone calls were made, but plans were carried out by means of a kind of silent communication among printing shops.

On his first day of employment, the young, enthusiastic apprentice would be told by the “boss” to go to a certain shop and borrow a “paper stretcher.“ Delighted with his first assignment, the boy would go out upon his mission. This assignment was usually given early in the morning in order that the hilarity could be shared by the workmen at lunch time. Upon reaching his destination, the apprentice would state his employer’s name and would ask to borrow the “paper stretcher.” ‘With straight face, the proprietor would tell the young man that he had lent the “paper stretcher” to another shop, would give him directions, and send him on his way. The apprentice oftentimes would go to as many as five or six shops before someone would admit to having the needed article. The young man would then be presented with any old broken piece of machinery, sometimes weighing as much as two hundred pounds. The poor apprentice, happy that his mission had been accomplished, would then proceed to haul the piece of machinery back to his employer. His fellow workers were there waiting, and the raucous laughter was shared by all.11

Howard Urbach told about another favorite prank. The employees in a shop would talk for several days about the “type lice” which had infested the building, and about how difficult it would be to rid the shop of the pests. Eventually, a compositor who would be working on a form would call to the apprentice boy and say, “Hey, come quick! I finally found some ‘type lice,”but you got to get down real close to see them because they’re so small.” As the apprentice peered closely into the form, the typesetter would “squeeze it together,” Urbach explained, and “water would shoot up in to the youngster’s face.” This was frightening to the apprentice, not only because of the shock, but also because he had been told previously that only gasoline or kerosene was powerful enough to kill “type lice.” The printers all agreed that they always used water, although some had heard that there were compositors who actually used gasoline in carrying out the prank.

This tale prompted my father to toll about the many times that the apprentice, with bucket in hand, would he sent to borrow some “invisible ink.” This prank culminated when the apprentice was given “ink scrapings” of various colors, wrapped in tissue paper. As the package was placed in the victim’s hands, the donor would press the apprentice’s hands together, causing him to be covered in ink. This prank proved to be great fun for the employees, as the youngster had to return to his shop to get cleaned up. Mr. Urbach further recalled that many an apprentice was sent to neighboring shops to borrow a “pair of fingernails,” a printer’s slang term for parentheses. He got the “run-around” here too, as he had not been told what size “fingernails,” and he had to return to his boss to find out. Everyone agreed that the pranks brightened many gloomy days, especially during the depression. If the apprentice stayed in the business long enough, he got his opportunity to be the prankster and to share in the laughter.l2

My father first acquainted me with the legend of the tramp printer, explaining that the tramp printer was “a skilled craftsman who like to wander.” He rarely gave his real name, choosing to call himself by some sort of nickname. My father recalled the tramp printer who came to him wearing a cowboy hat, announcing that he could do any kind of work and would like employment. He could not promise how long he would stay. My father remembers that this particular tramp printer was one of the most skilled
pressmen whom he had ever had.

After a few weeks, he went to my father and said, “Boss, I’m leaving after work today.”

Before noon he announced, “Boss, I’m leaving now.” He was paid his wages and was never seen again.13
William Butler reminisced about the days of the tramp printer and told a story of a particular tramp printer whom he remembered:

A tramp printer would walk into your office, and if he had any age on him
at all, he was really an artist. Some had wonderful ideas. He was always
n broke, and you would never pay him his full wages at the end of the day, or
you might not see him the next day. You would just give him enough money for a
room and some meals. I had one who was a real artist, and I really valued that
man. He would work all week, put in all the overtime you wanted, but do you know
what he would do come the weekend? He would buy all the whisky he could, rent
him a car and a country singer, and a driver. He would ride around all Saturday
night, getting drunk, and listening to the music, but come Monday morning, and
he was right back on the job.14


Mr. Urbach enjoyed telling about the tramp printer who asked to borrow a Christmas “cut” to use on some Christmas cards that he wanted to print for himself. when he had finished, he showed the card to his boss and asked him to read it. Mr. Urbach looked at it and said: “It doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s just the alphabet with the word “Happy” printed above it.” I “Read it carefully,” said the tramp printer;”
“Well, you left out the ‘L.'” “That’s it, replied the tramp printer, ‘Happy No L.’”15

As was stated earlier, the tramp printer seems to be a kind of folk hero in the printing industry. I base this assumption on the local tales which were told to me and on the stories told by John Edward Hicks in
his fascinating book, Adventures of a Tramp Printer. Hicks, once a tramp printer himself, has given a vivid description of the tramp printer:

Two or three days’ work in each town, was all that the tramp printer wanted l
or would expect…. He usually reached a town on an early-morning freight
train, and left the same way, under cover of darkness, a few nights later…
Many of them were intelligent and brilliant conversationalists on many
subjects, but they usually avoided personal history other than a brief resume of
their travels…. They accepted the world day by day and proceeded on the theory
that tomorrow would take care of itself. They lived an easy-going life and made
no attempt to resist the lure of the open road…. The more celebrated of them
acquired nicknames which will live long in the annals of printerdom.16

Adventures of a Tramp Printer is a treasury of humorous tales. One, for example, concerns the tramp printer known as “Hi-Ass” Jones. Hicks recalls that once in Peoria in Direwaechter’s saloon, known by the printers as “Dirtywater’s,” “Poor old ‘Hi-Ass” had had too much. He laid his head on the bar and groaned, ‘Oh, God, if l could only die for twenty-four hours!”17

Drinking, in fact, seems to have occupied a great deal of the tramp printer’s time and money. A case in point is that of Andrew J. Redmond, known as “Muskogee Red,” about whom Hicks has told several humorous stories. A well meaning friend once told “Muskogee Red” that when he felt that he must have a drink of whiskey, he should eat an apple. Hicks has stated that “Red” replied, “who the hell wants to run around with a bushel of apples on his shoulder?” Hicks‘ favorite tale concerning “Muskogee Red” was based on an incident which happened in Coffeyville, Kansas. “Red” had been feeling ill for some time, and his printer friends convinced him that he should seek medical advice. After examining the patient, the doctor said, “Mr. Redmond, you must have more ventilation in your sleeping quarters.” Hicks recalls that “Red” replied: “I’m sleeping under a wagon now. What the hell do you want me to do–kick out a couple of spokes?”l8
Hicks concludes Adventures of a Tramp Printer by stating:

The story of the tramp printer now is become as a tale that is told and has
passed into legend. Once in their myriad numbers they covered this country, as they
would have described their travels, from coast to coast and from the lakes to the
gulf. But now they come no more to their accustomed haunts and one of the most
picturesque and interesting characters in the annals of America‘s folk history has
vanished from the scene.19

It is evident that the printing industry has a unique kind of folklore, along with a folk hero in the person of the tramp printer, both of which seem worthy of further study, and it is obvious that printing tales are
rich in humor. The printers themselves show a phenomenal talent for the telling of the tales, which seems to point to the fact that storytelling is a very important part of the printer’s life. It is my feeling that, even though the stories will change, whenever and wherever printers gather, tales will be shared, and new stories will be created, thus becoming a part of printing folklore.


1. Rhoda A. Porte, compiler, Dictionary of Printing Terms
(Salt Lake City: Forte Publishing Company, 1951). All future references references will be abbreviated as D. P. T.

2. Robert Beverley, William Butler, G. Edmond Massie, Jr., John R. Overbey; Howard Urbach, McLean Whittet, Sr., Meeting of Printers, Richmond, Virginia, December 6, 1975.
All future references will be abbreviated as Meeting, December 6, 1975.

3. John Edward Hicks, Adventures of a Tramp Printer, 1880-1890
(Kansas City: Midamericana Press, 1950), pp. 51-53. Q
4. Meeting, December 6, 1975.

5. D. P. T.

6. Meeting, December 6, 1975.

7. Hicks, pp. 1116.

8. Meeting, December 6, 1975.

9. Meeting, December 6, 1975.

10. D. P. T.

11. John R. Overbey, Interview, October 22, 1975. Future references will be abbreviated as Interview, October 22, 1975.

12. Meeting, December 6, 1975.

13. Interview, October 22, 1975.

14. Meeting, December 6, 1975.

15. Meeting, December 6, 1975.

16. Hicks, pp. 20-21.

17. Hicks, p. 172.

18. Hicks, pp. 153-154.

19. Hicks, p. 281.


Robert Beverley, William Butler, G. Edmond Massie, Jr., John R. Overbey,
Howard Urbach, McLean Whittet, Sr.
Meeting of Printers, Richmond, Virginia, December 6, 1975.

Hicks, John Edward: Adventures of a Tramp Printer. Kansas City Midamericana Press, 1950.

Overbey, John R.,: Interview, Richmond, Virginia, 1975.

Porte, Rhoda A.: Dictionary of Printing Terms; Salt Lake City
Porte Publishing Company, l941.



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