By James Cryer
This is the story of the discovery of a diary my grandfather had written back in 1913-14, as he travelled across America as a newly-minted letterpress printer, having grown up in Sydney. He was 21.
It’s hard to imagine him, every night as he travelled across America, staying overnight in a bedsitter or guesthouse, busily recording his day’s activities – he could never have imagined that his words would echo down the corridors of time, over 100 years later.
We gain some insights into him, into the state of the printing industry at that time, and glimpses into what society looked like at that time – moments before the world was plunged into darkness of WWI.
Bear in mind, he was a lowly tradesman, working on the factory floor so his words or observations are not as sophisticated or well-informed as they may have been if they were the writings of a manager or an historian.
They are, however, a first hand account by someone who was there, on the spot.
Bear in mind also this was a pivotal era, as up to this time society was literally a horse-and-buggy one, but it was unique in that horses shared the roads with cars, and square-rigged sailing vessels shared the seas with steam-powered ships.
In only a few years, as the world emerged from the other side of the war, it would be capable of building sophisticated machinery. And yes, it may be regrettable that the technology used post-war to build high-speed printing presses was based on lessons learnt in how to build machine-guns and tanks, but that’s the funny old world we live in.
Discovering the diary
Let me backtrack: it was an amazing discovery to find this diary containing nearly 200 pages all neatly written in pencil. Bearing in mind he probably left school at age 15-16, to join his father’s printery, his handwriting and spelling are almost perfect. I counted three spelling mistakes and two grammatical errors and one of those is debatable! What does that tell you about the standards of teaching, 100 years later?
There was another twist. About four years ago, when I busily started typing out the written word, I was intrigued to occasionally stumble across a reference to ‘p/c’’ – as in ‘I sent/received a p/c.’ I assumed this meant parcel but eventually worked out that it meant postcard. Bearing in mind that these described events are over 100 years ago, it is inconceivable that the ‘p/c’s’ could have miraculously re-appeared. But they did, by an absolute fluke. One of my cousins had inherited the postcards – all 150-odd that sent during his 10-month trip – and we can thank her for scanning them.
We should also be thankful for the fact that Walter had a fiancé who encouraged him to send all those postcards. Luckily he married her, so they got passed down to her descendants, who didn’t throw them out!
I never got to meet my grandfather – he died the year before I was born. This has prompted me to reflect on what sort of man he was. He was a very good man by all accounts, widely respected throughout the printing fraternity, a Mason, a Methodist and a member of the Lindfield church choir – he ticked all the boxes. But I had long since given up any hope of ‘communicating’ with him, unless it is with the help of a Ouija-board.
Difficulties in interpreting something written 100 years ago
And so it was an amazing experience that I should stumble upon this diary when going through my late father’s study. Upon picking it up and turning to the first page, which referred to him embarking on a ship leaving Sydney, in November, 1913, I knew immediately it was him!
However, there are some challenges in grappling with something written in another era. As mentioned, his hand-writing was perfect – better than our own kids – but he would occasionally use a word or term that completely floored me. Suppose you’d attempted this task 20 years ago of typing out the diary how would you unravel the following:
1) D&RG? 2) the Jack Rabbit? 3) Dobying?
You’d spend all day at the local library and draw a blank. These days, a 10-year old could probably Google/Wikipedia and find answers in a matter of seconds.
It’d be like us driving over the harbour bridge and assuming it got demolished soon after and saying,’I drove across the SHB …’. One hundred years later, SHB could be a complete mystery.
OK, in case you’re wondering: 1) Denver & Rio Grande Railway – long since gone. 2) Then the world’s highest roller-coaster ride, in Chicago – long since gone. 3) Doing one’s own laundry, actually ‘dhobying’ – originally a naval term, long since gone.
Grandparents, their role in society
This discovery has made me think about the role of grandparents, who over the centuries have been either useful or not so useful. After the last war, my parents, for example, didn’t want to be reminded of a bygone era of depressions, wars, old-fashioned clothing, etc. So our parents didn’t tell us much about their parents probably thinking we wouldn’t be interested.
And so I grew up knowing nothing about my own father’s father, as if he’d never existed. How things have changed: no longer are grandparents ignored – they’re now indispensable, cheap babysitters!
The reason for the trip
Moving right along … the reason for the trip? Back then, it was almost like a ritual. The boss would send his first-born son (no daughters!) off to England or America to learn the trade. Walter’s father, also called Walter, had established the family business of Gibbs, Cryer Pty Ltd, a small printery in Druitt St, Sydney, in 1903. He would have said something like: ‘Now, son, off you go, you’re a good Methodist so you’re not meant to have a good time – you’re there to work and to call on as many printing companies and suppliers as you can and gain as much information about what’s going on in printing on the other side of the world.’
And that’s exactly what he did. Along the way, he contacted many printing companies, as well as manufacturers of printing presses, suppliers of inks, paper, etc. We can assume his father was proud of him. He certainly seemed to have a good time, despite his Methodist background. Just how much having a fiancé back in Sydney kept him on the straight and narrow we’ll never know. There are the occasional references to a mysterious ‘L’, as in ‘I took ‘L’ to the park’ or ‘I took ‘L’ home’. (More on that intriguing ‘L’ later.)
Off to America
And so, after my grandfather jumped on a ship and shovelled coal across the Pacific, he disembarked in San Francisco on the very last day of 1913 into the teeth of a howling blizzard. Having left a balmy Sydney summer, welcome to the Northern Hemisphere!
To add to his woes he couldn’t get a job. America was going through one of its mini-depressions, largely caused by its very precarious banking system, where every man and his dog could set up a bank on the nearest street-corner and promptly go bust.
So he jumped on a train and went to Utah, where he got a job as a letterpress printer in Salt Lake City. That didn’t last long. He took another train trip to the Midwest where he got another job, which also didn’t last long.
A clashing of cultures
It was during this stint that he had an argument with the boss. This would normally not be a good look until you realise the context: a collision of cultures. Australia had just passed, in 1909, the world’s most enlightened workplace laws granting such things as overtime, penalty rates, the whole schemozzle. Fast-forward to America, which had, and may still have, the toughest, most brutal work regime, virtually unregulated and based on the notion of ‘rugged individualism.’ And so working six days in a row, or working on a Saturday, made not the slightest difference – it was all at the same low rate.
Because of this quite brutal, dog-eat-dog atmosphere, the unions were just starting to exert some influence. The innocuously-named ‘traveller’s card’ was an attempt to force bosses to only employ tradesman. This is a stain on America’s industrial relations record, as even in the 1920s various States would try to introduce such fair work laws, only to have them chucked out by the US Supreme Court on the grounds they infringed civil liberties.
Print: becoming a part of everyday life
At that time, printed products were starting to intrude more and more into peoples’ lives – even such mundane things as railway timetables, menus, business cards/stationery. But America was starting to show its flair for marketing, even then. There began to spring up things called novelty shops, which sold what we would call personalised or branded-printing, coffee-mugs, baseball-caps and the like.
One of the classic examples was women’s powder-compacts that banks would use as give-aways. The stylish woman of 1913 would stop in downtown Chicago to put her lippy on using a compact with First National City Bank plastered all over it. I suspect the women soon realised they were being duped but Hollywood to the rescue! They invented Jean Harlow and flogged her image to newly-emerging salaried women who saw no problem in brandishing a picture of the latest Hollywood starlet. Yes, the printing industry was the beneficiary, but not without challenges: try printing subtle skin-tones onto metal or ceramic.
This is just one example of how printing was making its presence felt. But also how clients were demanding the impossible and the printing industry had to rise to the occasion.
The role of postcards and the advent of ‘three-colour printing’
Arguably, the most dramatic example of this, was the humble postcard. Surprisingly, postcards experienced what they called a golden era way back before WW I – between 1905-12 – when literally millions of postcards were whirling around the globe, like a swarm of locusts. People didn’t even have to travel, you could send one to your pen-friend in Scotland or Canada, saying ‘How are you?’ and they’d send one back say ‘Very well, how are YOU?’ Are you seeing comparisons with modern social media?.
The problem was demand far outstripped the industry’s capacity to supply, due to the slowness of the printing process.The cost of printing even a humble postcard put them in the luxury category. But where there’s a will there’s a way and somebody worked out that you could speed-up the process if you eliminated one colour , taking CMYK back to three colours. But which three? Basically it was the three primary colours – minus black – which if tweaked slightly, could achieve a masterful reproduction of most scenes. Jet black doesn’t appear too much in nature.
Another example of how one industry, in this case travel by the burgeoning middle classes, was able to push the print industry to new heights. Plenty of printing companies back then made lots of money producing the humble postcard. In making postcards better and more affordable, it probably also helped promote more tourism.
Consider another problem: these days to achieve four-colour reproductions, we apply rigid standards; colour is calibrated, inks are made to consistent standards, paper is made to various standards of opacity, porosity, reflectance. Imagine back then, you’re a printing company charged with reproducing a printed image of a scene to closely match the original. There were no colour standards, no ink standards and no paper standards – a printing company had to be its own laboratory, testing by trial and error all the ingredients – and don’t forget colour-matching was very much in the eye of the beholder, as interior-lighting was also all over the place. It was basically up to each tradesman to colour-match the outcome and there was a one in 20 chance he could be colour-blind!
But in spite of all these impediments, or perhaps because of them, we persevered and the humble postcard became the rock upon which print got a massive technological kick-start. Hard to imagine now.
Chicago – the location of the world’s biggest everything
Anyway, after meeting with mixed success in trying to find employment in the Midwest, someone said to Walter: ‘Go to Chicago!’ which he did, and immediately found secure employment. Well, for four months, anyway.
It happened to be with Chicago’s largest printer, which made it also the world’s largest printer, RR Donnelly. Walter was running a new high-speed rotary-letterpress machine,which meant it printed using rotating cylinders, rather than the slower, flatbed presses. This device would have been like driving a Ferrari, expensive, fast, sophisticated, prestigious .
And what was he printing? The world’s largest print job. At that time, Chicago had the world’s largest mail-order company, Sears-Roebuck, which had built a fortune entirely as a mail-order business. Probably hundreds of thousands of huge directories, the size of two house-bricks, were sent out to millions of families across America’s Midwest. They would spend their entire winter huddled round the fireside, from Texas to Montana, eagerly ordering everything from corsets to tractor-parts from these huge, fully illustrated directories.
At that time Chicago was experiencing a kind of growth spurt, both industrially and culturally. It was the centre of America’s vast agricultural empire, which made it the biggest railhead, with the world’s biggest abattoir. There was the newly-emerging ‘prairie school of architecture’ from whence came Walter Burley Griffin, who won the prize to design Canberra, back in 1913. Companies were flocking to Chicago, along with as immigrants from Europe, and consequently, as printing is a derivative industry, it became the world’s major print hub.
The ‘Inland Printer’ Magazine
An interesting sidelight is the name of the world’s largest printing trade-magazine. Started in the 1880s, it featured a different painting on the cover of each edition, to stress that printing was still considered more of a craft than a science and that, notwithstanding our tramp printers, a good printer required a degree of artistic abilities to be considered a true craftsman. But the name of this magazine? The Inland Printer. Inland? Yes, that was a nod to the fact that it was not a New York publication. This was Chicago asserting itself as bold and confident, a place that actually made stuff, unlike New York which was just a financial centre and nothing more. Ah, more blokey rivalry! The magazine continued under that name until about the 1970s.
Working conditions in 1913 – life in the pressroom
All the presses he ran required several helpers, we call them offsiders. They included feeders, who literally fed sheets of paper into the gaping jaws of the press. Feeders were invariably women. Why? I know this question may prompt facetious responses but the truth is that women were/are more dexterous, skilful and conscientious, not to mention more reliable than their male counterparts. Admittedly, standing all day tossing sheets of paper at a machine takes a special kind of dedication. Blokes just couldn’t cut it!
And finally: who was the mysterious Elle ?– a mystery unravelled
But getting back to Walter and his travels, let me solve the typographical mystery of the occasional reference to ‘L’ in his journal entries. This would normally not arose much curiosity. He was a happily-engaged man, far, far from home, yet every so often, he’d say “Took “L” to the park” or “Took “L” home” this being in Chicago. And then some time later “Took “L” to Coney Island.” I’m thinking, wow! Not only did he have a girlfriend in Chicago, but she’s now followed him to New York! What do I tell the grandkids?
Fortunately or not, depending whose side you’re on, the mysterious ‘L’ turned out to be the brand new elevated-railways popping up in both New York and Chicago. America’s answer to London’s Underground, these exciting new modes of mass-transit were lovingly referred to as the “L”.
Too much information – maybe I should draw a veil over the mysterious ‘L’.
To allay any lingering concerns, he returned to Sydney in 1914. He more or less took over the family business, married Ruby, his fiancé, had three kids (including my old man, also called Walter). He had a long and successful business career, renaming the company W.J. Cryer & Company Ltd in 1925. He was a respected member of the Master Printers Association. His son, Wal, in his turn joined the business before to fight in WWII. Walter continued to run the business until his son returned.
He died in 1946.
James Cryer June, 2018
This article was first printed in Print21 on Friday, 15 June 2018