It’s 1913, and a bold voyage of discovery in print is beginning...

Aug 29, 2018 at 12:42 am by Staff

It's the intimate story of a printing industry itself in the midst of dramatic change, in a personal diary unearthed by Sydney print recruitment consultant James Cryer.

In the period ahead of World War I, a 21-year-old Australian letterpress printer heads off across the US on something between vocational experience and what might today be considered industrial espionage.

Go forth and learn... the secrets of the printing business as they are practiced in the 'New World', and bring them back to help build a better business in Sydney.

Despatched by his father, the young Walter James Cryer II - 'Wal' to his friends -reports back not only to his parent, but also in regular postcards to his fiancée, Ruby.

Having discovered the hand-written diary - which lay hidden for nearly 100 years - his grandson, James Cryer IV has been so fascinated by the account that he has used it as the basis for a book, 'The Romance of Letterpress, Impressions of America -1914', currently nearing completion and looking for a publisher. Cryer says on his first read of the diary, written in longhand with a pencil, "there was something slightly unsettling in regarding one's grandfather as a naïve, young 21-year-old". While he has done much of the research himself - on the internet and elsewhere - he invites additional information from anyone who can provide it.

Cryer thinks the diary may be the last remaining first-hand account of anyone who actually worked in the American printing industry on the factory floor, at that time. The diary records Wal Cryer's departure following long delays: 'After about ten months of worry, planning and a week of more intense excitement, we are at last "off",' he writes on November 29, 1913.

His "voyage of discovery" was to start with the journey aboard the coal-fired steamer Aorangi, with calls on Wellington and "one or two Pacific islands", to land with a mate in San Francisco on New Year's Eve. The ten-month journey across the US saw him working as a trade-qualified letterpress printer, becoming - intentionally or otherwise - what was known as a 'tramp printer'. "As the name suggests, they were 'printers of fortune' who drifted across the landscape picking up work wherever they could," says Cryer. With its parallels with Australia's shearers - who "sometimes made a fortune, sometimes lived in poverty" - Wal Cryer experienced an unregulated market in America, where unions were starting to make their presence felt, having arrived at a time which was a crossover point.

Armed with the "notorious 'OK' card" which indicated the approval of each local union shop, his work experience provided an "unvarnished" view of prevailing attitudes, which would be somewhat different to those he knew as the boss's son.

"Because of Australia's isolation, he'd been asked by his father to take an interest in technical developments within the then burgeoning printing industry and especially to contact as many suppliers in the US as possible - be they of equipment, paper, ink or consumables - anything which might be of interest to an enterprising young printery in the colonies.

"The practice of sending the male heir on a 'tour of duty' overseas - either to the US or Europe - was not unusual in that era and was an ideal way of picking up new trends and ideas," he says. "The period since the 1890s had seen an almost total transformation from hand-typesetting and hand-operated presses, to almost total mechanisation."

Cryer devotes a section of his upcoming book to the Linotype - the machine which was to wreak most change - and its impact on the industry.

"Wal's arrival in the US coincided with a pivotal time in the industry's evolution, but for a young man with a mechanical bent it was also an exciting time as newer, faster, and bigger presses were invented." He quotes the 'Union Scale of Wages and Hours of Labor' of May 1915, in which average hourly rates for qualified tradesmen were about 60-85 cents - 30 cents for the unskilled - equating to about $30-40 a week. Henry Ford, incidentally, had guaranteed car workers $25 a week at the time.

The young Cryer was to spend almost a year as a "tramp printer", in San Francisco and east to such places as Salt Lake City, Kansas City and finally Chicago, where he worked for RR Donnelly, one of that city's 'famous brands' before having to high tail it home on the outbreak of war. From New York, he took a ship to Galveston, train to San Francisco and finally another ship to Sydney where he was to help run the family business and two years later, marry his sweetheart.

With an ITU-issued yellow 'travelling card' which certified him as a trade-qualified pressman, he was virtually guaranteed work wherever he showed up.

Wal Cryer writes of - and his grandson expands on - the dangers of his vocation, of rollers bursting into flames on unguarded presses full of "wildly-swinging arms, spinning flywheels and fully-exposed toothed gears that could rip your arms off". Plus the flammable solvents and poisonous lead of the day.

The young Cryer also relates the effects of an epidemic of bank failures and an economy which was a mixture of optimism and nervousness, arriving in one town to find 100 men were out of work.

Chicago, in which he spent more than three months, was by contrast, a "printer's heaven", attracting both printing companies and equipment manufacturers, especially around a 'Printers Row' in the city's inner-city precinct.

His brief to "bring back as many ideas as possible" even included a request by Sydney customer the Federal Match Company that he investigate printing and die-cutting machinery for their paper labels. He found the rotary presses of the New Era company in New York state, and was later to buy about a dozen of them over successive decades. James Cryer says he "vaguely recalls" seeing the presses, still printing self-adhesive labels in the 1960s.

Wal Cryer had joined the family business of Gibbs, Cryer & Co - then based in Kent Street in downtown Sydney - at 16, and was followed by his brother Cecil, who was to continue as managing director when his elder brother died in 1946.

Peter Coleman


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