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Cardboard Collins

Left: Portrait photo of Alexander Washington Collins from The Inland Printer, May 1918 (courtesy of the Berkeley Updike Collection, Providence Public Library). Right: title page from Alexander Lawson’s Press of the Good Mountain edition of Henry Lewis Bullen’s, Only a Compositor, 1962 (from the author’s collection).

The Pittsburgh compositor Alexander Collins (1870–1918) was an ordinary printshop journeyman, never prominent, and he remains obscure. Collins, however, surfaced briefly in the early twentieth century, an appearance that gives us a glimpse at a tradesman’s world on the edge of change. Collins worked for a big-city commercial printing firm. His thirty shopfloor years overlapped those of nineteenth-century industry titans De Vinne and Hoe as well as an emerging group of differently distinguished printers such as Bruce Rogers, Will Ransom, and Dard Hunter. Exceptional twentieth-century printing was shifting from shopfloor to salon. Printerdom, a workplace culture filled with tradesmen like Collins, would change as well.

Collins was a compositor, a job printer. He was born in Salisbury, Maryland, and apprenticed (in 1889) at the local Wicomico News before spending most of his working life at Pittsburgh’s Hall Printing Company. Collins specialized in “blank work,” the tabular tasks of billhead, information sheets, and order forms. “You can appreciate the importance of accuracy in this line of work and can form some idea of his ability,” said an employer, “when you realize that he has been known to set a blank the size of double royal—with numerous box headings and columns of figures—set it so that when the form was put on press there would be no time spent in adjusting, except with the guides.”1 Well, nobody said that about Bruce Rogers.

Collins was grumpy. Always precise, he was “nervous and irritable,” a crabby fellow who annoyed everybody. Because of his specialty, shopmates called him “Cardboard Collins.”2 He turns up three times in the history of printing and bookmaking. In 1918, Henry Lewis Bullen, a director at the American Type Founders corporation, wrote a patronizing Inland Printer piece about Collins titled “Only a Compositor.” Much later, in 1962, Alexander Lawson reprinted that essay, and later still Lawson revisited Collins—or, rather, Bullen’s original essay on Collins—in his 1990 book The Compositor.3

What made Collins special to Henry Bullen hadn’t been his craft, but connoisseurship. Collins was a bibliophile. Over the years, he had compiled a bibliography of the published writing of the noted printer Theodore Low De Vinne. In 1910, he offered that compilation to Bullen, who found it remarkable that Collins—“only a compositor”—actually read the literature of his trade. When, in 1914, New York’s Grolier Club feted De Vinne, the city’s printing mogul, it published Collins’s complete De Vinne bibliography (very nearly without crediting Collins).4At his death, in 1918, Collins bequeathed his personal printing library to the American Type Founders.5

Recently, Lisa Gitelman, professor of English and of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, published Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Duke, 2014). The book separates job printing from that of books and newspapers and establishes a nineteenth-century workers’ domain she calls “printerdom.” Gitelman considers jobbing tradesmen like Alexander Collins the essence of “printerdom.” Such printers, says Gitelman, had forged a commonality. “[A] part from the printed materials produced, printers’ supplies, printers’ literature, and printers’ labor circulated effectively to produce a coherent trade, a partly imagined and partly enacted integration of localities according to both ideology and economics.”6

Gitelman’s printerdom is a conceptual framework, a scaffolding that Alexander Collins inhabits. It’s not that Gitelman, following Bullen and Lawson, rediscovers Collins—she doesn’t mention him at all. Rather, she reconceives his world. The function of job printing, says Gitelman, is cultural mediation, and the prime expression of this is blank book printing. Among job printers, Collins was a blank book specialist—not books of empty pages of the kind craft printers and binders turn out today, but volumes filled with ruled pages, empty boxes, and slots to fill. “Blanks make bureaucracy,” Gitelman says, they “rationalize work” and are “one small part of the way that bureaucracy assumes an objective character.”7

There are a couple of ways, then, to consider Collins. One option contextualizes Collins’s trade and makes him significant in abstraction. “Printerdom,” Collins’s world, is a cultural generalization that describes an emerging modernity. There remains a second angle. We can take Collins on his own terms, an exemplary if anonymous journeyman printer. Collins’s job work demanded careful precision and extraordinary technical excellence. In 1918, Henry Lewis Bullen had diminished him with the faint praise of comparison with Bruce Rogers and the more Alexander Lawson pointed this out, the more Collins shrank. But consider what Collins actually did. He handled the work that apprentices—never mind Henry Bullen—snickered at. In printing—in life—someone set texts that were difficult past compensation, scarcely worth the skill. Someone took on the ad flyers. Somebody set the math.


  1. Jane Rodgers Siegel 8 April, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    This was so interesting! I do love revisionist history, and reclaiming “unimportant” people. One note on footnote 5 — While the bulk of the ATF library would indeed be purchased by Columbia University, the books have not been kept as a separate collection. The “Typographic Library Manuscript Collection” named in the footnote does not contain the books, but rather the archives/papers of the ATF library itself (n.b.: the library, not ATF as a whole). — Jane Siegel, Rare Book Librarian, RBML, Columbia University

  2. Many thanks for the clarification. Walker

  3. Stephen O. Saxe 8 April, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    It’s good to read something about printing in an APHA publication. It is painful to see the current issue of Printing History (New Series No. 17) which has almost nothing in it about printing history. The journal has strayed far from where it was intended to be. The sooner it returns to its original content, the happier I (and many other APHA members) will be.

  4. More than happy to help! Walker

  5. I echo the thoughts of the two above. Fascinating because I was walking the streets of Pittsburgh “saving” Monotype plants about 40 years after Collins’death. And I strongly agree with Steve Saxe’s comment about the content of “Printing History.”

  6. Very interesting.
    My father, Herman Haemel, also started at the Wicomico News,
    coming out of WWI and operated the Salisbury Printing Company where I became a partner many years til his death in the “60’s” and I in turn have operated the Professional Arts Printing in Salisbury, MD since 1971, moving to new quarters right now and still in operation.

  7. Paul Moxon, Website Editor 9 February, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    Stewart, you may be interested to know that APHA has an active Chesapeake Chapter with frequent gatherings, lectures and workshops throughout the region.

  8. The stories circle back, don’t they, Stewart? Glad you enjoyed. Walker

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