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GPO’s Star Linotype

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The Government Publishing Office in Washington D.C. recently acquired two original news photographs of its most famous and beloved Linotype.

The machine, a Model 5, serial no. 14168R, shipped in June, 1910, to Pierre Lafitte & Co., a Paris agent, and was purchased by a French printing firm. Had it not been one of two requisitioned for the American Expeditionary Force by Major W.W. Kirby seven years later, the machine might well have ended its life in the same obscurity shared by many of its Brooklyn-built brethren. 

Maj. Kirby was under orders from Gen. John J. Pershing to set up a mobile printing battalion for the 29th Engineers at Camp Babcock in Chaumont, France, Pershing’s initial headquarters. Months later, as the AEF began its forward push, the plant was mobilized into trucks to form a fully equipped mobile printing train that included two generators, a press, a complete photographic setup, and the two Linotypes Kirby had requisitioned. This train followed Pershing’s HQ throughout the rest of the war, churning out maps, charts, manuals, and orders.

After the Armistice, the Linotype was dismantled and shipped back to the states, eventually arriving at the Government Printing Office in 1920 where it joined about 120 other Linotypes in the Composing Division. In Washington as on the front lines, the Pershing Linotype was operated by James M. Kreiter, a corporal in the 29th Engineers who returned to GPO in peacetime and remained the rest of his career.

In the fall of 1936, the American Legion held its 18th annual national convention in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cleveland Plain Dealer of Wednesday, September 23, 1936 reported that the 70,000 conventioneers held a parade before 500,000 spectators, which went on for an incredible 11½ hours. Among the units in the parade was a White Motor Co. truck carrying the Pershing Linotype and Jimmie Kreiter, preceded by a car carrying the Public Printer (the head of GPO) Augustus E. Giegengack, himself a former Linotype operator and WWI veteran, having been the production manager of Stars and Stripes in France.

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The two photos just acquired by GPO show the truck with the Pershing Linotype in two locations along the parade route. The truck may or may not be a GPO vehicle (it has an Ohio license plate, although that may be a temporary), and it’s possible the Linotype was shipped to Cleveland by train. Shipping a 2450 lb. piece of machinery by train might seem like a lot of effort for a Government agency. But in 1936, the American Legion was nearly at the peak of its influence, and GPO’s own post, organized in 1934, had 447 members. Public Printer Giegengack was an active Legionnaire, and was a delegate to the 1936 convention. So it’s probably safe to say that there was plenty of support for GPO’s involvement. And although this was the depths of the Great Depression, GPO itself, and the Government generally, were growing.

As for the actual labor of moving the machine, it needs to be remembered that GPO, with its large battery of Linotypes, moved them around all the time, and since the Office had its own dedicated railroad siding adjacent to Washington Union Station, a train trip for the Pershing may seem less unlikely than the machine’s early career in France, when the truck it was in actually had to be jacked up on blocks to level up the machine to run.

The Pershing Linotype remained in service at GPO for 20 more years, and in 1956 retired to the back of GPO’s auditorium as a memorial to its war service and GPO’s WWI veterans. In 2011 it became one of the highlights of the ongoing history exhibit near the main entrance to GPO’s buildings.

In 1926, a plaque was mounted on the top rail of the Linotype by the International Association of Printing House Craftsmen:

“In honor of a Linotype that served its country on the battlefields in France … There upon a throbbing motor truck mid shot and shell this machine typed Gen Pershing’s commands to America’s victorious army.”

In a factory the size of GPO, machines come and go, mostly without fanfare. Most of GPO’s Linotypes went in the 1980s with barely more than the word “scrapped” written next to their equipment number in a ledger. But this one Linotype has, with its unlikely journeys, earned a kind of stardom.

 

Comments

  1. This was a great article–I enjoyed it, for the wide scope of the information, and for the well-crafted writing. Nicely done.

  2. Another great article, as expected from George Barnum. Loved the details about GPO moving their Linotypes “around all the time,” about no big deal to ship to Cleveland because GPO “had its own dedicated railroad siding,” and about jacking up the truck that carried the Linotype in France “to level up the machine to run.” I wonder how the original owner, the French printing firm, whose machine got requisitioned, felt about all this traveling.

  3. Leave it to George Barnum to find treasures tucked in a dark building corner, and then to bring it all alive in a printer’s story worth reading. My sincere thanks, George.

  4. Thank you for a good and informative piece.

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