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Oscar Harpel’s Quaint Romance of William Whack

Photographs courtesy of Hay Library, Brown University

Photographs courtesy of Hay Library, Brown University

The Cincinnati printer Oscar Harpel produced and published Harpel’s Typograph in 1870. The Typograph was promotion piece, company advertising presented as a printing guidebook and an artistic sampler. It caused a splash among printers and made Harpel famous. On its strength, Harpel’s colorful presswork and ornate typography became “artistic printing.” Today Harpel’s Typograph fetches a high, and climbing, price in the rare book trade.

Far less renowned—a single copy remains, in Brown University’s Hay Library—is another Harpel product, a narrative poem printed and published the following year called The Quaint Romance of William Whack. Harpel’s Whack (he wrote it as “Burgoo Zac”) is ostensibly a children’s tale and perhaps autobiographical.

The Quaint Romance of William Whack went like this: A man, his wife, three daughters, and two sons migrate westward, to Illinois, to farm. They “prepared the soil for cereal wealth” and raised poultry, including a family of ducks. William (Billy) Duck is the smaller of two ducklings. He charms Nell, Bess, and Kate, the girls of the house, and becomes their favorite. His “quack-whack” suggests his name. Events transpire highlighted by an episode of meat-locker thieves, foiled when our William quacks and saves the household’s bacon. He is cosseted, a household pet.

Having risen in the world, William has also earned his parents’ censure. They think William is above himself, has become too good for them, “. . . too proud to visit poor relations; who are but simple barnyard fowls that ought to keep their stations.” William has exemplary talents and great initiative, but conventions constrict our William. He suffers cruelly. A pullet named Pearly Chicken soothes his pain, and they fall in love. Father Duck (Sir Drake) forbids a marriage. William Whack has not only outreached himself, he has chosen badly in love. He wastes away and dies. The Quaint Romance of William Whack is tragic, but finally redemptive: “the humblest creature may have fame if he but wills to win it!”

It’s tempting to find the poet-printer in Harpel’s Whack. The moral of the story fits. The real Whack, Oscar Harpel, rose to prominence in the years immediately following the American Civil War. His business, Harpel’s Mercantile Job Rooms, offered all-purpose printing; it was a conventional “job shop,” a designation that set it apart from newspaper printers and book publishers. In 1869, Harpel bought a Globe printing press, a half-medium jobbing platen recently introduced by the firm of John M. Jones of Palmyra, New York. The Globe press provided Harpel with color registration sufficient to challenge chromolithography, the industry standard. Harpel’s Typograph demonstrated that high production values were within reach of everyday printers.

Nineteenth-century printers considered themselves aristocrats of the working trades. They made more money than most, and, more important, they were literate. The combination made them their own best aesthetic judges. Since Gutenberg—in fact since Laurens Jansz Koster, Gutenberg’s Dutch contemporary—printers liked to consider their trade “the art preservative of all arts.”

Oscar Harpel, however, wanted more, and in promoting his business he promoted himself. Under various pseudonyms Harpel was a Civil War–era political caricaturist and a comic song lyricist (Velocipede Jimmy). He showed his paintings at Cincinnati’s Ohio Mechanics’ Institute. He compiled, printed, and published his poems along with others of his trade in Poets and Poetry in Printerdom (1875). Above all, Harpel took his trade beyond print shops. As big-city compositors took typesetting races off shopfloors and into dime museums, Harpel reached into middle-class parlors. Harpel’s Typograph was a coffee-table book. Oscar sought stardom.

The Quaint Romance of William Whack was, then, a facet of Oscar Harpel’s quest for acclaim. His printing press became not merely vocational improvement, but a tool of personal expression. After Harpel’s Typograph—after Burgoo Zac’s William Whack—“artistic” printers weren’t any longer simply “preserving” the arts, they were the thing itself. In short order, taste and technology outstripped him, but Harpel had launched private, craft printing as an art form.