“THE GORDON PRESS is the smallest Publishing House and printing house in America. Just 8x12 feet in size, a 7x13 Kelsey Hand Press, a 10x15 inch Gordon Press, two cabinets modern type, also antique type. Also stove, bed and cooking utensils etc.” – Gordon Press promotional flyer
In 1880, when John Shand Gordon was eight years old, he emigrated from Scotland to Port Dover, Ontario with his mother, Elizabeth Ragg Gordon, five sisters and three brothers. John’s father lived and worked in London, never following his family to North America. At the age of fifteen, after a few years of schooling and a brief job with a butcher, he was apprenticed at the Port Dover Maple Leaf newspaper. In those days, type was set by hand by a typographer who stood in front of a large typecase and picked out the letters and symbols needed, word by word and line by line, with everything reading backwards, to make up a column of text. As a “Printers Devil” (a nickname given to a new apprentice at the shop because he got “black as the devil” with ink), John earned $1.50 for a fifty-nine hour week sweeping, chopping firewood, mixing lye with ashes and water to clean the type, carrying water and breaking down type after the pages had been printed. In some ways, the latter was more demanding than setting the type, as each letter had to be read backwards and returned to its proper place in the case, being extremely careful not to confuse the p’s and q’s, or b’s and d’s. This is where the expression “Mind your P’s and Q’s” comes from!
After he served his apprenticeship, learned to set type, compose pages, and probably run the presses as well, John qualified as a Journeyman Printer, and was accepted into the International Typographical Union. The ITU had been founded in 1852 as the National Typographical Union, and became the International Typographical Union in 1869 when it began organizing members from Canada. In 1897, the ITU was pivotal in initiating a 48-hour work week and standard wage scale, and then during the Great Depression, introducing a 40-hour work week as a way to redistribute hours among more workers and fewer jobs. Members of the ITU were a proud group, favoring negotiation instead of strikes and living by the idea that the ITU was there to “make the man a better printer, and the printer a better man.”
When a journeyman was accepted into the ITU, he was awarded a “traveling card” which gave him a right to work anywhere in North America as an equal to any other journeyman printer. Young printers were encouraged to travel after completing their apprenticeship to learn the ins and outs of the trade. Some chose to make a career as itinerants, moving about from place to place all their working lives. Within the printing trade, they were known as “tramp printers,” a label which most of them considered a badge of honor. John Gordon prided himself on being a tramp printer, and used the term after his name, as if it were an academic degree.
“The army of Tramp Printers included thousands of refined, well educated, brainy men, capable of filling the highest position on a newspaper staff, or any vocation that required superior intellect and education. But the ‘lure of the road’ was so fascinating, and teemed with so many possibilities for leisure, pleasure, sightseeing and sociability that it was simply irresistible.” – John Gordon, The Tramp Printer, 1927
In 1888, John moved to the United States, going to Springfield, Massachusetts to live with siblings Isobel, Eliza, Peter and James. Later that year, his mother and other siblings joined them. Appropriate of a tramp printer, John took a job with the Holyoke Daily Democrat Newspaper in Holyoke, Massachusetts and jobs in Bangor and Portland, Maine, moving all over New England. While working in New York City, John became a United States citizen on February 9, 1891.
As linotype machines became available in the late 1880s, typographers had to learn to operate them as well. The operator composed lines of text on a 90-character keyboard. As each line was entered, it was cast in type metal, a mixture of molten lead and antimony. Working in a confined space and around pots of molten metal was detrimental to the health of the typographer and others working around it, many of whom developed “printer’s lung,” a form of “consumption” (tuberculosis). The condition became so common that the ITU opened a hospital and home in the Colorado Springs area, where the Rocky Mountain air was thought to be good for the lungs. With generous donations, the Childs-Drexel Home for Union Printers was opened in May 1892. In 1899, it became simply the Union Printers Home: “A home for the Aged and Sanitarium for the Tuberculars. Maintained by the International Typographers Union for its Distressed Members.” The original Home had 29 acres, but grew to 260 acres including a dairy, farms, gardens and power plant. John spent some years here while “very unwell,” and often talks very favorably about his stay in his publications. He dedicated a number of his creations to the Home and his “brothers” there, hoping they would get some enjoyment from reading them.
In 1936, after leaving the Home he found his way to Vinalhaven and lived in what he affectionately labeled “smallest publishing house in America” on the North Haven Road. His tiny abode was an 8’ x 12’ camp that held his printing press, a bed, wood stove, a small table with soap-box seat, and his rocking chair. Originally he had a Gordon press 1851 model, which took up a lot of room in his quarters, but he eventually sold it for $50 because he needed groceries. John used his printing expertise and creativity to build himself a new printing press with pieces he had acquired from his sideline in junk dealing. His custom built press (pictured left) was comprised of nineteen pieces of wood, a broomstick handle, four springs, part of an iron, a harness snap, copper pipe, stove-pipe iron, inner tube from a car tire, part of a car air pump, and miscellaneous screws, nuts and bolts. In 1942, he accomplished printing a fifty page book on this press with only a few minor parts breaking. He printed 100 copies of My First Year as a Printer’s Devil, type-set by hand with twenty-two wood cuts made with a jackknife, and bound in a unique wallpaper cover, in just five weeks. All in all, we know of 16 booklets published by him, in addition to the job-printing commissions he accepted for Vinalhaven businesses who delighted in having his unique artwork on their envelopes and flyers. He even undertook publication of a small community newspaper, but produced only a couple of issues.
In the summer of 1939, John entered the boat parade for the Town of Vinalhaven’s sesqui-centennial (175th) celebration. He hand-made a vessel named the Pioneer, after Vinalhaven’s first steamer (pictured right). It was a small, side paddlewheel vessel, with paddles made of license places, propelled by converted bicycle parts. Its power was provided by Gordon, who said “Every circus must have its clown, and I’m going to furnish one for the Marine Parade.”
The beauty of the island and the kind welcome he received from the people instantly charmed him and he lived on the island for the remainder of his life. Some island residents still remember him. Neighborhood kids recall bringing him loose buttons in return for a few pennies, with which they promptly bought penny candy.
John died at the age of 71, on January 4, 1944. John’s son William had joined the war effort during WWII. He returned to Vinalhaven from England long enough to bury his father at Cummings Cemetery. With no time to tend to business the Gordon Press building was boarded up and locked. Over time the small print shop became victim to vandalism and the typeset, printing equipment, his mandolin, and all of his “treasures” were carried away and his story all but disappeared.
This year we are reviving the memory of John Gordon and celebrating his life and works. We would like to thank John’s family for all their help, Richard D’Abate for sharing his Gordon collection, and Ken Reiss for his printing knowledge.
Trench Art and Souvenirs
One hundred years ago, the first “Big War” of the 20th century began. The Vinalhaven Historical Society staged a modest display of war related items of the conflict, loaned by American Legion Post #18 of Vinalhaven and private collectors.
Modern war, besides producing “the dead and the damaged,” leaves behind mountains of leftovers such as shell casings, bits of shrapnel, bullets, guns, bayonets, discarded metal and wood, letters, news accounts, memoirs, and novels, etc.
Trench Art is a loose term for “war leftovers” turned into sculpture, rings, letter openers, knives, and other objects by uniformed combatants and even more so, by entrepreneurial civilians living near the fighting. In France, Belgium, and a host of other war ravaged places, cottage industries thrived during (and for years after) WWI, making and selling trench art.
We would like to thank Roger Young for helping us create this display, collect the artifacts, and tell their story.