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The Printer's Towel

We live in a time of hyper-sensitivity in matters of contagion. Dr. Kelley and I are members of a rather conservative—actually, really conservative—Lutheran parish where some members still exercise the option of the common cup. On the other hand, we recently took part in a communion service where we were issued little sealed plastic packages, one compartment of which contained just a splash of wine, the other a dime-size gluten-free wafer.

Generations past communed in countless contagious ways, religious and secular. The common drinking cup in country schools, whereby every child dipped from a bucket and drank from the same vessel—diphtheria and polio drew the attention of public health crusaders to that.

Subcultures in prairie towns had their own, distinctive touchstones that were matters of ritual and bonding. Printing and publishing were core local functions in prairie communities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Editors, typesetters, tramp printers, and printer’s devils were distinct and hierarchical trades that had to work together to put out newspapers.

The physical symbol that brought them together, that they all touched, that they took as a badge of unsavory honor, was the printer’s towel. Nowadays you can still buy a textile product called a “printer’s towel,” which is advertised as highly absorbent, but such an object no longer is the focus of shared experience and identity.

The old-time printer’s towel hung on a hook somewhere in the newspaper office, and everyone used it—to rub the worst of the ink from their hands, to wipe their sweaty brows. As remembered in legend, it was never laundered, and it acquired quite a bit of character.

The American humorist Bill Nye, editor of Wyoming’s Laramie Boomerang during the 1880s, uncle of North Dakota senator Gerald P. Nye, spoke often of his printer’s towel. He alleged it was the invention of Benjamin Franklin to use as a physical weapon against argumentative readers. Nye said he used his to discipline delinquent subscribers.

Printers being wordy people, there were at least two poems about printer’s towels that circulated widely on the prairies. The better-known one was by the Iowa editor Bob Burdette. “The Printer’s Towel” describes the object in question.

In, over, and under
Twas blacker than thunder
Twas harder than poverty, rougher than sin

Notice the religious language here, some of it paraphrased right from the catechism? And there was a kind of salvation in the printer’s towel, for as we read, “Each rubbed some grime off for the heap they put on.”

A less renowned but still widely-circulated set of stanzas came from a printer poet in western Kansas, specifically Natoma, in 1902, who writes,

“Devil” rubs the dirt off
On the towel black
Pressman grabs it roughly
Scrubs the dirt right back

Eventually banished from newsrooms, the printer’s towel was the object of editorial laments. “The health board says as a collector of germs,” writes one, “Old towel was a leader for many long terms.” I think “old towel” came to symbolize a lost era, a fraternity of craftsmanship, in the days before machines, mechanical typesetters, displaced the grimy artisans of publishing’s heyday.

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