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Printer’s Devils


A memorable episodes of Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” pits a news conglomerate against The Courier, a humble local daily. Mysterious Mr Smith, portrayed with sinister glee by Burgess Meredith, arrives in the nick of time to save the day. Suddenly, each issue of the Courier scoops the competition, publishing the news almost before it happens. Editor Douglas Winter (actor Robert Sterling) nearly enters a Faustian contract for the promise of continued success. It ends happily, you’ll be pleased to know, when Winter rejects Smith’s offer and the “printer’s devil” disappears in a puff of his own ever-present cigar smoke.

The Plantagenet may be at its own commercial crossroad, outpaced by electronic media and underpriced by other advertising modes. I’ll have to ask Howard if he’s been shifted to custodial work. So the traditions of independent journalism are under threat (here as elsewhere) and with it the tactile pleasures of handset type. Or so we thought.

Letterpress printing is on the cusp of renaissance, with print shops appearing throughout the country but especially here in the Midwest. Visit the websites of Studio on Fire in northeast Minneapolis or Fire & Ice in St Paul to see what I mean. [What is it with these fire references?] So it’s highly likely that the derelict type fonts and platen press of the old Needle & Haystack print shop may join the letterpress revival.

The Needle & Haystack firm spun off from The Plantagenet in the 1890s, when printing was profitable and Mergenthaler linotype machines revolutionized the industry. Neither of the print shop’s founders bore those surnames, however — neither Needle nor Haystack — nor were they Agincourt-born. More about that later.

Nineteenth century city directories were a mainstay of local printing operations. Though they were published just once a year, everyone wanted a copy as did folks in towns across the region and advertising revenues, from page margins to full-page spreads, made them profitable. And even before the widespread use of telephones, directories were used to locate people, target direct-mail advertising, and track the increase of population for statistical use. A virtual annual census, communities could use its information to promote themselves; hyperbole can take several forms, even such as Needle & Haystack’s Directory.¹ The large font, by the way, is “Plantagenet Cherokee,” a highly appropriate choice.

¹ For a nearly complete collection of Agincourt directories, visit the library at the Fennimore County History Center and Living Museum.


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