Scanning Around With Gene: 108 Years of Dust
How an industry dies says a lot about how it lived. Some, like coal mining or steel manufacturing, wreak destruction before we pack them off to nations less fortunate. Others, such as blacksmithing or film processing, die a slow death and, if they're lucky, hang on just long enough to become an art form. I recently viewed the corpse of a once-thriving printing business, the Oakland Rubber Stamp Company. It confirmed for me that the industry of physical page construction is now officially dead.
Today, print is an industry of file management, scheduling, software integration, curve adjustments, transparency flattening, and button pushing. The few remaining machines put out a steady hum, not the banging, clanking, and rumble that once defined a busy shop.
The craft of constructing a physical page with type you can run your fingers over will live on, but only in boutique shops, academic institutions, and hobbyists' garages. You're not going to find many businesses like the Oakland Rubber Stamp Company (Figure 1) still operating. I was surprised it had taken this long for it to die. One recent Sunday morning I picked over the remains at a closing-business sale.
Figure 1. The Oakland Rubber Stamp Company was founded in 1898 by L.H. Moise, Proprietor. Over the years the business moved a few times, but it stayed in continuous operation.
Businesses started in 1898 are pretty old for the United States, especially for a local service business. This particular shop was a general marking-devices printer specializing in making rubber stamps, engraving signs, servicing numbering machines, and producing novelty printing (Figure 2). Not a real printer by some standards, but the process was the same, and even more mechanical.
Figure 2. An early owner re-established the business as beginning in 1913, and that history stuck throughout the rest of the company's life. By the time of these early catalogs, the business was in the location where it remained until the end.
What's That Smell?
I could smell that it was a print shop before I even entered the building. There's something unmistakable about that mix of petroleum solvents, metal, ink, and dust. Decades of dust. From the looks of it, no one had dusted since at least 1965.
In the back was a large Ludlow metal-typesetting operation and a ton of hand-set type, metal saws, ovens, and assorted toxic materials. It was hard to imagine a time when staff occupied the stations, churning out rubber stamps so bankers, clerks, and bureaucrats could leave their mark more easily on a piece of paper (Figure 3).
Figure 3. An early promotional card listing the company's services (above), and the original metal cut used to print it (below). Rubber stamp business of old used many of the same processes and tools of traditional printers.
In another room, I could barely make out the shape of a junk-covered Compugraphic Editwriter, a symbol that this shop had, indeed, made the leap into a more modern age. Early Atari and Radio Shack TRS80 computers were also for sale, and you could see where the Macs had been. You couldn't accuse the Oakland Rubber Stamp Company of giving up easily -- they had put their faith in technology every step of the way. But ultimately technology betrayed them, as it always does (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Throughout its 108-year history, the Oakland Rubber Stamp Company changed looks and technologies every so often, and the company logo reflected the popular type styles of the times.
The current owner told me that people still need rubber stamps, and he sold his customer list to someone who will most likely make a small profit processing orders and sending out the work. But he won't need a three-story plant in prime downtown real estate to do it.
Just looking around made me tired. All that work for a small rubber stamp or a name plate to put on your desk. That was a time when we didn't put a lot of value on people's time, and things were made to be more permanent (Figure 5).
Figure 5. At one point, Dan Solo, Berkeley historical typographer and author of countless Dover type books, was married to the shop-owner's daughter, so he hand-drew these logos, which were used for decades to come.
I could relate to the owner (Figure 6) -- I'd been in similar circumstances before. He was pictured on the wall in younger days, shaking hands with the previous owner as he took over the shop in 1977. Only the curly hair was bigger than his smile. And here he was almost 30 years later, looking around at the mess that was once a proud business. He probably made an okay living, but he bought the business at just the wrong time. Another few years and anyone would have seen the end coming.
Figure 6. Generations of proprietors lined the walls. Above are proud owners Jim and Rose Bostick in 1923. Below left are Lawrence and Edith Crow at their retirement in 1985, and right is their son-in-law who took over the business and ran it until the going-out-of-business sale last month.
I always feel a little like a vulture in these circumstances, but I could see that the owner was glad someone was picking through the rubble to save a few gems. I came home with a carload of old printers' catalogs, brochures, samples, metal advertising cuts, clipart books, and a small hand press (Figure 7).
Figure 7. Practicing what they preached, the Oakland Rubber Stamp Company employed all sort of labels, stamps, stickers, decals and other devices in its own promotions.
Someone had just agreed to haul off the Ludlow machines and give them a good home. And several antique dealers wanted the 100-year-old letter punching machines that had, up until a few weeks ago, been considered working assets.
Sadly, no one wanted the Editwriter. Despite a moment of consideration (I've always wanted an Editwriter in my living room -- the blue would match our sofa), I agreed only to come in just before the junk guys and remove the Editwriter's nameplate, some souvenir fonts, and the owner's manual. Someone has to honor the souls of the poor typesetters who sat at that machine typing the same words over and over again until they got up for a cigarette break (Figure 8). Actually, for most of the years the Oakland Rubber Stamp Company was operating, I'm sure you could smoke at your workstation. The place was one big ashtray anyway.
Figure 8. The shop crew in 1945 (above) and in 1966 (below). Family-owned businesses like the Oakland Rubber Stamp Company were often home to workers for an entire career.
It's good that places like the Oakland Rubber Stamp Company are gone. I don't think the work was very satisfying, and it certainly was dirty and wasteful. But there was, you could tell, enough pride in the craft to sustain several owners and generations of customers (Figure 9). That part will be missed.
Figure 9. The letterhead of one-time owner Rose Tanquary.
Next time I pass by, I expect the Oakland Rubber Stamp Company will be a coffee roasting joint or a trendy restaurant. Or perhaps the landlord will lease the space to Kinkos, and the whole process can start over again.