Not everyone in an old-time print shop could enjoy the clackety-clack of linotype machines, the rhythmic noise of presses and the rattle and hum of newspaper folders. That is because many people trained in the long-ago printing trades were deaf.
Several histories indicate that deaf people were seen as ideal candidates to operate linotype machines and other printing equipment. They would not be distracted by a noisy workplace.
Schools for the deaf and trade schools began offering training in linotype and press operations more than a century ago. When every community had its own newspaper and print shop, work was readily available for people who could operate linotype machines and all types of presses.
Two schools in Minnesota were among those that provided training for print industry workers who were deaf. What is now the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault offered training in its graphic arts program. Minneapolis’ Dunwoody Institute, now Dunwoody College of Technology, trained many people who worked in the region’s print industry. Both schools offered linotype training into the 1980s.
Janelle Legg is an assistant professor of history at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Gallaudet is a leading university for deaf people. Legg is curator of the website Deafprinters.com and project manager for the Schuchman Deaf Documentary Center at Gallaudet.
“Printing was an esteemed trade for most of the 19th and 20th centuries in the deaf community. A number of deaf people supported themselves and their families in that occupation,” Legg said in a recent Journalism History podcast.
The Washington Post is well-known for employing many deaf people in its printing operations. A recent Post article noted that at one time the paper had more than 100 deaf linotype operators.
Deaf linotype operators and printers worked in Minnesota newspapers of all sizes for decades. Some spent their careers at newspapers. Others moved to other printing careers.
An example of a deaf Minnesota native who got his start as a linotype operator is the late Richard “Dick” Caswell. Caswell went to school in Faribault and then Gallaudet. He worked at the Washington Star newspaper for seven years as a linotype operator.
Caswell then worked at the United States Printing Office before going to the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services as a proofreader. He served under the chairmanship of John Stennis, John Tower, Barry Goldwater, Sam Nunn and Strom Thurmond. He retired in 1995 with 34 years of government service. Caswell died in 2020.
Legg and others are working to preserve this history through the Deaf Printers Project. They are gathering information on printers and the International Typographical Union. Many printers belonged to the union before it dissolved in 1986.
Learn more at Deaf Printers Pages
Access Press Editor Jane McClure edited the Maynard News, a paper published every year in a Minnesota State Fair museum. This story is reprinted from the 2023 Maynard News edition.