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An Archaeological Adventure

May 08, 2015

The first Friday in April proved to be the perfect day for a little light destruction in the shop—in the name of preservation, of course!

While much of our time in the shop is focused on design and printing, we also take time to explore the history of the shop and the incredible collection we have to draw upon and preserve—and sometimes that means we’ve got to tear a table apart.

When we moved into our new shop in October 2013, we finally had the chance to get more organized, and create permanent homes for the collection. Along the way, we made a few discoveries that had to wait until we had the time to come back to them; one of these discoveries was that the wood top of one of our handmade worktables was composed of old printing blocks. Yes! Old printing blocks!

In the era when many of Hatch Show Print’s posters were at least 26 inches by 40 inches (going up to billboard size), and the designs were cut into blocks of that size, they were designed and carved to last as long as the client wanted to continue using the imagery. Once the client desired a new look or design, instead of just tossing the old block out, it was recycled. The block was cut up, either so the pieces could be flipped over and used to carve new blocks, or made into boxes to hold tools or posters, or, as in this instance, the parts of four different blocks were pieced together to make a table top.

During the move, when we emptied this particular table of all its drawers, we found the blocks. It is a habit among all of the staff to look at ALL sides of any piece of wood that might have once been a printing block, and so naturally, we looked at the underside of the table top, and, woweee! We found multiple blocks that were definitely handcarved for printing, with words we could not really make out.

underside of table

In the rush of the move, and eager to get back to printing, we had to, er, table our thoughts about what we wanted to do to get the blocks out of that table.

Then this April, the table became the topic of conversation again, so we decided to open it up and see what was inside. First, the metal top had to be unscrewed, and that revealed the backsides of the blocks.

steel removed from table

Considering their condition, we got excited that the frontsides would be in pretty good shape, but we had to remove dozens of nails (no glue!) very carefully so that we did not further mar the cuts in the blocks. One by one, they emerged:

Table with blocks

A complete half sheet for Sarie and Sallie; most of a Smiley “Frog” Burnette half sheet; a quarter or less of a one sheet for North West Mounted Police, a 1940 movie starring Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard, made by Cecil B. DeMille; and more than half of another one sheet for a film from 1939, called The Roaring Twenties, and starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.

We proofed all four blocks.

We’re captivated by the Roaring Twenties movie block, not because of the star power, but because of the fabulous lettering of the title, with all of those lines suggesting movement. Searching for other images online we found the original lithograph posters, and many of them attempted to create the same movement with color. The strong lines of movement in the relief print block (our block) really communicate the fast-paced plot of three war buddies selling bootleg liquor in Prohibition America, always on the run from the law.

Overall, what we know about the origin of the movie blocks in the collection is that the original ideas for the artwork would come from the film companies: They would send out books with imagery that could be used to promote a film, ranging in format and style from actual photo stills, to line art, to lithographs. They were that era’s clip-art books, specific to each film. We imagine that the range of imagery allowed the local print shops, in cities and towns across the country, the opportunity to select the style most appropriate for their publications. The block carvers at Hatch Show Print were skilled at translating any imagery into one- and two-color letterpress printed poster art, and from the appearance of this poster and other blocks in the collection, Will T. Hatch and his design staff, namely Herman Langham, would adjust and embellish the artwork, too. Hence, that incredible lettering!

To learn more about the poster, we pulled out the business records for the movie theaters that Hatch Show Print worked with in the first half of the twentieth century, and, by pure coincidence, opened them to a week in 1940 that listed a bulk order for posters for The Roaring Twenties—1350, going to theaters in North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas.

One hundred two-color posters for $2! Wow! Looking further back in the records, we learned that the block was carved in November 1939. A really large run of posters with just the block in the press was printed, and then as the theaters ordered posters, a hundred to five hundred at a time, the shop would pull from that stock and add the theater name and dates of the show in a different color of ink.

Standing in front of the theater masthead section in our wall of type, master printer Jim Sherraden quickly found the block for the Ritz theater chain, and coincidentally, that block is the same width as our partial movie block. He set dates based on the Fort Worth, Texas, showing of the movie, and now this print is available in Hatch Show Print’s Haley Gallery!

Ritz Theatre poster

A final note: In addition to rescuing the four blocks, Heather and Cory built a new top for our worktable, from donated wood, so by the afternoon of the same day it was back in use.


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