[This article originally appeared in 2012 on my old blog, The Blue Valise. Hatch Show Print is now located in the 5th Avenue lobby of The Country Music Hall of Fame. http://hatchshowprint.com/]
A sign on the glass reminds the visitor to close the door behind them so as not to let the shop's two cats escape onto Nashville's seven-days-a-week honky-tonk Broadway. Once inside, she is met with high walls papered with broadsides past and present and the medley of a working print shop--stacks of type drawers and carved blocks, piles of posters waiting to be wrapped, and trays of ink and mixing palettes. This, along with the poster bins, little piles of ephemera, very friendly staff and a cascade of tourists tramping through (50,000 a year!), makes the famous Hatch Show Print feel like a letterpress lover's endless holiday open house buffet.
Maybe I was a little over-eager when I blurted out to an intern, "I'm so excited to be here!" She smiled sweetly at me. But I did drive over to Nashville from a recent trip to the Smoky Mountains almost specifically to visit Hatch Show Print and take away a few souvenirs. Ordering posters online when I was a meager three hour drive away seemed so pointless.
When I took my first letterpress classes in New York, novices were encouraged to forget about perfecting the layout and, instead, to sort through the old metal typefaces, wooden letters, and boxes of carved woodblocks, arrange them on the press bed in an attempt at artful chaos and then just get their aprons messy while learning to work with the press. None of my "designs" were particularly good, but overall motif felt so familiar--colorful but with paper showing through, simple, and kind of pan-Western. At the time, I didn't realize that what I was attempting to mimic as a beginner was actually a design tradition ingrained in our cultural aesthetic (graphic and musical) and descended from this famous poster print shop.
"Advertising without a poster is like fishing without worms." - The Hatch Brothers
Hatch Show Print began its run as the country's longest continually operating print shop in 1879. Originally called CR & HH Hatch after its founders, brothers Charles and Herbert Hatch, the shop's first job was a handbill advertising an appearance by Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Uncle Tom's Cabin author, Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the 1920s C.R.'s son, Will T. Hatch, developed a distinctive style of hand carving that remains a main element of Hatch design today. Printing advertisements for local circuses, sporting and music events led to work with the Grand Ole Opry, a wildly popular "barn dance" radio show started in 1925 that has featured decades worth of Country & Western's most popular musicians. The Hatch aesthetic became the imagery of a specific type of American music, and the relationship between the two are inveterate, creating a look that has an oft-imitated "Americana" feel using wooden typefaces and carved imagery.
Country music is nothing if not populist, wending its way through the folk music traditions of Anglo and Irish immigrants in Appalachian and enslaved African Americans to create its many subgenres and encapsulating the stories of the lower classes along the way. It reached an audience in wider America through the introduction of radio, and the musicians of the Grand Ole Opry billed themselves through cheaply produced letterpressed poster art.
Though not so cheap (at least for the hobbyist to practice) anymore, letterpress has definitely experienced a renaissance in recent years. A d.i.y. subculture seems (to me, living in Brooklyn) to have replaced fine art; and ironically or not, people in their 20s and 30s are interested in repurposing pieces of culture from decades past. Maybe love of letterpress comes from an ability to create using a method that has remained essentially unchanged since its advent, and that feels authentic or honest. It's a medium in which small inconsistencies make something unique instead of flawed. As technology continues to outpace itself, you can see the human hand at work in a Hatch poster, and that has remained constant for over 130 years.
Jim Sherraden, Hatch's manager, curator and chief designer, and the eight or so employees and interns who work there feel a "responsibility to the heritage of the shop." No new typefaces are introduced to the collection of antique metal and wood type and designs from the archive of old blocks are often reused in new designs. Hatch's work is a buoyant, colorful and humorous reference to its history. With seven presses in use and upwards of 600 new jobs a year, Hatch still reprints ("restrikes") the classic posters for fans to purchase, in addition to using old blocks to print one of a kind monoprints. Hatch Show Print operates by Sherraden's motto, "preservation through production," and is without a doubt a living museum dedicated to a unique slice of the American story.
For a look at letterpress in action, check out the video, American Letterpress: The Art of Hatch Show Print.