Legg Podcast: The History of Deaf Printers

Women and men stand near linotype machines

new logoFor the 123rd episode of the Journalism History podcast, Curator Jannelle Legg discusses a new online exhibit examining the role of Deaf printers in journalism history.

Jannelle Legg is assistant professor in history at Gallaudet University with a joint appointment in the Drs. John S. and Betty J. Schuchman Deaf Documentary Center..

Featured image: Dick Moore, “Linotype with Monitors,” DeafPrinters, accessed March 23, 2023, https://deafprinters.com/items/show/14. Description: Deaf printers often gathered in their workspaces during breaks for ASL conversations about work and other topics. The large number of Deaf employees at The Washington Post created a community which shared advice and offered support in sign language. Image made available for educational and research purposes by the Drs. John S. and Betty J. Schuchman Deaf Documentary Center at Gallaudet University. 



Jannelle Legg: 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.

Teri Finneman:   Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told.

 I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.

Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.

Ken Ward:  And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.

Teri Finneman:  And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast.

 This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal Journalism History.

 Reporters get the recognition as the faces of the newspaper.


 But there are many workers within the building who are largely invisible to the general public. These include the pressmen, who make sure the newspaper gets printed.

 Dating back to the 1800s Deaf schools around the country had a long history with training workers who wound up working at newspapers. From the 1970s to 2000, more than 125 Deaf people worked at the Washington Post alone, although these printers worked at many newspapers around the country.

 On today’s show, we visit with Jannelle Legg, curator of the website Deafprinters.com and project manager for the Schuchman Deaf Documentary Center at Gallaudet University.

 Jannelle, welcome to the show. Let’s start by talking about how Deaf printers became part of journalism history in the first place and the vocational training programs that were in place at residential Deaf schools dating back to the 1800s.

Jannelle Legg:  Sure, that’s a great opening [chuckles] question. So a formal educational opportunities in the United States –


emerged for Deaf students in the 19th Century. So these were largely state-funded residential schools, instruction was largely in sign language. And those curriculums included vocational training to prepare students for employment after they left school. And that included trades like shoemaking, farming, or for our purposes printing. And those were pretty common for Deaf boys in the 19th century.

In the 20th century this expanded to include things like carpentry, mechanics, other trades. And the idea here was that those curriculums would give students greater opportunities for employment after they graduated. They would be able to demonstrate those job skills for potential employers. They could form their shops and become self-supporting citizens.

Teri Finneman:  Many Deaf residential schools produced newspapers in their training classes, with over 40 newspapers published in these schools. Tell us more about these student newspapers: what was in them, how they were beneficial to students, and then how they benefited the schools themselves.


Jannelle Legg:  Yes, so these school papers formed a sort of loose network that was referred to as “The Little Paper Family.” Many residential Deaf schools created these papers to provide training experience for students, but it also worked as a way of communicating the activities of the school to administrators and parents and alumni as well.

The papers included things like student work, but they also came to include news about alumni and Deaf community members nationally, and highlighted news that was relevant specifically to Deaf people themselves. And they played a really important role within the Deaf community because it maintained those connections between alumni and community members after they graduated and lived at distances from one another.

 So it included updates on things like life events or other activities and those updates served multiple roles. They were sort of tangible examples of success within the Deaf community. They also served as sort of cultural guidance –


for community members. They shared advice and other opportunities from work or social life and things like that.

Teri Finneman:  I think the website mentions that it also played a political role, right, as far as the schools being able to show politicians that their funding was being put to good use, right?

 Jannelle Legg:  Yes, exactly. So those examples of, you know, Deaf successes, people employed in various fields were also published as a means of demonstrating to state officials the efficacy of these residential Deaf schools.

Teri Finneman:  Now not everyone benefited from these opportunities, though. Talk about the racial and gender barriers that existed.

 Jannelle Legg:  Absolutely, yes. So Deaf people of color and Deaf women simply put did not have the same access to vocational training as white Deaf males students did, particularly in the American South where Black Deaf students were often denied access to education for most of the 19th century.

Separate schools were formed after the Civil War for Black Deaf children and those were often separate campuses from white Deaf children.


Our sources indicate that those schools, after they were founded, often lacked resources and they had limited training opportunities for their students. And printing in particular as a trade necessitated large and expensive machinery, so it was unlikely to be incorporated in those schools.

And in terms of gender, it was a major factor as well because Deaf schools often offered separate vocational trainings opportunities for girls and young women. And what this meant is that, as they entered the workforce, both Deaf women and Deaf people of color would have been much less likely to enter a trade, printing as a trade, without additional training experience to prepare them.

Teri Finneman:  This project in particular focuses on Deaf printers at the Washington Post. It’s unclear when the first Deaf person worked there, but it’s believed the practice dates back to at least the 1920s and was common for the rest of the century. What roles did these workers all do at the Post?

Jannelle Legg:  It’s a really good question. So we do – we have uncovered some evidence of Deaf people at the Post while –


they were students at the nearby Gallaudet University during the 1920s, but I think it’s likely that they worked at the Post and at other print shops within DC from much earlier than that.

And the roles that they played at the Post in particular were things like linotype operator, they worked in the press room, the mailroom. And as technology changed, the role of the printer was expanded to include other forms of printing, so things like photo engraving or computer-based ad design were other roles that Deaf people played at the Post.

Teri Finneman:  The use of sign language interpreters was not standard practice in the United States until the end of the 20th Century. So what communication strategies were used among the various employees so people understood each other?

Jannelle Legg:  This is actually something really interesting that has come out of the Deaf printers project because we’ve been able to sort of document this period before the professionalization of American Sign Language interpretation or the recognition of American Sign Language as a language linguistically.


A number of our interview subjects recall writing notes with their co-workers or employers pointing or physically gesturing to one another. Um, and over time, teaching particular ASL vocabularies to hearing co-workers is another strategy they implemented.

They also relied really heavily on one another. They were – they formed a network of reliable information offering guidance and advice to one another demonstrating skills that they need at work. And in some cases, actually interpreting for one another if one person had stronger hearing skills or lip reading skills, they would serve as an interpreter for their Deaf co-workers.

Teri Finneman:  Wasn’t there some of the Washington Post employees who also learned some sign a little bit?

Jannelle Legg:  Yeah, they did. They did try to teach some ASL vocabulary. So things like the signs for composing room or paste-up, linotype, some employers or some of the supervisors would use, you know, sort of that simple sign to indicate –


where that person was assigned for their shift that day. So this meant that they wouldn’t have prolonged, in-depth conversations about their personal lives [chuckles] and things like that, but in terms of what needed to occur in the workplace, they were able to sort of make that communication access happen.

Teri Finneman:  I want to talk about a very cool feature that you have on the website, the Glossary, which includes newspaper terminology and sign language signs. Why did you want to create that glossary and tell us more about what’s all on that page.

 Jannelle Legg:  Great question. Ah, and I can’t take credit for that at all. That was a priority [laughs] of our advisory team of Deaf retired printers who really are the thrust behind this project.

 So sign languages don’t have written forms that are used generally, and prior to the advent of video technology, it’s incredibly difficult to document signed languages. You kind of need video technology to capture the movement and the facial expressions, the hand shakes, the body movements that are associated with particular signs.

 And this group of retired printers was –


very concerned that, as the field itself, the profession was shrinking, you were losing this community of users for those signs that they had developed specific to the field of printing. Those signs, which many student or many printers learned in residential Deaf schools in those training classes, learned from their co-workers on the job at print shops around the country. They shared those signs between each other and as they were leaving those print shops, those signs were leaving with them and slowly disappearing. And as there’s no new generation of Deaf printers, the signs are slowly disappearing as well. So the project really aims to preserve those language forms before they disappear.

Teri Finneman:  Yeah, so talk about some of the specific terms and what’s all on that site.

Jannelle Legg:  Sure. Um, so we’ve generated [laughs] a list sort of in two ways. One, the printers themselves during one of the reunions here at Gallaudet came up with a list of words like “dupe” or “paste-up.” Some of the phrases that are specific to the union or to, you know, printing itself.


 And we were able to film some of those glossary entries on campus during that process.

 In other cases as we’ve undertaken interviews with individual printers, we’ve actually captured some signs that have come up sort of spontaneously during those interviews, and then gone back to make sure that we add an entry that’s sort of explains what specific sign uses.

 The important thing to keep in mind is with — most young Deaf people today don’t know what those signs mean, so even as we’re capturing these interviews and preserving them, there’s a real concern that in the future someone won’t be able to recall what that meant, what that specific sign meant if someone signed it. So it’s sort of important that we build out this glossary so that these videos are sort of intelligible as we go forward into the future.

Teri Finneman:  I think another cool “news you can use” type of feature that you have on the site is you include instructions on how to create a pressman’s hat at Deafprinters.com/hat.


 Tell us what this hat is and why these printers wore one.

Jannelle Legg:  Ah, that’s, yes exactly. So that’s actually one of our advisory members, a retired printer himself Dick Moore, and he worked in multiple departments at the Washington Post, including the pressroom, which have been the space where the pages of the paper are printed on large machines. Um, and traditionally pressmen have made paper hats at the start of each shift.

 The purpose of these hats is to protect their heads, their hair from the dust and the ink from the printing machines as they’re working on the floor throughout their shift. And that’s such an integral part of that experience of, of working in the pressroom that we thought it was important to capture the process of folding a newspaper and forming that hat because that was how one’s shift started at the beginning of the day. And at the end of your shift you pulled it off and you threw them in the trash and the next day you started fresh.

Teri Finneman:  Union membership was a requirement for employment at the Washington Post


 and is part of the history of many newspapers. The International Typographical Union, which formed in the mid-1800s is described as a “powerful force in the employment of Deaf printers through the end of the 1980s when the organization disbanded.” What was the importance of this union for these printers?

Jannelle Legg:  A union membership was significant. I think the majority of our interview subjects emphasized that point repeatedly. [Chuckles] Ah, because once a member, once a printer was a member of the International Typographical Union or the ITU, they had access to work at ITU shops around the country, which meant that their skills and their union card made them transferable, they could go other, other places.

And it’s important to keep in mind that for Deaf people a barrier to employment was often sort of social attitudes or expectations of employers. A union card was proof that these were skilled workers, and I think that helped a lot of Deaf printers get into shops, get their foot in the door.


Unions offered additional protections to their workers. Think about sort of disciplinary meetings or wage negotiations or schedule disputes. A Deaf printer could count on a union rep being present during that. That union representation was important because of the period there was no sort of legal protections or accommodations afforded to Deaf people for most of the 20th century.

So with union membership, Deaf printers knew that they would be getting paid a fair wage. They knew that a union representative would attend meetings and advocate on their behalf. And I think that was important for a lot of our printers as they’re looking back on their experience at the Washington Post or at other print shops around the country.

But that membership I think also is somewhat complicated. Um, it was fraught, that as a member of the union, a number of Deaf printers recall the introduction of the American Sign Language interpreters in — so the 1970s, 1980s there was a real pushback –


from the union at the Washington Post about the use of interpreters for things like chapel meetings, which were the private union meetings that occurred on the floor. Union leaders had real concerns about maintaining the sacred privacy of that meeting and Deaf printers had to really advocate to have access at those meetings because, as dues-paying members, the information being discussed was, was relevant and important to them. And they were able to successfully convince [laughs] union leaders to allow interpreters in at those meetings. But that sort of highlights sort of like a complicated relationship between Deaf people and unions that I think we haven’t really had opportunities to study so far.

Teri Finneman:  There were, of course, Deaf printers at more places than the Post. A recent oral history that I did with a weekly publisher in North Dakota noted that they had one of these employees as well.

 Your site also mentions the history of journeyman printers. Describe what that role was.

Jannelle Legg:  Yes, I’m so excited to have [laughs] this question.


Ah, that’s another interesting piece of information of — that we were able to learn a lot about. So as members of the ITU, some Deaf printers had what were referred to as “travel cards.” They were journeymen. They could move between shops that were ITU shops. And many of the shops had sort of a priority system. So you had some printers who were permanent printers, which meant that they had a permanent seat in the shop and then you had some that were subs. And because of the nature of newspaper printing, the sort of the high-demand for skilled workers, many journeymen printers with their union travel card could walk into a shop in a major city around the country and have a job that day.

And so many of our interview subjects, many Deaf printers recalled traveling around the country and then, you know, stopping in for a day or two at a newspaper shop, earn a little bit of cash and then moving onto the next big city. And it was apparently really popular –


because a number of Deaf community events, these sort of large-scale gatherings for things like sports tournaments or educational conferences, social conferences, things like that, those cities would swell not only with attendees for those events, but also the newspaper shops [chuckles] would swell, these host cities swelled with Deaf workers working at a paper for the, you know, weekend during that event and then heading back to their hometown when it was done.

Teri Finneman:  The technology changed at newspapers after the 1980s. The number of technical employees needed have declined. The Post started offering buy-out packages to union printers in the late 1990s. By 2001, the last of the Deaf printers were gone.

 In 2019, 18 Deaf retirees from the Washington Post came to Gallaudet University to discuss how their story might look in an online exhibition. The site includes an easy-to-follow breakdown of the history and video interviews done via ASL with these printers. What do you think is the biggest takeaway –


 that people should have from the Deaf printers’ online exhibit?

Jannelle Legg:  So one of our goals has been to uncover this history. As I mentioned, the project is really guided by this advisory team of retired Deaf printers, and they emphasized that the experiences that are being described in this exhibit have largely disappeared and expressed concern that they have not been documented really elsewhere at all. So with this project, we’re really trying to recover those stories and those signs and, and to preserve them.

 I think that the project really encaptures a crucial period that occurs before sort of legal protections and, and recognition for sign languages and, and the rights of Deaf people. And it highlights the creative social and linguistic strategies that were employed by Deaf people in the workplace throughout that period. But it also documents this crucial [chuckles] period –


of technological change within the printing industry itself and that change displaced, you know, thousands of craftsmen printers and reshaped the nature of newspaper printing in the country and around the world.

So I think that this is a meaningful story because, while it is sort of remarkably narrow, it’s a story about Deaf printers in D.C. at the Washington Post, it’s really part of a much broader story about labor and technology, I think, in the United States.

Teri Finneman:  One of the things that I think is so cool about this project is that so much journalism history focuses on star reporters, right? The celebrity in your newsroom, those kinds of reporters. They’re the ones whose names are in the paper and are out in the community. When in reality, a newspaper or a broadcast or any media production can’t get out without the invisible workers in the back shop who are putting this all together.

 And so I think this is just phenomenal that you have drawn attention to these important workers who are really why –


 the newspaper industry has existed in large part over the years.

 Jannelle Legg:  Yeah, I think that that’s one of the more interesting parts about this. As you mentioned that you had come across a publisher in North Dakota having a Deaf printer, the scale of this – the fact that there were so many Deaf people I think throughout the 20th century who were working in that occupation, but have been largely unacknowledged, I think is fascinating.

You know, I think it’s crucial to acknowledge the actors and the practices that have gathered and disseminated the information [laughs] that we receive every day. So yeah, I hope that this project is contributing to a better understanding of that.

Teri Finneman:  Our final question of the show that we ask every guest is: Why does journalism history matter?

Jannelle Legg:  Mmm. It’s a big question. [Laughs] Um, I think in particular in this case especially, you know, printing was an esteemed trade for most of the 19th and 20th centuries in the Deaf community particularly.


You know, a number of Deaf people supported themselves and their families in that occupation, but they also used print as a way of maintaining connections with one another and also challenging existing attitudes and ideas about Deaf people and about sign languages. So I think that this is, you know, a small part of a broader history of journalism, but I think it’s an important part of recalling and acknowledging that process.

Teri Finneman:  All right, well, thanks so much for joining us today.

Jannelle Legg:  Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Teri Finneman:  Thanks for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at jhistoryjournal. Until next time I’m your host Teri Finneman signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night and good luck.”

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