- Movable Types: Roving Creative Printers of the Victorian World by David Finkelstein
In Movable Types: Roving Creative Printers of the Victorian World, book historian David Finkelstein looks beyond the national boundaries that often segment histories of print culture to explore the movements, protests, and creative outputs of English-speaking journeymen printers and compositors across four continents between 1830 and 1914. Rather than focus on the transmission of culture through printed material, he recovers the actual men who spread print knowledge, trade expertise, and labor organization around the global anglophone world. They imagined themselves to be part of a moral community of artisans bound to support each other, work together to create change, and bear testimony through oral culture and written publications. Their movement maps onto the expansion of letterpress printing technology and the concurrent rise of labor organization, which ultimately tested the strength of the printers and compositors’ homosocial community. The 1870s emerge as a flashpoint in industrial action with the unintended consequences of crippling unions, halting literary production, and introducing women onto the shop floor.
Finkelstein richly traces the routes, activities, and contributions of highly trained print trade workers in and around the United Kingdom and beyond to anglophone settlements in Africa, Australia, and North America. Mobility was central to their experience, although Finkelstein is quick to counter the stereotype of the migrant typographer, revealing many of these workers’ journeys to be highly intentional. Labor unions organized and controlled the movement of printers locally and globally as a way of alleviating market saturation, ensuring that wages remained fair, and reducing competition for jobs (especially during strikes). Migrant print trade workers are shown to have had a complicated relationship to the market. On the one hand, they had a deep investment in settler capitalism, setting up businesses in colonial settlements and establishing print networks [End Page 674] essential to sustaining local, national, and global communications and identities. On the other hand, they also brought the principles of organized labor to fight capitalism. Communal, rather than individual, support structures, grounded in their pre-capitalist mentality, led them to seek better wages and working conditions through collective action and to resist the efforts of Master Printers to use those same global networks to recruit contingent workers to break strikes.
The 1870s are interpreted as a pivotal moment for union activity across the anglo-phone world. From the start of the nineteenth century, unions had operated as benevolent organizations, providing much-needed funding in times of sickness and unemployment. Yet just as legislation decriminalized labor organization, the movement for the short or nine-hour workday gained momentum. Strikes in Edinburgh, Toronto, and Dublin generally followed a similar trajectory and had common aspects and outcomes (including typically ending in failure). Decisions made on the local level—such as at an individual press—could embroil an entire city or region. Finkelstein nicely recovers how unions, in response, formed vigilance committees to infiltrate striking shops, monitor Master Printers, and encourage strikebreakers to abandon their posts. Networks across boundaries sustained fellow laborers during these strikes, providing financial support and information from unions further afield. Strikes in Toronto and Dublin engaged politicians, with the former leading to protections for strikers while the latter, less successfully, raised questions about the limits of Home Rule. More often than not strikes failed, draining union coffers and catalyzing dramatic declines in membership numbers. They did, however, usher in change, including concessions in work hours, the rise in protections for union activity (as happened in Canada following the Toronto strike), and the opening of opportunities for women. The last particularly irked union members committed to maintaining a homosocial world in the shop. More might be said in this study about how unions functioned to maintain other modes of exclusion, especially around constructions of whiteness in different anglophone societies.
Networks that facilitated labor organization also created opportunities for compositors’ literary output in the pages of their typographical trade journals between the 1840s and early 1870s. Modeled on contemporary literary miscellanies, these publications...