If you’ve taken a walk through historic Oakland Cemetery’s Bell Tower Ridge, you may have noticed a large monument dedicated to the Atlanta Typographical Union. It’s surrounded by a cluster of small, mostly unmarked stones. This modest plot happens to be the final resting place of some of Atlanta’s finest printers and journalists.
History of the International Typographical Union
The Typographical Union was an industrial union for those who worked in the newspaper, printing, or mailer business. The word “typographical” is from the Greek typos (form, impression) and graphein (to write). Typography is the art of arranging letters and numbers so that a written language is both legible and appealing to the eye. It’s sometimes referred to as typesetting.
In May 1852, delegates from 14 different printers’ associations met in Cincinnati and formed the National Typographical Union. The labor union helped local workers fight for decent wages, and union representatives also helped the local committees in contract negotiations. Every member of the National Typographical Union paid dues; the exact amount depended on their category of work. In 1873, Canadian printers joined the union, and the organization changed its name to the International Typographical Union (ITU).
The ITU was a dominant labor union until the 1980s when computers and automation replaced the work of typesetters. The group eventually disbanded in 1986, with some of the former union members joining the Communications Workers of America and others joining the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. At the time of its dissolution, the ITU was the oldest trade union in the U.S.
The Influence of the International Typographical Union
From its foundation in 1852, the ITU was considered an influential union. Typographers were educated, economically mobile, and worked on the most popular newspapers in major U.S. cities. They had the ability to influence politics and publicity, based on what they printed in the paper. Early on, the ITU focused its efforts on organized labor and improving working conditions.
In 1886, the ITU helped launch the American Federation of Labor, a national federation of labor unions in the US. The ITU became one of the largest, strongest, and most progressive unions within the AFL. In 1897, ITU President W.B. Prescott led the Union to win a 48-hour workweek and standard wage scale for all printers—these, at the time, were the best working conditions in the U.S. publishing industry. Two decades later, ITU President James M. Lynch used strong tactics, a multi-million dollar campaign, and worker strikes to win Union members an eight-hour workday. This initiative soon spread to other labor unions, and eventually, federal legislation codified the 40-hour workweek.
In addition to working conditions, the ITU also championed the rights of its female workers. The group wanted to eliminate discrimination based on gender or race.
In addition to working conditions, the ITU also championed the rights of its female workers. The group wanted to eliminate discrimination based on gender or race. One of the first unions to admit women, the International Typographical Union allowed female journalists and printers to join in 1869. The ITU also had a Women’s International Auxiliary beginning in 1902. The group, comprised of printers and mailers’ wives, worked on fundraising projects and helped support the Union Printers Home Fund.
The Union Printer’s Home
In the late 1800s, the International Typographical Union started developing “safety net” plans for their aging members. Benefits included pension plans and retirement accounts. Union leadership wanted to make sure that members were financially stable even after they stopped working, and that their healthcare and funeral costs were taken care of. In 1892, the ITU completed construction on the Childs-Drexel Home for Union Printers in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The expansive estate served as a retirement home and healthcare facility for printers. Many former printers developed tuberculosis from the carbon-based ink; it was believed that the mountain air would benefit the residents. Philadelphia Public Ledger publisher George Childs and banker Anthony Drexel donated the funds to build the Union Printers Home. The Communications Workers of America sold the facility in 2014. It’s now an assisted living and nursing care facility for residents of Colorado Springs.
Atlanta Typographical Union #48
By the late 1800s or early 1900s, several Georgia cities, including Americus, Athens, Augusta, Columbus, Dalton, Macon, Marietta, Rome, and Savannah, had their own Typographical Unions. Atlanta’s was International Typographical Union #48. The Union helped local printers, journalists, and newspaper employees fight for fair wages; it also stepped in to help negotiate contracts when needed and represented Atlanta in the international conventions. The Atlanta Typographical Union also had the Women’s Auxiliary No.1, comprised of the printers’ wives and female family members. One of the Women’s Auxiliary’s primary projects was the maintenance of the Union’s lot at Oakland Cemetery.
By the late 1800s or early 1900s, several Georgia cities, including Americus, Athens, Augusta, Columbus, Dalton, Macon, Marietta, Rome, and Savannah, had their own Typographical Unions.
The Printers’ Lot at Oakland Cemetery
In keeping with the ITU’s policy of providing for its retired and aging members, the Atlanta Typographical Union purchased a plot at Oakland Cemetery in November 1872. Nicknamed the “Printers’ Lot,” the plot was for deceased union members (and later, their family) who did not have a place in their family plot or at another cemetery. According to Oakland Cemetery’s records, there are 38 individuals buried in the Printers Lot, including men, women, and children. The burials date from 1873 through 1919.
Beginning in the early 1900s, the Atlanta Typographical Union’s Woman’s Auxiliary held fundraisers for the beautification of the Printers’ Lot. The women organized concerts and dances – which, according to the Atlanta Constitution, were always well attended. The women raised enough money to clean up the landscaping, install new walls around the plot, and decorate the graves for their annual memorial events.
Every May, typically around Memorial Day Weekend, all of the Typographical Unions across the US and Canada honored and remembered their former colleagues. They called it Printer’s Memorial Day. In Atlanta, the memorial exercises usually included a special address at a local church, followed by a musical tribute and a reading of the names of the deceased. Hundreds of union members and their families and friends would gather at the Printers’ Lot at Oakland to commemorate those who had passed away the previous year. Members placed flowers and wreaths on the graves. The Atlanta Typographical Union held these memorial ceremonies for three decades, from 1908 until 1939.
In 1914, the Woman’s Auxiliary dedicated a monument to the members of the Atlanta Typographical Union. The stone is decorated with ivy, a Victorian symbol of friendship and memory. More than 100 years later, the monument still stands, honoring those who fought for equal rights and better working conditions and whose work influenced politics and culture for generations. While the Typographical Union may no longer exist, we continue to experience and appreciate all of its efforts.
Dr. Megan Hodgkiss is the CEO and Principal Writer of Hodgkiss Consulting LLC, a strategic communications company. She volunteers with Historic Oakland Foundation for special events as well as research and writing projects.