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The Fall of ATF
Book Review

The Fall of ATF

Reviewed by Bob Manson on December 13, 2004

Lately I’ve been reading many typography-related books, and I’d like to offer a few reviews of the more notable ones. The Fall of ATF is quite new, and it seems an appropriate subject for a first try — especially as I’m sure many readers aren’t aware of it yet.

Whenever I see the name ATF, I can’t help but wonder how either the BATF (Bureau of Alky, Terbaccy and Fer-Gosh-Sakes-Don’t-Shoot-Meey) or AMF got into the typography business. I might buy the idea of lead bullets being related to lead type, and I’m sure there’s some tie-in between bowling and printing — yet it’s not obvious how one could profitably make both pinsetting machines and metal type in the same building. (In my defense, given today’s overly amalgamated world it’s faintly possible AMF once had a font divison.)

Seriously, there’s at least one close tie between the two industries: at one time they were both extremely labor-intensive. Human pinsetters have gone the way of printers who hand-set type. Bowling pins and balls were once laboriously handmade, just as type was engraved and cast by hand. The manufacture of pins and balls was seen as an art, similar to the way the making of type was and is greatly respected.

The one major difference is, you can’t print very well with a bowling ball and I’ve never heard of “throwing type” as a sport.

The Fall of ATF: A Seri-Comedic Tragedy is Theo Rehak’s account (taken from his diaries) of the last years of American Type Foundry’s existence, and his observations on how their management relentlessly drove their business into bankruptcy.

ATF was once the largest manufacturer of cast type in the world; in their peak years they employed over 2,000 workers and measured their yearly output in the millions of tons. During Mr. Rehak’s tenure they had all of 26 employees including the office staff. I’d randomly guess that nowdays less than 1,000lbs of type are cast every year, the once seemingly-endless need supplanted by less expensive and more versatile Linotype/Monotype, photo-typesetting, laser printing, and related technologies. To wit (lamely and regretfully), “It’s dead, Jim.”

The book is aptly titled, as I found myself alternating between laughter, sadness, and “yeah, I’ve been there” feelings. His experience fits what one would expect from a small closed union shop, as he was treated with distrust and suspicion the entire time. He also makes it quite clear few of the people working there had any genuine interest in typography, or even making money. Apparently it was just something to do (or not do) until they inevitably went out of business.

(That’s not including the employee who later turned to robbing banks as a way to support his cocaine habit. I’d say he was very interested in making money.)

Mr. Rehak was doing something suspicious: he had a sincere interest in learning how to cast type, and was setting up his own type foundry with ATF’s discarded equipment (and he recounts a few amusing adventures of unauthorized after-hours plant tours). Unusual behavior at a time when everyone else was striving to get out. He seems to have been successful, because Dale Guild Type Foundry is still around and Mr. Rehak’s work is highly regarded by many.

It’s an engrossing and well-written story, and I finished it in one sitting. The book offers several interesting insights into the demise of the metal type business and a brief description of ATF’s glory years, but in no way is it a complete historical overview of ATF. It is precisely what it claims to be, a story of ATF’s last 10 years and the author’s experiences while working there. I suspect his views are at least a little biased, so everything is to be taken with a pinch of salt. (I deny any knowledge of the politics behind the few remaining artisans in the craft–and I honestly don’t want to know.)

He expressed a desire to wait until most of the participants had passed away before saying anything, and given how sordid a story it is I can’t blame him. His explanation of what eventually happened to the Lanston/American Monotype equipment and matrices is disgusting, the account of Kingsley’s efforts to digitize type laughably familiar, and I get the palpable impression this was an industry sometimes obsessed far more with greed than honesty… but we can’t even give the ATF management that much credit, as they appear much more inept than evil.

I certainly enjoyed it. It may be a bit esoteric for some, yet I found it to be a personal and very human story which non-typenerds could easily relate to. It reminded me all too strongly of my experiences working at a self-doomed computer company in the early 90s: humorous in retrospect, but at the time frustrating and deeply depressing. I could even identify some of the same employees, just with different names, faces and occupations. The one universal in any field is incompetence.

It’s not a cheap book, no surprise as it was privately printed. It’s nicely bound in a sturdy dark green cloth with gold embossed lettering, printed on quality paper, good page layout, beautiful endpages, and easily readable. A definite collectors item; one of the highest quality modern books I’ve purchased in a long while.

The Fall of ATF is available from Oak Knoll Books or directly from the author at Dale Guild Type Foundry.

9 Comments

  1. 42ndSSD says:

    I’m truly sorry to hear that. While the complete demise of cast type seems inevitable, it’s unfortunate to see everything, but everything go down the cheapest, cheeziest path. Books seem especially sensitive to price, and I’d be the first admit there are some advantages to this–but…

    One of my personal lunacies is pocketwatches. I’m realistic about it, and I’ll never expect to see them ever make a major comeback; they’re awkward to use, require a fair bit of maintenance, not always the most accurate timekeepers on the planet. Digital watches are more versatile, don’t require winding, etc, etc.

    But to me, a pocketwatch is a work of art while a mass-produced plastic digital watch is not. I suppose this may be a strictly personal view, as I can easily imagine someone 100 years from now saying “ah, but look how beautiful those old Swatches and G-Shocks were!” But I hope not.

    I think it was Jerome K. Jerome who wrote about how people in 1999 would be admiring the cheezy bric-a-brac of his generation: “Oh, but look at the depth of the blue on the dogs nose! And we can only imagine how beautiful the missing tail was!” and so on.

    None of this cultural relativism stops me from admiring the effort skill, and care which goes into making metal type.

    I miss the human element sometimes.

  2. sean michael chavez says:

    Thanks for the review Bob.

    I recently, about a week ago, had some corresdondance with Theo Rehak. In the course of ordering type from him and gathering some background information about the history of my order he has informed me that with regret, due to a lack of sales, that Dale Guild is no longer casting for their inventory and that they are currently operating on a part time basis. However, you can still place special orders in sorts lines and they do have some remaining inventory left on the shelf ready to ship. Get it while you can.

    Theo ended his message with this… “There may soon come a time which will see the Craft of casting foundry-quality type to finally become extinct.”

    It made me sad.

  3. Hrant says:

    Bob, nice review, thanks.

    One question: how much longer/deeper is this book compared to the article about ATF’s demise in that recent issue of the APHA journal?

    hhp

  4. Paul Romaine says:

    [H]ow much longer/deeper is this book compared to the article about ATF’s demise in that recent issue of the APHA journal?

    Hrant: they’re entirely different. David Pankow wrote a brief outline of ATF’s history and the bankruptcy in Printing History (writing as the journal’s editor), while Theo’s account is very personal and unquestionably an insider’s acount. I wish Theo’s outline of ATF’s early history were better, but it’s mostly a post-war, even post-1970′s story. Biases, yes, but I would not take things quite with the grain of salt that the reviewer does. Theo (whom I know), has been mourning the loss of ATF for many years, and that comes across–make allowance for that. I can easily imagine similar stories of other industries undermined by small-minded management and workers–mutual sabotage. Last I heard from Theo, who is also president of the Typophiles of New York (a group that dates back to the 1930s and has quite a publication history), the old ATF factory was being used to make Krispy Kreme Donuts.

    There’s also a privately printed book about the ATF sale called (rather unfortunately, I think) Auction of the Century: the sale of the American Type Founders Company (Clinton, MI: Square Text Press, 2003), by Gregory Jackson Walter. It’s a detailed description of the bankruptcy auction (supplementing Pankow) and notes who got what from the sale. I think Steve Saxe wrote a piece for the APHA Newsletter (not in print) in 1993 about the sale that has a few other details.

    Theo has been talking about cutting back at Dale Guild for many years. His type is magnificent. At the Spring 2003 "Spirit and Matter" conference at Wells College he talked about the exactness of his work–some NASA scientists came to him with a bar which they wanted to engrave, while they yammered about their requirements and tolerances, he took the bar, engraved it, and handed it back to them. It exceeded their requirements, and he wouldn’t take payment for 3 minutes work. I don’t know if he would take on an apprentice(s), but it would be kinda neat, don’t you think?

    Also, I’m not sure I would say there is less than 1,000 pounds of type being cast per year, even if you exclude amateurs casting with the American Typecasting Fellowship or excluding Monotype composition by the likes of Michael Bixler in Skaneateles, NY or M&H Type (now part of Andrew Hoyem’s Arion Press complex) in San Francisco. Sterling Type in Indianapolis probably casts close to a 1,000 pounds a year, mostly for hobbyists and mostly (I’ll bet) non-character sorts. I know (because I saw on Tuesday) that Bixler just cast a few hundred pounds (at least) of Monotype (English) Dante for a book of Robert Bringhurst’s poetry being printed by the Center for Book Arts in New York (The New World Suite).

    Sorry for yammering. I’m glad that Gerald Lange linked this review from the PPLetterpress Group on Yahoo Groups.
    All best
    Paul

  5. Hrant says:

    the old ATF factory was being used to make Krispy Kreme Donuts.

    Hey, that’s not half bad. It could have been used to house tax accountants.

    That “Auction of the Century” book sounds interesting. I wonder if anybody here has it and would like to share the notes about “who got what from the sale”. I’m mostly interested in tracking down the pantograph cutting slips and any related documentation, like graphs plotting optical scaling and such. The small glimpse in Rehak’s “Practical Typecasting” doesn’t reveal much (plus the decimal points seemed to be missing).

    As for [metal] letterpress being dead, to some extent I actually wish that were true, seeing what 99% of it is like these days – art students slamming purple metallic inks all the way through really fancy paper… I know this makes me sound like an old fart (which would be only half true), but to me the real value of letterpress is in what you can’t see – the subvisible physical appeal unconfused by colors and textures.

    hhp

  6. Bob Manson says:

    Thanks for the comments, and I especially appreciate getting the real scoop on how much type is still being made. I tried to locate a source for some recent accurate figures, but wasn’t able to find anything… I guess that’s not a surprise.

    I’d love to apprentice with Theo Rehak, or honestly anyone who was still casting type. I don’t even have a good excuse not to do it.

    My reason for suggesting Mr. Rehak’s story should be taken “with a grain of salt” is not due to any deliberate bias that I saw, but because I’ve been through two similar experiences, once as management and once as an employee, and I know firsthand how easy it is to get emotionally caught up in events.

    Both times I felt like I worked my guts out trying to make things work, both times we ended up in a “us-versus-them” situation, and both times the end of those companies was inevitable. At the time I had a tendency to blame management and/or workers for extreme incompetence. While I’m quite certain that was partly justified… looking back after 10+ years I still don’t really know all the facts surrounding what happened, and I’m equally certain some of what went on was unavoidable. I feel pretty safe in saying that my account of what went on would be very different than, say, the CEO’s.

    I’m sure his account is, in the main, factually correct. From what he wrote he strikes me as a very straight-up, honest person. But we don’t hear the other side of the story, in particular management’s view of the events surrounding the fall… and with my permanent skeptic’s hat I can’t help but be a little cautious.

    It’s a really excellent book (as is Auction of the Century–Hrant, I’ll dig up my copy this weekend and see what I can find), and I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest it’s untrue or massively biased. It is a personal account, with all that implies–and there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever.

  7. Paul Romaine says:

    Bob, thanks for a really great, from the hear (and gut) review. I’m sorry that I didn’t say that before.

    I have a correction. I’ve been contacted off-list by someone who should know, telling me that he estimates that Sterling sells less than 500 pounds a year, and mostly dingbats, logos, trademarks and assorted ornaments. Apparently Sterling contracts with other casters.

    And a revision: I would guess that there’s probably a bit less than 1000 pounds cast if you count only foundry type (high quality “hard” metal type). If you include type cast on Thompsons (which use a softer metal like Monotype casters) esp display type and ornaments you would probably get to 1000–1500. If you added Monotype composition by Bixler and M&H possibly 3000 lbs or more. But these are guesses.

    On the PPL listserv, DGoodrich mentions that Theo plans to leave the retail type business at the end of 2004, sticking just to casting, which will be distributed by Fritz Klinke of NA Graphics.

    Theo also told me that his memoirs will be an entirely different affair from this book. If you read carefully, you’ll see that Theo came to ATF inspired by the ideals of William Morris and “The Ideal Book”–thus this ATF book is also, in many respects, a description of his idealism running into the mess at a once great company.

    All best
    Paul

  8. Paul Romaine says:

    I’d love to apprentice with Theo Rehak, or honestly anyone who was still casting type. I don’t even have a good excuse not to do it.

    Well, one way to start would be to join the American Typecasters Fellowship. Dues are cheap and they print a marvelous journal. Contact Rich Hopkins via email: WVTypenut@aol.com

    Paul

  9. Daniel says:

    Actually, people used to throw type—em quads—in a way similar to dice or sheepbones. It’s called jeffing at quadrats.

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Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles and designed by Chris Hamamoto. Founded in 2002 by Joshua Lurie-Terrell. Relaunched in 2009 by Coles and Hamamoto.

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