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.