Backtrack: Arsenal Tech, A Mecca for Printers

1915: Arsenal Tech was once an international mecca for master printers.
Arsenal Tech printing press

Arsenal Technical High School launched in 1912 with a novel idea: Create a pipeline of talented workers tailored to the needs of emerging industries in the expanding city. Beginning with just six all-day vocational courses—salesmanship, electricity, agriculture, auto construction and repair, machine-shop practice, and printing—and 183 students, the school’s offerings quickly grew with demand, garnering it an enviable reputation.

The initiative, led by Arsenal Tech’s first principal, Milo H. Stuart, represented a new path in education. All students at Tech built their foundation on math, English, and civics. Printing, in particular, was a growing sector in Indianapolis—notable publishers included Bobbs-Merrill, responsible for issuing beautiful volumes of James Whitcomb Riley’s work. Related courses at Arsenal Tech began within a month of the school opening its doors, with four-hour class periods in the print shop, which consumed the entire first floor of the old Arsenal Tower building.

Arsenal Tech’s program was praised as offering the best preparation anywhere for the art and craft of printing.

The program collaborated with the United Typothetae of America—the international association of master printers in the U.S. and Canada—which praised the school as offering the best preparation anywhere for the art and craft of their industry, urging those interested in the trade to get to Indianapolis. The only caveat: Classes were free for locals, but nonresidents would have to pony up nearly $300.

One group of students called themselves the “Printers Devils.” In this photo from a 1915 printing class, they can be seen with their sleeves rolled up, extra-large blank papers rolled out, and heavy machinery rolling on, scrutinizing their work. Active on many fronts, this enterprising cadre organized their own literary club. The on-site printers cranked out several pieces left for posterity: Powder magazine, The Arsenal Cannon (the school’s yearbook), and other publications, which you may still find in secondhand shops today.    

Tiffany Benedict Browne runs She would secretly love to learn the old-fashioned art of letterpress printing.