Just south of Broadway, where the honky-tonks heave and boa-wrapped bachelorette parties congregate, a 138-year-old print shop has quietly become one of Music City’s most unlikely –and most popular – tourist attractions.
More than 100,000 visitors a year tour Hatch Show Print in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. In business since 1879, it is one of oldest continuously operating letterpress print shops in the country. Charles and Herbert Hatch, preacher’s sons from Wisconsin, started Hatch. They quickly became known for their distinctive handbills and window posters promoting everything from traveling preachers to vaudeville acts. Charles’ son, Will T., took over the shop in 1921 and used his own woodcarving and marketing skills to combine type with large-scale, eye-catching images. Today, the shop prints at least 700 unique poster designs each year, all of which are painstakingly composed by designers using hand-set wood and metal type and hand-carved wooden or linoleum blocks.
Visitors can see, smell and hear this process taking place on a daily basis at Hatch, which offers three informative, hour-long tours a day. The visit includes an overview of the history of the shop, an explanation and demonstration of the letterpress process, and the chance to try printing a poster on a small flatbed press, putting into practice the Hatch Show Print motto of ‘preservation through production’.
What is letterpress?
At Hatch Show Print, a single in-house designer takes each project from start to finish, beginning with designing the concept and getting approval from the client, and ending with packing up the posters for delivery. Letterpress is a ‘relief’ printing process, meaning that it is done using blocks carved to ‘type high’ that are inked to produce an image or text. Every step of the printing process — from setting the blocks to mixing the ink — is done by hand. Most posters are printed in three colors, and each color must be applied on a separate run through the press.
All of the type and many of the shapes and graphic elements used to create designs at Hatch are pulled from ‘the collection’, a massive library curated over the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The natural wear of these elements gives the posters the distinct aesthetic that Hatch Show Print is known for.
The appeal of handmade in the digital age
Once one of thousands of such print shops across the United States, Hatch is one of the few to survive the transition to offset and digital printing. Their endurance is due in part to the shop’s becoming part of the nonprofit Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in 1992. The contract with Nashville’s storied Ryman Auditorium was also a boon: Hatch still designs and prints an original poster for every single Ryman show.
Hatch Show Print moved from a dusty spot on Broadway to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in 2013. While the new shop might have sacrificed some character, it gained in square footage, allowing it to up the number of presses and offer tours and workshop spaces for visitors.