Nashville: The Place Where The Posters are Printed

printing with letterpress
Demonstrating how they have printed posters since 1879 at Hatch Show Print, Nashville, Tennessee. Katherine DiMarco photos.

Touring Nashville’s Hatch Show Print,
One of America’s Oldest Letterpress Print Shops

By Katherine DiMarca

You can create your own letterpress printed poster at the Hatch Show Print museum in Nashville.
You can create your own letterpress printed poster at the Hatch Show Print museum in Nashville.

You’re 16 and your mom has just yelled at you for not doing your chores – you storm off to your bedroom, barge in and slam the door on the rest of the world. You hurl yourself on your bed and you look up at your posters.

There’s that band whose songs fill those empty spaces inside of you – somehow their lyrics all seem to be about you. There’s that attractive singer who you want to be just like. And there’s that performer whose music transports you to a better, happier place. Your heart rate slows, and you breathe a little easier. It’s going to be okay.

Do you remember what posters lined your teenage bedroom walls? It's likely many came from Hatch Show Print in Nashville.

Music Meets Art and History

On a recent trip to Nashville, Tennessee, one of the most surprising highlights of my visit was a tour of the legendary Hatch Show Print (www.hatchshowprint.com), purveyor of entertainment and commercial posters for over hundred years, now sharing the same building as the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum  on 5th Avenue South.

I eagerly chose the tour having been somewhat familiar with Hatch Show Print after a brief visit to their former location on Lower Broadway in 2013, my first Nashville visit. If my memory is correct, the previous shop location was snugly fitted between two honky-tonks, and easy to wander into when deep in the search for authentic Nashville souvenirs.

The attendees were only a young couple from Canada and me. We had two tour guides, a younger female with round glasses who was matter-of-fact and highly knowledgeable about the shop’s tools and machinery, and a thin older woman with long silver hair. In a soft Tennessee twang, she led the second part of the tour in a classroom/workshop space.

The Tour Begins

The entrance to the printing plant has an iron gate with 1879, the year it opened.
The entrance to the printing plant has an iron gate with 1879, the year it opened.

We met at the designated meeting area in the new wing of the Museum and then were led through the bustling Print Store to the dramatic entrance of the Print Production Shop. We walked right under a beautiful wrought iron arch with the year 1879 at its center.

The noise of the machinery in this 5,800-square-foot area catches your attention first. With repetitive whirrs, whooshes, and bangs, the machines are decades old and loud. Standing close together to hear over the clunk, clunk, clunkety-clunk, we learned how these great machines work, printing layer on top of layer of a design to create a single image.

Artistic Integrity

A printmaker at work, everyone is trained to know how to do every job from start to finish.
A printmaker at work, everyone is trained to know how to do every job from start to finish.

Every poster is printed by hand, one-by-one. There are no mass-produced lithographs here, and no designs created digitally. And every employee of the shop is trained in every aspect of the production – from wood-carving to press operation. Graphic designers at Hatch Show Print bring their projects from start to finish.

A glass wall, 80 feet high, allows museum-goers and foot traffic from the adjoining Omni Hotel an insiders’ view of the staff working the presses. Picture for yourself this machinery at work.

Clearly, the equipment must weigh thousands of pounds – an organized geometry of gears, pulleys, and pistons cranking out poster after poster of fresh, glossy print.

“Preservation Through Production”

A few woodblock letters were offered to us to touch and feel. I held the letter “A” in my hand, the otherwise smooth wood indented with nicks and cracks. The older the letter, the more dents it has, which contributes to the look of the design and its “authenticity.”

No letters are ever thrown away. The wood block in my hand may have been over a hundred years old.

We were also introduced to a recent discovery – the younger tour guide displayed two oversize wooden poster blocks with the silhouettes of former presidential political opponents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover.

After the election of 1932, there was no more use for these wooden blocks promoting each candidate, and the employees of the shop repurposed the wood as shelving.

A restrike of that very same FDR poster adorns the wall by where we stood. We were amazed to see it. “Preservation through production” is the motto at Hatch Show Print.

Old woodblocks once used in a election in the 1940s are still on display at Hatch Show Print.
Old woodblocks once used in a election in the 1940s are still on display at Hatch Show Print.

Discoveries such as these repurposed shelves are made here all the time.

Making the Old “New” and the New “Old”

The guide with the Tennessee accent then took charge in the classroom space where the walls are plastered from floor to ceiling with colorful posters. She expertly led us through a broad history of Hatch Show Print from 1879 to the present day.

All the while, my eyes feasted on posters around me. The brightly colored letters –various shapes, sizes, and textures. The designs – solid colors or awash with specks and blotches. The colors - vivid oranges and reds, navy blues and twilight purples, sunshine yellows, bright goldenrods, and coal blacks.

In the past, Hatch Show Print posters featured classic country stars Hank Williams and Minnie Pearl, legendary rock ‘n rollers Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, and ads for Pure Coffee and the Grand Ole Opry.

Today, restrikes of these same images remain popular, but Hatch Show Print is also contracted to promote contemporary music across genres: Blake Shelton, Taylor Swift, Mumford & Sons, Wilco, and others.

By continuing its operations 137 years after first opening, Hatch Show Print honors what we ought to celebrate about the past: music, creative expression, and popular culture. This means over a century of eye-catching, playful words and images enticing us to discover and experience something new.

Samples of the thousands of different posters, cards and other printing projects turned out by Hatch Show Print over the centuries.
Samples of the thousands of different posters, cards and other printing projects turned out by Hatch Show Print over the centuries.

Something Other Than Nostalgia

But is this all just hip nostalgia?

The Smithsonian Institution would say otherwise.

In 2008, a Hatch Show Print traveling exhibition was created in partnership with The Country Music Hall of Fame Museum and America’s Jazz Heritage to showcase the art of the American letterpress and educate the public about what mattered to 20th century Americans in products and entertainment.

Hatch Show Print connects us to the way we were and continues to express who are today.

Print Your Own Poster

Finally, we had our chance to create our own poster to take home using a small 1960’s press, specifically designed for people like us – unfamiliar with how to operate huge printing press machinery.

I pressed the handheld rollerbrush into the tomato red ink, and then rolled the brush over the woodblock letters in the press. After carefully locking a preprinted poster into place, I pulled the machinery across the paper. Presto! “Hatch Show Print” and “Handpressed by Me in Nashville, Tennessee 2016” now appeared on my very own poster of a Nashville evening skyline to take home.

Music and Memories

Thinking of visiting Nashville?

For any lover of music, art enthusiast, or history buff, a visit to Hatch Show Print and a walk around the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum works its way into you – like fresh ink on paper.

To learn how music, history, and culture entwine, and to experience a visual feast of color and design, go and get yourself hatched. You just might find yourself with a new poster on your bedroom wall.

The Hatch Show Print Tour is 75 minutes and tickets are $15 adult (13+), $12 children (6-12). If you visit the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum, too, save $5 with a Platinum Package ticket that combines your museum visit with a Hatch Show Print Tour.

Katherine DiMarca

Katherine DiMarca is a freelance writer and international educator in the humanities and the arts from Boston, Massachusetts.

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