International Typographical Union

Upon graduation, many of those with training at residential schools sought employment in print shops where they produced newspapers, books, and other materials. Others entered the field of printing later, enrolling in trade schools for additional experience. By the end of the nineteenth century, printing was recognized as a lucrative field for Deaf people and participation in the International Typographical Union (ITU) was a key aspect of this work.

Union Membership

A scanned image of the cover of a booklet. Text reads "Facts about the International Typographical Union for all who would like to know democratic trade unionism since 1852" and "1973"
A booklet about the International Typographical Union including a history of the organization and a summary of membership benefits.

While Union membership was predominantly male, the ITU was one of the earliest to admit women as members, beginning in 1869. It is unclear when the first Deaf woman was admitted and given that Deaf schools often reserved printing training for male students, it was likely the twentieth century when Deaf women began to join the ITU. Dorothy Havens may have been the first Deaf woman to become a member of the Union. She deposited her travel card at the Columbia Typographical Union # 101 in Washington, DC in 1942.

At the same time that the Union created avenues for membership for women, it resisted the admittance of black printers. In the 1870s, applications for membership from black printers were received by the ITU but the national organization did not respond. Instead, individual unions were permitted to approve or reject these applications at will. It is unclear when the first black Deaf printer joined the ITU. Given that black Deaf students did not have had the same access to training as their white counterparts, they would have less preparation to enter this career field as well.

Importance of Community

Deaf community members exchanged information about entering the Union, often encouraging aspiring printers to seek certain shops to build experience and skills. They drew on Deaf community social networks, relying on the advice of family and community to prepare them for membership.

An image of an article with the heading Typesetter.

Advice was often distributed between Deaf community members through print. Articles in Deaf publications often informed readers about the practices and processes of obtaining work as a printer. One 1917 article appeared in The Silent Worker, a Deaf publication produced at the New Jersey School for the Deaf. The writer emphasized the importance of union membership to its readers, writing, “Almost all successful typesetters belong to the union of their trade. In the majority of newspaper shops typesetters must be members of the typographical union.”

An image of an article with the heading The Silent Printer.

Another article in 1955 highlighted concerns about obtaining union membership among former deaf students. In this article, the columnist raised the question, “Why can’t boys get into the Typographical Union after leaving school?” He then explained that students needed more experience outside of school print shops and advised readers, “The best plan for any Deaf boy is to secure employment in a one-edition daily, a weekly or a job shop in order to build up sufficient experience to hold down a situation on a big city daily.” The experience would help them in meeting Union requirements for an apprenticeship.

An image of an article with the heading Letters From a Deaf Father To A Deaf Son.

Others advised that membership in the union would ensure that Deaf workers received equal treatment with their hearing counterparts. In an open letter published in 1924, James Brady, a printer, urged his son to join the ITU. He explained, “A Deaf man, no matter how good he is, will have to accept lower pay than is the scale in a given place if he has no pasteboard attesting to his membership in the Union. There are exceptions, of course, but every Deaf printer knows the situation. There are employers who are fair and pay decent wages and there are others who have to be compelled to do so.” 

The ITU continued to be a powerful force in the employment of Deaf printers through the end of the 1980s. The organization elected to disband in 1989, a result of changing technology and workplace practices in print media.

For a list of sources used, see Works Consulted.