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Advertising's lasting impression

Exhibit of vintage posters and hand-carved blocks captures more than century of popular entertainment

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Think of all the e-mails, the tweets, the Facebook pokes ("Would you like to become a fan of …") that you receive hawking plays, musicals, live music and other entertainments.

Now, think of all those virtual notices as real objects, specifically printed posters and handbills.

Time was, before barrages of bytes flashed in front of us, we were lured to live entertainment by means of eye-catching posters.

And arguably no other company in the country made more of those posters than Hatch Show Print of Nashville.

Now, with the South by Southwest music conference right around the corner, "American Letterpress: The Art of the Hatch Show Print," a new exhibit at the Austin Museum of Art, reminds us of the vivid, expressive and very tactile means by which live entertainment was advertised.

The exhibit is organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in conjunction with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which now owns Hatch Show Print. More than 100 posters, along with some of the original hand-carved wood blocks, recount a history of popular culture - and the graphic design it inspired - from vaudeville to Johnny Cash to Coldplay.

Hatch Show Print was started in 1879 by Charles and Herbert Hatch, sons of a printer who had settled in Nashville looking to take advantage of the city's burgeoning printing industry. The Hatch brothers purchased letterpress equipment - essentially the same ink-on-carved-block printing method used since Johannes Gutenberg perfected the process in the mid-15th century and revolutionized the written word.

The first item the Hatch brothers produced was a handbill advertising a public lecture by Henry Ward Beecher, a minister and brother of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" author Harriet Beecher Stowe. A copy of the handbill opens the current exhibit.

Soon, the Hatch brothers began to specialize in posters for popular entertainment.

In our day of music videos going viral on YouTube and costly high-concept corporate concert tours, it's easy to forget that a century ago, entertainers relied almost solely on advance notice by printed materials to advertise their shows. As they traveled from town to town, the vaudeville troupes, musical revues and theatrical productions - and solo music acts - employed advance men who literally plastered a town with posters and handbills of the coming attractions, even striking deals with roadside building owners offering free tickets in exchange for poster-hanging space.

"Advertising without posters is like fishing without worms," the Hatch brothers are said to have proclaimed. By the dawn of the 20th century, Hatch Show Print was booming.

Yet for all their eye-catching artistry, Hatch Show Prints weren't considered art by those who made them. The business of printing was strictly a business. Designers and block-carvers never signed their work or otherwise identified what they created. Carved printing blocks were typically destroyed after they were used or chopped up and reused. And the posters themselves, often left exposed to the elements, were usually considered trash once a show left town. Hence considerably few vintage posters remain. Many of the posters in the exhibit are contemporary restrikes from existing vintage blocks. And the posters are also hard to accurately date: A poster might advertise the date of the show, but not the year.

As graphic design, Hatch Show Prints mirror the development of American popular visual aesthetics. Text-heavy designs of the 1910s give way to the more fluid Art Deco-inspired look in the 1920s. By the 1930s and 1940s, a stylized, streamlined aesthetic began to rule. And by the late 1940s, the process of using photographs was perfected.

The company's Nashville base made it a natural for the myriad country music performers and presenters based there. Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Charley Pride, Dolly Parton and Minnie Pearl are just some of the country stars who are immortalized in Hatch Show Prints, and the Hatch "look" became inextricably linked to country-music culture.

By the 1970s, Hatch was no longer a family-owned concern, and it was struggling to survive in an advertising landscape that favored promotional methods far more advanced than laboriously printed posters. But in 1981, a new owner, Bill Deny, launched what would eventually be a rebirth of Hatch Show Prints. At the same time, roots-inspired new bands such as R.E.M. and Jason and the Scorchers began ordering Hatch Show Prints for their gigs, reviving interest in the now-vintage print medium.

In 1992, the nonprofit Country Music Foundation stepped in and made Hatch Show Prints a division of its preservation efforts. Meanwhile, a whole new generation of history-savvy musicians - including the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Sigur Rós, Wilco and the White Stripes - found interest in the storied poster press and its unmistakably vintage aesthetic.

What was once old suddenly is cool again .

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

What is letterpress?

Letterpress is the printing process that uses raised letters and images - usually carved from wood, metal or linoleum - that are coated with ink and then pressed onto paper. Letters and images are carved in reverse. Designs with more than one color require a separate woodblock for each color.

While the technique is widely believed to have originated in Asia, the 15th-century goldsmith and printer Johannes Gutenberg is credited with having perfected movable and reusable type. Gutenberg's invention of movable type - which culminated in the publication of a Bible in 1455 - is considered a watershed moment in human history as it allowed knowledge and information to spread much more quickly and widely than via the labor-intensive hand-copied books that preceded it.

Want to see what Gutenberg did? The University of Texas owns one of only 21 complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible. It's on permanent exhibit at UT's Ransom Center. Check www.hrc.utexas.edu for more information.

'American Letterpress: The Art of the Hatch Show Print'

When: Through May 9

Where: Austin Museum of Art, 823 Congress Ave.

Cost: $4-$5

Information: 495-9224, www.amoa.org

Exhibit tours: Docent-led tours every Saturday at 2 p.m.