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'Howard The Printer' Makes An Impression On TikTok With Mini History Lessons

Howard Hatch's command of printing press history has earned the Sacramento History Museum volunteer star power on TikTok.
Howard Hatch's command of printing press history has earned the Sacramento History Museum volunteer star power on TikTok.

An octogenarian in California has struck gold on TikTok by bringing old tech to a new platform.

Howard Hatch, a volunteer at the Sacramento History Museum, has emerged as the star of the museum's TikTok account for, well, just doing his job.

In the viral videos, he gives demonstrations of historic printing presses while dispensing fast facts and printing puns.

The speed at which his videos travel on the social media app surprises Hatch, whose printing press cranks out some 500 pages an hour.

"I just don't get it," Hatch says in the museum's most watched video, with 17.2 million views, as he works a Washington Hand Press from 1852. "Maybe it is the power of the press."

In the comments section for the video, many viewers are impressed by the amount of labor that goes into the archaic process of newspaper printing. Others, though, are there for the soothing content, or, as one user puts it, "the sticky sound the roller makes on the ink."

Like most establishments, the modest California museum closed its doors to the public due to the pandemic. As a way to drive visitors during the lull, Jared Jones, who assists with the museum's visitor services, set up a TikTok account after seeing other museums start to create videos on social media.

Jones began recording his colleagues at work, but when he put the idea to Hatch, he was met with skepticism. The docent's first question: What's TikTok?

When Jones briefed him on the app, he was still reluctant. "What did I find on it? Lots of people dancing crazy!" Hatch said.

So, they agreed; no dancing, just facts. Although one could argue that Hatch's command of a press — powered by the steady pumping of one foot as he feeds new sheets of paper — has a certain rhythm to it.

"I almost gave up, actually, until I filmed Howard," said Jones, recalling the account's early days on TikTok. "Then, it took off."

Since debuting on the platform this past summer, the museum's account has garnered more than 880,000 followers.

Delta Pick Mello, the museum's executive director and CEO, hopes their avid followers channel that excitement toward the city's local museums. But she can't quite put her finger on how museums might replicate the success her own institution has found.

"People keep asking us what's the secret — we don't know except ... Howard," she said. "There's really an attraction of somebody who's just authentically himself," she said.

That, and the novelty of a simpler artifact that was once seen as high-tech.

"There's so many people, especially the demographic who watches TikTok, that have never seen a printing operation," Mello said. "We're dealing out history in 59-second blocks."

Like his Internet fame, Hatch happened upon his volunteer gig by chance. After retiring from his job as an auto technician, a volunteer at the Sacramento museum asked if he knew how to fix a linotype — a big machine used for printing newspapers like the The Sacramento Bee.

He didn't — so he taught himself.

"I went through the public library and read anything I could find that said printing, printing press, printing history, what have you — and it drew me in," he said.

More than 21 years later, he's treating younger generations to bite-sized history lessons — such as the likely typographic origin of the phrase "mind your Ps and Qs" — and expertise he gathered long before so many of his TikTok fans were born.

Since the museum reopened last week, it's welcomed an unusually high number of visitors who say they found the museum on TikTok. Until it found a new audience online, the museum's existence was unknown even to native Sacramentans.

In-person visitors can now check out a new exhibit, "California In Print," which looks at how early Gold-Rush migrants documented their lives in the uncharted land using the era's latest printing technology. The collection includes maps from the time, dispatches from 1850s miners and a page from the Gutenberg Bible.

While their star docent isn't in every day, the museum now has a cardboard cutout of "Howard the Printer," hot off the presses.

Sam Kesler and Patrick Jarenwattananon produced and edited the audio version of this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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