Born and Raised in Lancaster County, PA
Above: John Fass gone fishing
"Along the Hammer Creek we tramped and fished, never catching more than sunfish or catfish, although the stream abounds with other fish. It is for these happy days of the past that we have chosen 'The Hammer Creek Press' and the turtle." John Fass in his 1951 book A Note on the Hammer Creek.
John was born in 1890 in the quiet village of Lititz, PA, in Lancaster County. His family was Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsylvania German). John and his parents were members of the Lititz Moravian Church.
In addition to his Moravian ancestry, John had deep ancestral roots in the Lititz Mennonite community. His mother's mother was Magdalena Gingrich (1831-1865), daughter of Jacob Gingrich (1786-1872) and Elizabeth Bomberger (1793-1871). So John Fass was the great-great-great-great grandson of German-Mennonite immigrant Christian Bomberger, who in 1722 became the first European settler of this part of Lancaster County.
John's father worked in Lititz as a laborer and cigar maker, while his mother earned income as a dressmaker. The Fass family was: John's father David C. Fass, John's mother Sarah Stroble Fass, and John's siblings: Benjamin, Laura, and Esther.
John's birthplace is located a few doors east of the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery. This pretzel shop is one of his hometown's claim to fame, as it is the oldest commercial pretzel bakery in America.
John's friend A. Burton Carnes penned the calligraphic inscription on the box that contains this glass-plate negative. Burton was the unofficial photographer of the Typophiles.
Above: John Fass' front porch in Lititz in the 1940s, at 242 South Spruce Street
For 20 years John Fass owned his parents' former home in Lititz, although his primary residence was in New York City where he worked. John's widowed mother Sarah died in 1953, and willed this house to John and his brother Benjamin. The house is at 242 South Spruce Street.
So John was co-owner of this house with Benjamin until Benjamin's death in 1971, when John received full ownership of the house. Throughout much of John's adult life his work was in New York City, so his sister Esther lived here in John's house with her husband Clarence Wert. John maintained two rooms in this house, and visited here often. When his aged mother was ill in the 1950s, he returned here every-other weekend. He referred to this Lititz house as "down home."
Above: John with boater hat, but no boat
John works for the Express Printing Company in Lititz:
John began working for the Express Printing Company in Lititz while he was in sixth grade. This print shop was owned by John G. Zook, who also published the weekly newspaper Lititz Express.
John Zook was treasurer and assistant Sunday School superintendent of the church where John's parents were members, the Lititz Moravian Church. So Zook was in a good position to hire the most talented students as apprentices for his print shop.
In 1905, when John was 15, his print shop employer John Zook printed and published a beautifully-crafted work titled Historical and Pictorial Lititz. The book included designs by artist and musician Paul E. Beck, who was the supervisor of art and music at John's high school, and was organist at John's church.
Mr. Beck also was a commercial artist who advertised himself, in this same 1905 book, as a "designer and illustrator" for "commercial and advertising desgins." Mr. Beck's career as a graphic designer was a hometown model for John's career in graphic design in Manhattan.
Above: Will-Bradley-inspired initials in the 1905 Historical and Pictorial Lititz
John's hometown of Lititz was a Moravian village surrounded by Mennnonite cornfields, but it was no cultural backwater. Lititz was an easy train ride away from Philadelphia, so the best of East Coast graphic design was always available to Lititz printers and publishers.
John Zook's 1905 book Historical and Pictorial Lititz showcased the most up-to-date designs of 1905, including "Mission Toys" ornaments designed by Will Bradley, the Dean of American Designers, who was the highest paid American commercial artist of the early 20th century.
In 1905 Will Bradley was advertising art director for American Type Founder. He had created these "Mission Toys" the year before, and they were only now available for printers to purchase.
By the 1920s John Fass had risen in the ranks, and was circulating in Will Bradley's orbit, in Manhattan. In 1931 Will Bradley was a judge in the American Institute of Graphic Art's prestigious 50 Books of the Year competition. Bradley helped select one of John's books as one of these best-designed books of the year: the book Horns in Velvet, which John designed, printed and published at his Harbor Press in Manhattan, which John owned and operated with his business partner Roland Wood. Ten of John's Harbor Press books received this AIGA award in the 1920s and 1930s.
Lititz provided good training grounds for John's career in printing, publishing, and graphic design. This small hometown was no typographical desert, thanks to the community's easy access to Philadelphia type foundries and printing supply houses.
To outsiders, the town of Lititz may have seemed like an isolated village in a sea of Mennonite farms. But John Fass and his coworkers had access to state-of-the-art design and technology, and they knew how to use that design.
After graduating from Lititz High School in 1908 John continued work at the Express shop "doing something of everything, composition, makeup, cutting paper, make-ready, and feeding the press," as he described to Paul Bennett in 1931.
This print shop was competing with the John F. Buch's print shop, located a few blocks away at 9 South Broad Street. Each shop published a weekly newspaper. John Buch's was on Thursday, and John Zook's was on Friday.
John Fass always insisted his shop was the better shop, and was quick to point out that his was the first newspaper in town to have a Linotype.
Above: John takes time off from the Express print shop to go to the beach.
Above: 24-year-old John Fass (on left) hangs out with his friends.
John remained unmarried throughout his life. But he never lacked for good friends and good family. He told John DePol that he never married because no one ever asked him to get married.
John Fass in World War I:
Above: John Fass leaves Lititz for Camp Greene, North Carolina.
World War I was a brief, four-month hiccup in John Fass' career. By 1917 John was 27 years old, and had been working with the Express print shop in Lititz for more than 10 years, beginning in sixth grade.
John's younger brother Benjamin also was working at the Express print shop. When John and Benjamin were drafted they coordinated exemption claims, in order to continue work at the shop to help support their family. On June 5, 1917, John and Benjamin traveled to Lancaster where they both claimed draft exemptions for support of their parents at home. John claimed support of their mother, while Benjamin claimed support of their father.
Both exemption claims failed. "Claims to be support of mother in doubt," Harry Workman stated on John's registration card. Even though John and Benjamin were, in fact, living with their under-employed parents and two younger sisters. Their father continued to have employment difficulties, resulting from "nervous debility", as his health was described in the1890 federal census. So John's father had been working as a cigar maker and a laborer. Meanwhile their mother tried to help ends meet as a dressmaker.
So John served as a private in the U. S. Army from August 30 to December 26, 1918, leaving with an honorable discharge. Despite John's parents' humble financial situation, the Fass brothers and sisters soon worked their way up into comfortable, middle-class lifestyles.