Magazineland U.S.A.

Edmond P. DeRousse August 6, 2015 at 9:21 pm

Sparta Prominent Industry

When I was growing up, my hometown of Sparta, Illinois, had two very prominent industries. They were coal mining and printing. Both provided a good standard of living for its workers.

One, though, had the distinction of being the innovator and the single largest producer of its product in the world. That belonged to our printing industry. It was known to the world as World Color Press. We simply referred to it as the “Comic Book Factory”.

Our factory was instrumental in the creation of a new art form, the Comic Book.

World Color Press began in 1903 when the owners of the St. Louis Star decided they needed a way to handle the additional printing generated by the color printing needs for the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The intent was to shut down the operation after the World’s Fair, but decided instead to focus on a new feature. It was the color “funnies” section of the Sunday newspaper.

The Sunday “funnies” became so popular that in order to accommodate the needs and make a profit, the “funnies” had to be reprinted in a magazine format. Thus, the prototype for the very first comic book.

By the close of World War II, this new form of reading material became the most popular form of newsstand material on the market. In order to keep up with the demand, a new state-of-the-art plant was built in Sparta, Illinois. Within five years, World Color Press became the largest producers of comic magazines in the industry.

Cheap newsprint and huge letter presses were used to produce mass amount of comics each and every day. According to an article “Stop the Presses: part 4”, published by CO2 Comics Blog, “World Color also played a significant role in how comic art was drawn. In 1956, they installed the first web-offset press in their Sparta plant. Web presses fed rolls of paper like ribbons over cylinders that were covered with rubber plates that held the images of the comics that would be charged with ink.

Our plant became world dominant in the industry because of its advances to the printing and distribution technologies.  Sparta, consequently, became known as “Magazineland, U.S.A.” In its heyday, our Comic Book Factory employed as many as 1,000 people from the community. That represented about one third of our population.

Getting those magazines out was just as important as printing them.  Magazine distribution companies located themselves around us. They also employed many people. Diamond Comic Distributors was one such company. In the early 1990s, it employed several hundred people.

Sparta is located about sixty miles from an interstate or major airport. Its lack of closeness to key roads and air routes eventually was too much of an obstacle to overcome. Both printing and distribution moved their operations closer to those routes. The loss of the printing industry was, obviously, a big loss to Sparta.

But Sparta is a resilient community and its people soon found a way to adjust to the new life style change. They learned to become more mobile. Many took jobs in the St. Louis area. Some moved closer to their new jobs but most would return to their homes after work.


3 responses to “Magazineland U.S.A.

  1. I think you are incorrect on the number of employees at 1,000 at world color press at its heyday. I was president of local 210 B of the Bindery workers from 1970 to 1975. We had a little over 900 members at that time. The press room workers union had a little over 700 members and the plate room workers union had about 300 members. Yes there was more than 1 union at the plant. Counting the office workers we had around 2,100 workers, maybe a little more.
    Frank T. Walters former president Local 210 B thank you

    1. Thank you for your comment. Unfortunately, I did not complete the sentence to which you referred. The intent was to say that World Color Press employed about 1/3 of Sparta’s residents around 1,000 people. The correction has been made.

  2. Thank you for writing a bit about Spartan Printing. I worked there over twenty one years before moving on so I could learn more about the then new desktop publishing. My years at Spartan were the best education I could have had for learning a trade. I began in the pressroom as a lowly flyman or flyboy as we were called. It was hot and sometimes hard work gathering and stacking the arm loads of books onto the palettes. Within two years I was drafted and spent the next two years in the Army. After returning I learned my time away still counted toward my seniority and I began training on the back end of the press hanging the large paper rolls. Within a short time an opening came up in the plate room. This is where the magazines were put together and plates made for the presses. I was given a tour to see if I might like to transfer. It was clean, it was air conditioned. You can guess my decision. I began learning a new part of the printing trade. I started as a helper. A helpers task was to help the journeymen strippers by making contacts in the darkroom or finding ads or articles from past printing. At this same time I went back to school under the GI bill and became a full time student while working at Spartan. Over the years I learned many aspects of the printing process and eventually became a foreman.

    In my twenty one years I learned many things. I’ve said many times that working at Spartan gave me and many others the most wonderful education in the best methods of creating a printed piece. We learned to think on our feet and fix many equipment breakdowns ourselves. With over thirteen web offset presses running twenty four hours a day we couldn’t always wait for maintenance to get to us. I would say on the whole, almost anyone moving on from Spartan Printing could get a job in any printing company and have a leg up on anyone working there.

    I did learn the new methods of printing using the computer to aid in the assembly. Eventually I opened my own pre-press business in Chester, Illinois. Eventually we added a press and once again I was involved in the full range of printing. I’ve been in business almost twenty years as Blazing Color Inc.. Our business mantra from the beginning has been to treat equally and fairly no matter how big or small.

    I hope this hasn’t been too long a read but your article brought back many great memories. Thank you for your addition to the history of a great printing company.

    Ken Wagner

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