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Waterman Printing: Black ink for 91 years

Homer D. Waterman, in the late 1940’s in front of the family business.

By Eric T. Campbell
The Michigan Citizen

Understanding the long term success that Waterman and Sons Printing has enjoyed as a business means recognizing four generations of the Waterman family. It also means going back to the year 1916 when William A. Waterman, grandfather of current operators Homer E. Waterman and William O. Waterman, first started the family business on old Vernor Highway. Waterman and Sons have made several stops along the way to becoming Detroit’s oldest African American owned print shop.

In the early 1920’s the business moved to the infamous Hastings street district. William O. Waterman still remembers the scope and influence Black businesses had in the area at that time.

“When people like Joe Louis, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, when they came to town they stayed down there at the Gotham Hotel”, says William O. “It was owned by us.”

The Watermans were on Hastings Street until 1945, well before the neighborhood was literally paved over by the I-75 construction through downtown.

In 1945 Waterman Printing moved to Log Cabin and Pilgrim. During this time William O. and Homer E.’s father, Homer D. Waterman, was splitting time between the print shop and the Packard Motor Company. In 1947, he quit the plant to work the print shop full time. In 1957, the shop moved to Puritan and Invernes where, for the first time, the Watermans enjoyed a modest building built specifically for the operation. Finally, in 1967, Waterman and Sons moved to its current, larger location on Wyoming, one block north of McNichols.

It was during this time that Waterman and Sons enjoyed clients such as Ford Motor Company and General Motors and supplied the automotive giants with a considerable quantity of their printing needs.

“We had several stretches of 18 or 19 hours a day—five, six or seven days a week,” William O. told the Michigan Citizen.

Over the last fifteen years, technology has had a negative affect on the printing industry.

“Things started changing,” Homer E. said. “Everybody started putting in their own computers. That’s one of the things that’s impacting all the printers. Many of the churches, even, are doing their own in-house printing.”

Yet, the Waterman shop contains a wide range of modern printing equipment, able to handle a great number of commercial needs. They also maintain two antique hand-fed print machines. The older, letter-press machines, in which the type is set by hand, are utilized for rare jobs like printing on napkins.

The workhorse of the shop is a two color offset press machine through which brochure covers or pages of souvenir books may travel.

Homer E. explained the initial steps of getting a negative photo of the image or type to be printed in a small darkroom; burning the negative onto a plate; and placing the burned plate into the offset printer press.

“It’s put on the press,” Homer E. said. “And then it doesn’t matter if it’s 5,000 or 50,000 copies, we can start the run process. Water is transferred to the plate and the non-image area is kept free of ink by the water. The only area that picks up is the image area of the plate.”

Ninety-one years of printing everything from school programs to elegant business cards has led to well known clients in the educational, religious and political communities in Detroit.

Now, the Watermans are working on a sickle cell home study kit sponsored by the Wayne State University Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center and Charles Whitman, M.D..

William O. explained his theory on the circle of spending that keeps money in the community: “People in business for themselves, they think differently. We know the advantage of going down the street to deal with a brother, even if he doesn’t spend his money here. He may go across the street or around the corner to buy something. And then he might come to your cleaners and I might then print your business card.”

Waterman and Sons Printing is located at 17134 Wyoming one block north of McNichols. Call 313-864-5562 for more information.


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