A quick spin in the Dirt Rag Time Machine

By Karl Rosengarth

Gather ‘round the fireplace kiddies, and Uncle Karl will tell you a story. This one’s the tale of how we used to make the Dirt Rag, back in the day.

See this big envelope? It contains the archives from Dirt Rag #20, which was published in November of 1991. Inside the envelope are the original 8.5×11” hardcopy pages that we sent to our printer, and other fun stuff that I’ll tell you about in a moment.

At the time of Dirt Rag #20, the magazine was wrapping up its third year of publication. Back then, you could have any color you liked on the pages of Dirt Rag, as long as you liked black.

Issue #20 was published before digital cameras conquered the photography universe. When we wanted to insert a photo into the body of the magazine Maurice would leave an “empty box” on the hardcopy page, with a serial number in the box corresponding to the number of the photo that belonged in that box. See, here’s a page with and empty box.

When we sent the hardcopy pages to our printer, we’d also send them a stack of original photographs. Each photo was numbered to match its corresponding box. Here’s the original copy of photo #2, which matches the box on the page that I just showed you.

Hah! Helmet art made from found doll parts. Boy howdy, those old-time mountain bikers sure knew how to have fun, didn’t they? The zany guy in the photo is Corey Kessler. I wonder what antics he’s up to these days?

But I digress. When Maurice founded Dirt Rag, he was also working as a professional photographer in and around Pittsburgh. Conveniently, he had his own darkroom equipment in the basement of his home, which also served as DRHQ.

Some of my most vivid memories from the early days involve Maurice, elbow-deep in fixer solution, banging out last-minute prints of the products we reviewed in the Stuff section of the issue.

Did I mention that these darkroom sessions often took place well after midnight, on the last night before our deadline? Oath! To his credit, he always got the job done, and did fine work to boot. Look, here are some original photos of the products reviewed in issue #20.

Back in the day, advertisements typically arrived as hard-copy artwork. Smaller ads were sometimes “cut and pasted” directly onto the pages. Literally. We cut them to size with a straight edge and an X-Acto knife, and then pasted them onto the pages using a tacky wax compound. In other cases, advertisement artwork was treated the same as photographs, and we’d leave empty boxes with serial numbers on the hardcopy pages, and provide our printer with a pile of ads, labeled with corresponding serial numbers. Full-page ads came as camera-ready artwork. Look, here’s an ad featuring our hero, Gunnar Shogren, back when he rode for Cannondale. There’s an interesting story that goes along with the photo used in that ad, but I’ll save that yarn for another day.

Speaking of camera-ready, our printer would take the entire set of hardcopy pages, the stack of photographs, and the pile of ads, and work their magic to create a set of full-page sized photographic negatives. One full-sized negative per page of the magazine. The film negatives were then used to burn the actual printing plates that our printer used to lay down ink on blank paper and create the magazine.

The Dirt Rag archives include unwieldy rolls of full-page film negatives from those early-on print jobs. Here’s a peek inside one of the negative rolls.

Well, kids, that’s the story of old-timey magazine making. Nowadays it’s all ones and zeros. Buttons get clicked. Files get uploaded to the great server in the clouds. And then next thing you know—poof—there’s a magazine in your mailbox. Or a digital subscription gets delivered directly to your fancy electrical tablet—no paper required!

That ‘s all for tonight. Now brush your teeth, and off to bed.