Hamilton Wood Type

Two Rivers, Wisconsin is home to 11,000 people, 3000 acres of forest and six miles of unspoilt Lake Michigan shoreline. It is allegedly the birthplace of the ice cream sundae and the carp fishing capital in America. It is also the home to the world’s largest collection of wood type

Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum claims to be the only museum in the world dedicated to preserving the history of wood type. Founded by the Two Rivers Historical Society, it houses more than 1.5 million type pieces in more than 1,000 styles, as well as specimen catalogues, printing equipment and advertising cuts.

Since it was founded in 1998, the museum has resided in a disused factory that was once home to the company it takes its name -and most of its collection – from: the Hamilton Holly Wood Type Company. Established by J Edward Hamilton in 1880, Hamilton Holly Wood was the biggest wood type manufacturer in the US by 1900, producing type for newspaper headlines, advertising, circus posters and packaging.

The company switched wood for steel in 1917 and was later named Thermo Fisher Scientific, but for more than a decade staff and volunteers have been researching and cataloguing Hamilton’s history. The old factory had seen better days, but was an Aladdin’s cave for type enthusiasts – “a real Wonderland for anyone who’s passionate about typography,” says typographer Nick Sherman, who is a member of the museum’s artistic board.

Row upon row of rare specimens, dusty curiosities and cardboard boxes full of handcrafted letters filled almost 30,000 square feet, and visitors were invited to print for themselves in workshops and during brief residencies. The museum was also the subject of Justine Nagan’s 2009 documentary, Typeface.

But in October last year, the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum was served a notice of eviction. The building’s owners were putting 1619 Jefferson Street up for sale and as a result, Hamilton had to find a new home.
“We found out about a week before our annual Wayzgoose type conference. I really didn’t see it coming – we’d been discussing the possibility of expanding the building just a few weeks before – so when we were told we had five months to leave, it really was a surprise,” says museum director Jim Moran.

Moran, his brother Bill (the museum’s artistic director) and assistant director Stephanie Carpenter were now faced with finding a building that could house Hamilton’s gargantuan collection and raising the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would cost to pack up, relocate and buy the new space to avoid another eviction. “I was fairly confident we’d find a way to carry on but for a time, I was worried it could be the end for Hamilton,” says Moran.

Jim, Bill and Carpenter announced Hamilton’s eviction at last year’s Wayzgoose. While they expected some help from the type community, Moran says the level of support for the museum has been overwhelming.

Since November 2012, Hamilton has raised more than $240,000. Cheques are still arriving in the post from the US and 2 3 beyond and the money donated so far has enabled Hamilton to move to a site twice the size and just a few blocks away. It is still in need of money to buy its new home but for now, Hamilton’s future is safe. If redecorating, cleaning and unpacking goes to plan, the museum will re-open at 1816 10th street in August this year.

One company that has been instrumental in Hamilton’s fundraising efforts is Adobe. The California software giant held film screenings to raise money in San Jose and Seattle and in February this year, staff baked and sold hundreds of cupcakes in jars, with all proceeds going to the museum. “We’re all passionate about type, and simply couldn’t pass on an opportunity to try and help the Hamilton and preserve an important piece of Americana,” says product marketing manager Nicole Minoza. “We [the type team] did the heavy lifting for the fundraiser, but it would not have been successful without the support of so many Adobe employees and the Adobe Foundation,” she adds.

In May, New York foundry Hoefler & Frere-Jones donated $10,000 and last December Sherman raised thousands more after asking foundries and enthusiasts to submit type-related artefacts to be sold at an auction in New York. More than 150 objects were donated, including Hebrew type specimen books from the 1920s, art deco letterpress notecards, specimen brochures from foundries including Keystone, Inland and Monotype.

“Even people that didn’t have a direct relationship with the museum were keen to contribute,” he says. “I know of at least three organisations that donated $10,000 or more who won’t really gain anything from it, other than knowing they’re supporting a good cause,” he adds.

Hamilton has also received donations from haulage firms, members of the public and even a New York teachers’ union, and one company in California donated $1,000 of shipping materials to help with the move. “It’s wonderful to know there are so many people out there willing to help out,” he says.

The help Hamilton has received has been unexpected, but the museum’s supporters feel it is well deserved – not just because it is a small organisation working hard to preserve a slice of local history, but because, arguably, nowhere else houses such a historically significant collection of type.

“There are a few type museums in the world, but none of them are as focussed on such a specific niche as Hamilton. The museum wasn’t started by curators – just a handful of Two Rivers residents – and I don’t think they ever expected there would be such a big group of people all over the world who would find the place so valuable,” says Sherman.

Paul Brown, a former resident at the museum and a professor at Indiana University’s College of Arts, has been bringing students to Hamilton for years to help them understand the evolution of type.

“These days, it’s possible for designers to be very proficient in graphic design without ever handling wood type, but there’s a lot to be gained from it. So much of the terminology that’s used today is borrowed from that technology, and there’s an aesthetic sensibility to be gained from physically handling wood type – being able to put something in a press, arrange it and think about where you’re putting the type is very different from putting something together on a computer screen,” he says.
Sherman agrees: “Using wood type at Hamilton gave me a much better perspective on how type should be used – before I had worked with analogue type, my ideas about typography and how it could be used in a digital context were much more limited,” he says.

Switching the computer screens for printing presses is one of the biggest attractions for visitors, says Moran. “People love being able to do things with their hands. Working with wood type is so removed from their day-to-day lives in a digital society – it’s much more tactile as you can really feel what you’re working with – and I think it encourages people to think more about the beauty of typography; about why letters are cut in a certain way and why one style of letter communicates better than another,” he says.

Hamilton’s new home isn’t glamorous and at the moment, it looks more like a storage warehouse than a local attraction. But Hamilton isn’t like traditional museums – its collection is there to be touched and used and admired up close. It could have relocated to Chicago, or New York, or anywhere with a booming tourist trade that would help drive revenue and visitors. But to do so, says Moran, would be to disregard Hamilton’s ties to the Two Rivers community.

“At its peak, Hamilton had around 2,500 employees. Two Rivers only has around 11,000 residents, so pretty much everyone here is related to or knows someone who worked for Hamilton,” says Moran.

At the new site, Moran hopes Hamilton will be able to expand its teaching programme, display more of its collection and uncover more of the Holly Wood Type Company’s history. Brown is publishing a book on the museum’s decorative border collection, while Moran has recently found examples of Hamilton type being used on shipping crates and commodities such as grain. The museum has also been working with type foundry P22 to digitise Hamilton’s collection.

“We’ve released 30 individual fonts with Hamilton, with another six in the design process. Virtually every wood type made in America has a connection with Hamilton, and its type – or at least its equipment – are a fixture in any print shop set up in the last 100 years,” says Richard Kegler, president at P22.

“One thing we’d also like to get back to is cutting type,” says Moran. “The demand for this is pretty high – we worked on a wonderful project a few years ago where we cut a two colour type with [leading type designer] Matthew Carter, we’ve used wood type to help rescue a nearly extinct Native American language font, and we’re in talks with a type designer from Berlin,” he adds.
Hamilton is also considering teaching advanced letterpress and book-making courses. “We’re always looking at broadening the scope of what we do, and want to teach people about the entire printing process and associated crafts,” he adds.

Thanks to the global type community and a very generous public, Hamilton no longer has to fear going out of business. In just six months, it has gone from being homeless to having more space and more projects in the works than ever; and with a little help from visitors and volunteers, its staff can continue to document, research and preserve this important part of America’s past, while inspiring future generations of designers.

To keep up with Hamilton’s progress or to make a donation to the museum, visit woodtype.org. Creative Review would like to thank the Hamilton Wood Type Foundry for supplying American Chromatic and Catchwords for use in this article. To purchase the fonts, or for more information, visit hamiltonwoodtype.com


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