Type caste: Printing aficionados put it to the wood

On an icy weekend in January, experts and students from four states converged on the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum here to explore some rare examples of printing history and help bring them to life again.

The goals of the group included cataloging an enormous trove of wood and vinyl type and graphics that once belonged to the Globe Printing Co. in Chicago, and the un-framing of a 115-year-old display of handmade wood type created by Hamilton craftsmen for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Organizing the projects were brothers Bill and Jim Moran, third-generation printers. Bill is the owner of Blinc Publishing in St. Paul, which offers traditional letterpress printing, graphics services and Web site design. He is the co-author of a book documenting Hamilton’s history, and teaches typography at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Jim is a printer at Brown County Graphics in Green Bay, Wis., and former owner of Moran’s Quality Printing in Green Bay.

Joining them were Bill’s typography students; Mary Manion, framing expert and acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio, Milwaukee, and the arts columnist for Antique Trader magazine; Paul Brown, Associate Professor of Graphic Design, Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts, Indiana University at Bloomington; David Shields, Assistant Professor, M.F.A., Design, Department of Art & Art History at the University of Texas at Austin; Greg Corrigan, technical director at the museum; and James Van Lanen Sr., the museum’s coordinator.

The museum is located on the grounds of Thermo Fisher Scientific in Two Rivers, a maker of laboratory furniture and fume hoods occupying the buildings that were once home to the nation’s largest maker of wood type. Its cone-top water tower still dominates the city’s skyline.

Operated by volunteers of the Two Rivers Historical Society, the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum is the only such facility dedicated to the preservation, study, production and printing of wood type. With 1.5 million pieces of type, Hamilton’s collection is one of the premier archives in the world.

On one end of the museum, a 145-foot wall holds the world’s largest display of wood type. More than 1,000 different styles and patterns, ranging in sizes from 1/4 inch to 48 inches, are housed in cabinet after cabinet, in drawers and on shelves.

Hamilton began producing type in 1880 and within 20 years became the largest provider in the United States. During that time, as waves of immigrants helped build the republic, news and public information was printed in many styles of wood type.

“When people see wood type they often remember the classic ‘Wanted’ poster,” said Historical Society board member Van Lanen. “If you discover the other printed items of our nation’s graphic history, you will find wood type in almost every historical society collection. You will find printed documents and posters that help illustrate how people communicated with each other. Whether it was the sale of horses or land, political rallies, booklets, packaging or circus posters — wood type expressed the message of that day.”
Dating mostly from the mid-20th-century, the Globe Printing collection includes more than 1,500 pieces of handmade type and illustrations. Globe was once among the leading makers of posters for circuses, attractions and general merchandising. After the business closed, the largely irreplaceable printing blocks were stored in a semi trailer for decades until the trailer’s owner was told to move them or they would be sent to a landfill. Thankfully, someone had the presence of mind to contact the Hamilton museum, and volunteers transferred the trailer’s contents to Two Rivers. The task of cataloging the massive collection will take months, perhaps years.

The 1893 Columbian Exposition display was created when Hamilton was just reaching its dominance in the field.

James Edward Hamilton (1852-1940) lived in Lockport, N.Y., and in 1868 he moved to Two Rivers. As a young woodworker, he had been a tender of a clothespin lathe, and later went to work in a Two Rivers chair factory.

Lyman Nash, editor of the Two Rivers Chronicle, needed letters to print a poster for a “Grand Ball” at the city’s Turner Hall. With no time to order type from Chicago, Nash asked Hamilton if he could create the letters. Hamilton cut the type using his foot-powered scroll saw on his mother’s back porch, and mounted the letters on another block of wood. Then he sandpapered and polished the surface.

The type printed so well that Hamilton made up a few samples and sent them to nearby printers. After receiving his second type order, he quit his job at the chair factory and established J.E. Hamilton Hollywood Type Co. The wood of the holly tree was used in preference to maple, because it cost 50 percent less and could be cut 1/16 inch thick and glued to cheap pine.

A framed display made up of hundreds of pieces of intricate Hamilton wood type was sent to the Columbian Exposition, and won a gold medal. Held in Chicago, the event celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. The fair had a profound effect on architecture and the arts, and more than 27 million people (then equivalent to about half the U.S. population) visited the exhibition.

For more than six decades, the type display hung in the lobby of the Hamilton offices. Housed in a spring-loaded, bird’s-eye-maple frame under glass, the 115-year-old type had never been inked for printing. No one even knew if the type had been glued in place, or if it could be removed from the frame.

A crew of seven, including framing expert Mary Manion, removed the display from the wall and carefully moved it to a fourth-floor conference room. There it was discovered that every piece of type was loose in the display. It was gently wrapped in a packing blanket and taken by car to the museum two blocks away. If there were any missteps in the transfer, it would result in the ultimate “printer’s pie,” the term used to describe the mess that follows when type is spilt or dropped.

The transfer to the museum went off without a hitch, but how could prints be made from type that was never intended to be inked? The team had planned to make “blind” impressions, where only the outline of the type is left in damp paper. Over beers that evening, the solution was hit upon: A fine plastic film was stretched over the type to protect it from the ink. The result was a clean, sharp image of the 1893 display.
A numbered edition of 100 prints will be sold through the museum.

The Hamilton museum is arranged as a fully functional workshop and educational venue. In addition to its massive collection of 19th-, 20th- and soon-to-be-added 21st-century wood type, the museum also illustrates antique printing technologies, including the production of hot metal type, hand-operated printing presses, tools of the craft and rare type specimen catalogs.

Hamilton volunteers host educational demonstrations, field trips and workshops, and offer opportunities for artists, printers, historians and other scholars to experiment with this vast collection.

“We have benefited from the life experiences of the many people who actually made the exquisitely detailed wood type and who still reside in Two Rivers,” said museum coordinator Van Lanen. “These people are in their 70s and 80s. They showed us, from memory, how the type workshop really operated — the old secrets that make these extraordinarily beautiful and distinctively American alphabets.”

The Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum is located at 1619 Jefferson St. in Two Rivers. Hours from May to October are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. From November to April, it is open daily from 1 to 5 p.m.

For more information, visit www.woodtype.org or call 920-794-6272.

Mark F. Moran is Senior Editor, Antiques and Collectibles Books, at Krause Publications in Iola, Wis. (And yes, Bill and Jim Moran are his brothers.)

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