Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum
Picture this: Wisconsin. Winter. Low cloud ceiling. I’m driving north from Chicago with Shona Burns, Chronicle Books’ head of production, headed toward the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum.
Hamilton is located in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, on the shore of–at this time of year, frozen–Lake Michigan approximately 30 miles southeast of Green Bay (of Ice Bowl fame) and about 40 miles northeast of Oshkosh–by gosh!
By way of history, Hamilton was established in 1880 and by the turn of the 20th century was the largest wood type manufacturer in the U.S. Much has happened to the type and printing industries during what’s been called The American Century: wood type,with some exceptions, gave way to metalwhich was surpassed by photo-type and by the end of the 20th century all type was digital, what we now call “fonts”.
A funny thing happened, though. Generation Xers, and now millenials are infatuated with craft. Hell, there’s been a White House Maker Faire and the president declared June 18th National Day of Making. Almost in direct disproportion to the ubiquity of everything digital, hands-on, impressing ink into paper has become a national and international sensation. Hamilton sits squarely in the middle of this craft movement.
I had met Hamilton Museum director, Jim Moran, last fall when he was in San Francisco to make a presentation to the San Francisco Center for the Book. At that time Chronicle was in the midst of producing its first line of letterpress stationery products and we were interested in sources of wood type, dingbats and related ephemeral imagery.
I was intrigued.
So, when Shona announced that we were headed to the mid-west and northeast on a reconnoitering of heartland printers and design school portfolio reviews, we put Hamilton on our itinerary. Despite the cold weather reception, we were not disappointed.
Steeped as we were in design and printing history and immersed in the letterpress revival, we were the proverbial kids in a candy shop as we stomped the snow from our boots in the Hamilton front office. Jim, his assistant director, Stephanie Carpenter, and Jim’s brother, Bill, who is artistic director, gave us a warm welcome and guided tour of the plant that sat behind their reception area-cum-retail shop.
Some recent history: at the end of 2012 Hamilton was forced to move from their ancestral home. The museum solicited donations and recruited volunteers who packed the collection onto pallets that filled 25 semi trailers that hauled the museum’s contents across town to their new location.
Jim explained the process that started with cutting hard rock maple into slabs,
which were turned into letterforms via a contraption called a pantograph,
then sanded, polished
and sorted into banks of vintage wood cabinets.
In fact, some of the old hands from Hamilton’s heyday are still around passing on their knowledge to the young‘uns.
More than hands-off didactic displays, Hamilton is a working museum offering workshops, internships, residencies–and they rent printing equipment to the initiated.
As we wended our way through the museum’s 45,000 square feet of letter-cutting machinery, banks of oak cabinets that house wood and metal fonts, linotype machines, letterpress printing presses of every make and variety–including the covetable Showcard Sign press (sometimes called the Line-O-Scribe), we felt as if we had stepped back in time. The smell of ink, the smooth clicking of the presses, and examples of pre-internet imagery carved out of wood reassured us that toner is not the only way to put an image on paper. As designers and producers of old media ownables, we reveled in that thought.
In conclusion, here’s some more information about the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum along with a more in-depth history, and a documentary film that was made prior to the Moran Bros. taking the helm and their much-ballyhooed move.
As is the case, Chronicle was an early adopter of the back-to-the-hand trend. In 2001 we published Hatch Show Print based on the history of the renowned Nashville, Tennessee-based printer of posters for country and rockabilly artists. Thirteen years later, it’s still in print.
Fast forward and we have added the Little Book of Letterpress
along with two titles from our distribution partner, Laurence King, Adventures in Letterpress
and Low Tech Print.
As mentioned above, Chronicle has a line of letterpress cards and journals by contemporary artists and designers.
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