Sunday, August 14, 2016

Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum

Where might you expect to find the world’s largest collection of wood type? New York makes sense. Somewhere in Germany. But no, it’s in the small town of Two Rivers, WI at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum. Having studied typography and printed hand-made books on a letterpress in my college years, I’ve long been curious about the museum. I’ve passed by it numerous times driving to and from vacations in Door County. Until now, though, I’d never stopped in.

Coincidentally, my curiosity had been peaked on a recent trip to Detroit, of all places. There I happened upon a small working letterpress print shop that had a lovely decorated alphabet broadside (aka hand-printed art poster with text) for sale, which I purchased. It had been printed (as you can see) at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum in Two Rivers, WI. So, when I went to Door County recently I just had to finally stop there.

Platen printing press
There were maybe a dozen cars lined up against the front of the building, which fronts onto Hwy 42 right on the shore of Lake Michigan. Inside it was quiet, though. The staff was warm and welcoming. “Thank you for stopping,” was a refrain I heard several times with great sincerity. The museum is set up to be self-guided, presumably because it is a working museum and with infrequent visitors the staff has other work to do.

Linotype printer
But the young woman who took my $5 admission fee also graciously and unhurriedly led me through and introduced me to the collection. I asked why the museum is in Two Rivers. The collection originated in what had been the Hamilton Wood Type manufacturing and printing company located there.

Carriage saw and half-round timber to be cut into type
Although I was left to explore the place on my own, the occasional passing staff members were invariably friendly and asked if I had any questions. In addition to innumerable glass-fronted cases of wood type itself, there were displays showing the process of manufacturing wood type, including the machinery required, as well as a variety of printing presses.

For the uninitiated, wood type, along with more common metal type, is individual letterforms made out of wood (or metal) that are used in a printing press made for the purpose. Setting type involves placing each letter in sequence, along with punctuation and spacing —and it’s done backwards! It is a laborious endeavor that once was necessary in order to print any kind of text.

The museum has an entire wall that is a veritable relief sculpture composed of wood type samples of various, mostly enormous, sizes. A small portion of it is all captured in the photo above.

Posted casually on several walls throughout the building are displays of broadsides, artistic prints and posters.

In one corner of the huge building I found a group of students busily concentrating on printing projects. As was emphasized to me several times, this is a working museum. Part of that work is to offer classes and workshops. This group was from the Illinois Institute of Art.

Stephanie Carpenter, Assistant Director of the museum (above, left), paused her mentoring of them to explain to me what they were working on, printing sample alphabets from amongst the vast collection of type available from a wall of type trays.

There is also a more traditional gallery that displays rotating exhibitions of framed work. The current exhibit is from the Silver Buckle Press, which was recently acquired by the Hamilton Museum in an agreement with the University of Wisconsin libraries, its former owner. Silver Buckle Press also was a historical collection of printing equipment and printed materials operated as a working museum by the U. W. libraries in Madison, WI.

The Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum is open Tuesday - Saturday, 10 - 5 pm and Sunday 1 - 5 pm in the summer.  Winter hours and more info on their website. I can testify that they will be happy to receive you if you stop to visit.


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