Making Manitowoc: Hamilton Wood Type Museum
The Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum in Two Rivers houses one of the largest collections of wood type in the world.
TWO RIVERS - Jim Moran directs a museum, but he does not sit behind a desk all day or feather dust artifacts.
Rather, he runs the "working" Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum, the only museum dedicated to the preservation, study, production and printing of wood type. With 1.5 million pieces of wood type and more than 1,000 styles and sizes of patterns, Hamilton's is one of the premier wood type collections in the world.
Visitors come from as far away as Italy, Australia and Brazil to learn about the wood type, as well as an array of advertising cuts dating back to the 1800s and the equipment needed to make both wood type and print with it.
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Wearing a well-used apron and jeans, Moran — a third-generation printer — talks enthusiastically about wood-block type and how styles created more than a century ago are used today.
He can recite the history of Hamilton easily. The manufacturing company, between the the East and West twin rivers on Lake Michigan, was the largest wood type producer in the U.S. back in the day when everything was letterpress printed.
"The fact that Hamilton in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, dominated the country, is a really big deal, when you think of the number of newspapers simply between here and Milwaukee, that's a lot of wood type," he said. "So imagine the number of newspapers across the country, and with Hamilton making the wood type for just about all of them, it was a massive industry. This museum celebrates that."
James Edward Hamilton launched the company in 1880 with a financial partner, a time when newspapers were becoming mass industries, and other organizations also needed block printing for handbills and other items. At the time, most of the producers of block letters and symbols for printing were in eastern cities such as Boston or New York.
"He had two advantages," Moran said. "All of his competition was on the East Coast, and Two Rivers was in the middle of Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee area. His business just exploded in size."
As the company grew, Hamilton bought out his competition and continued to find new ways to meet market demands. The company did not actually print materials, Moran notes, but rather created the blocks of wood that went out the door to businesses that did printing. Hamilton had a near monopoly within 12 years, and Moran said he took pride in working in his hometown.
As those companies moved to lino-type and lead blocks, which Hamilton never made, Hamilton moved to creating furniture to hold printing blocks, and desks for printers, to medical and other cabinets, and the company was sold in the 1970s to a company that produced medical furniture.
HWT, an offshoot of Hamilton Wood Type, made wood type until 1993.
"The Mac (computer) is eight years old at that time," Moran said. "Think about that."
The Hamilton collection was about to be sold to someone in Chicago in the mid-1990s when members of the Two Rivers Historical Society decided it should be preserved. They began a small museum, launched in 1999, in a portion of the old Hamilton factory the new owner let them use for free.
"If it were not for that generosity, I don't know how far the museum would have gotten off the ground," Moran said.
The museum is meant to celebrate not only Hamilton and its wood type, but also the history of printing in the U.S. As you wander the museum today, you will see the ornate display the company used to show off its capabilities at the 1929 World's Fair and blocks ranging to less than an inch to several feet. Because some Hamilton workers were making block print into the 1990s, those who run the museum were able to learn the painstaking process from the experts.
The museum works best as a living, working facility, Moran said.
"The idea that type is meant to be put on a press and printed with is quite a departure from other museums where you have a display case that is never opened, we're taking so much of our collection, and putting it on presses and still printing with it," he said. "We are very fortunate so many people in this country are still interested in that past and working with it. We're fortunate that a young graphic designer would still have an interest in Hamilton type and using it."
Hamilton created very few type styles of their own, he said, but they modified or simply took other styles that were available. And also, by the time the company bought out other companies, it owned more than 500 different type styles, he said.
Those type styles still are of interest.
Rick Kegler, director of the Book Arts Center at Wells College in Aurora, New York, was visiting the Hamilton Museum to work with the some of the old type. He is creating a specimen catalog type to digitize some of the decades-old type forms.
"You want to come back and make sure things are historically accurate," he said, noting, "many of the styles we think are new or fairly modern, you can see might come from something that was first made in the late 1800s. We want to keep it all in historical context."
Moran became aware of the museum about year after it opened.
He was running the Moran Printing company in Green Bay at the time. His father suggested the family donate a ruling machine (made to put lines on paper) to the fledgling museum. Moran came along to help reassemble the piece, and took a natural interest in the museum.
He began to spend more and more hours volunteering at the museum, and finally decided to apply for the job as director.
His family's print shopped close as they found it harder as people began to print items from home or at the office.
"What then began to happen in the '80s was the advent of the copying machine," Moran said. "Then, you'd have to argue with your customers that offset printing was way better than a copy, and while it was, you could see a shift in the industry happening. The whole industry was changing at a remarkable rate, and so you were throwing out equipment at an incredible rate."
Letter-set type is making a renaissance, he said, with people taking an artistic interest in letter-set printing.
"The equipment still works," Moran said. "It may be a bit nerdy for people not in the business. We are associated with hundreds and hundreds of letterpress printers, where 15 or 20 years ago, we would have been hard-pressed to find anyone outside the Hatch Show down in Nashville."
Hatch Show is a historical letterpress shop. Moran hopes interest will continue.
"We often wonder what will happen, will this be a bubble that will burst and people will move on to another fad?" he said. "But because you can create such beautiful artwork with letterpress, it will always have a niche. We're really lucky the alphabet is still 26 characters, and we use type in all of the same ways. We want type to inform, and communicate and inform and impress."
This story is part of the Making Manitowoc series of stories that highlights the people, places and things that make the Manitowoc region one-of-a-kind. If you know of an interesting person, place or thing made in Manitowoc that you think could be featured, contact Patti Zarling at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 920-686-2152 or on Twitter at @PGPattiZarling.
If you go:
What: Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum
Where: 1816 10th St., Two Rivers
Hours: Winter (Nov. 1-April 30) — 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday; Summer (May 1-Oct. 31) — 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday, and 1-5 p.m., Sunday. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.
Cost: $5 general admission; $3 for senior citizens (65 and older), military veterans and children 12 and younger.
Contact: 920-794-6272 or online at woodtype.org