Hamilton Wood Type Museum: Words carry weight, literally

carving-equipmentSometimes I refer to my freelance writing business as The Word Factory because that is what I churn out from one day to the next. If those words had weight, literally, they’d have filled my office many years ago.

It wasn’t all that long ago that words, to the letter, carried weight every day and on every printing press around the world. Now communication via computers lessens the need to pick up a book, turn a page or use scissors to turn published news into clipped memories.

Hamilton Wood Type Museum, Two Rivers, is home to 1.5 million pieces of wood type in at least 1,000 styles and sizes. No other museum in the world is devoted to the study, production, printing and preservation of wood type; 27 semi-trailer loads of printing history in 2013 were moved to a building twice as large as the original museum that opened in 1999.

Letterpress printing projects and workshops draw international attendance, but average folks are welcome to see what all the fuss is about, too.

Why here? Hamilton Manufacturing Company, founded in 1880, was the nation’s largest producer of wood type and the museum’s first home. A move was forced because of a decision to raze the closed Hamilton factory in downtown Two Rivers.

Volunteers considered moving the artifacts to a bigger city that had an airport and larger base to draw from for tours and workshops, then reconsidered. Crews from across the country raised $400,000 to purchase the vacant Formrite Tube Co. factory, which faces Lake Michigan, “and then we were broke again,” says Jim Moran, museum director.

“It was hard to leave the original building because that’s where the type was made,” he says. Jim started as a volunteer and donated equipment from Moran’s Quality Print Shop, Green Bay, where work and ownership with his father and grandfather lasted more than three decades.

Some of us still have ink in our veins because watching a press run never fails to thrill and we consider smudged fingertips as a proud badge of character. It’s not just a baby boomer thing: Stephanie Carpenter, whose master’s degree in graphic design is less than 10 years old, likes the vibe of the new location because of its walls of wood, concrete floors and “it still smells like wood, ink and mineral spirits.”

She is the museum’s assistant director and explains the value of preserving what seems obsolete. “It’s a tactile experience,” she says. “We can learn software on computers, but to hold the letter ‘e’ – or any other – is amazing.”

That is a part of what makes a visit fun for children because they don’t know of a world before the Internet, television and radio. Some wear clothing with lettering on it, “but don’t think about how that happens. We might make a quick print of something, and it’s like magic to them.”

For younger generations who study graphic arts, “there’s a desire to understand the basics and to handle the tools,” says Stephanie, who says letterpress printing is regaining popularity, as a response to digital printing. How else can you get ink under your nails?

Old-timers, like an 80-year-old Toronto Star composing room editor, make their way here too. So do other letterpress enthusiasts, like an Australian who is a design instructor. The museum’s annual Wayzgoose Type Conference in autumn is for “letter geeks of all stripes across the globe,” and “wayzgoose” is a historical term for an annual feast for printing house employees, to mark the end of summer.

“We’re fortunate that we’re using the same 26 characters” as when wood type was produced, Jim says. “Designers still use typography – you can learn a lot about how this was done 100 years ago – and we’re still using type to communicate,” be it gothic-style newspaper headlines or flashy circus posters.

Besides wood type, much made from hard maple, Hamilton produced medical and laboratory furniture, drafting tables, baby furniture and the first clothes dryer powered by gas. One room of the museum is devoted to these items. Another gallery of exhibits changes every two months.

Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum, 1816 10th St., Two Rivers, is owned by the Two Rivers Historical Society. It is closed on Mondays. From November through April, it also is closed on Sundays. Admission is $5 (less for senior citizens, military vets and children 12 or younger). Guided tours available at 1 and 3 p.m. woodtype.org, 920-794-6272

The next letterpress printing workshop that is not sold out happens April 2. Coptic binding is a bookmaking workshop topic on April 9.