Two Rivers, Wisconsin, with a population of 13,000 was hit hard by the economic downturn. A “stop on the way to Door County,” what does the town has to offer that is uniquely its own, besides their claim to be the original home of the ice cream sundae? Well, there is the Hamilton Wood Type Museum, housed in the old factory building that manufactured wood type for so long, and it’s the only wood type museum in the entire world.
Five years ago, returning through Wisconsin to Michigan after my father’s funeral in Illinois, David and I stopped overnight in Two Rivers. It was late, we had dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and in the morning, poking around the older parts of town, we happened on the Wood Type Museum. Never having heard of it before, I was enthralled by the very idea, but it was Sunday, and the museum wouldn’t be open for several hours, and we had many miles to travel.
Thus I must admit that my visit this November (2010) was made via a DVD called “Typeface,” brought back by friends who made the trip and did not miss the museum. It isn’t the same as being there and having an opportunity to run my hands over the carved blocks, but it’s better than nothing.
Wood type was the first Hamilton product, and it was their only product for the first ten years. With a quality product and a lower price than anyone else in the business, Hamilton was able to put its largest competitors in New York and Chicago out of business (and then, naturally, doubled their own prices). In the hey-day of letterpress printing, big posters and billboards demanded wood type, as very large letters could not be cast in metal. It was a marriage of machine work and handcraft.
Then in the 1960s came offset lithography, and out went letterpress printing. Mountains of type must have been discarded all over the world. What was it good for? Who needed it? And then came computer graphics and printing.
Now letterpress printing is making a comeback for the same reasons that other “outdated” crafts and ways of doing things are returning. There is something beautiful and real about it that can’t be duplicated by a computer. The Hamilton Wood Type Museum offers workshops year-round by print artists from all over the world. Poetry and letterpress are a heavenly partnership made right here on earth. Letterpress books and letterpress wedding invitations carry high value and cachet in niche markets.
It’s strange, really, that this way of printing, which has little to do with the majority of books, should fascinate me so. It’s stranger still that I learned what goes on in the museum and elsewhere in the letterpress world by watching a DVD on my computer. I would rather have been there. I’d like to go back to Two Rivers and spend time in that museum. I’d like to visit that Chinese restaurant again, too, and spend more time along the old docks and check out the farm museum and have an ice cream sundae. Can’t believe how much I missed in that little town the only time I was there....