The Rebirth of Wood Type

“Artists are the best at making obsolete technology relevant again – they’ve even resurrected the letterpress”
– Audrey Niffenegger

Typeface Documentary Movie Poster

Wood type printing was developed in the United States in the 1820s. Almost two hundred years later, the medium, in many ways, is nearly dead. That is, was nearly dead, until Jim and Bill Moran moved to Two Rivers, Wisconsin and revived the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum, an ambitious feat to say the least. Founded by James Edward Hamilton in 1880 as the Hamilton Hollywood Type Company, the business soon came to monopolize the industry, providing wood type printing services to hundreds of companies and individuals nationwide. Lighter than metal, wood type was ideal for posters and large signs, and it’s aesthetic permeates iconic images of the 20th century. But as modern technology developed, the demand for wood type printing rapidly declined, and in 1985 the Hamilton Factory, the last of its kind, was forced to shut down. It would remain essentially untouched until 1999 when the Two Rivers Historical Society opened the former factory space and converted it into a museum commemorating the medium’s history. Since its inception, however, the museum has operated “in the red,” an unfortunate trend, which is expected to change shortly.

Auto Races, Cut and Printed at the Hamilton Museum

For once, the museum’s future is looking bright, and there seems to be two reasons, one internal and one external, as to why. In January 2010, Kartemquin Films of Chicago released its documentary Typeface, directed by Justine Nagan, which related to wide audiences the beauty of wood type, its history and Hamilton’s unfortunate state. Though a small production, the film showed at a number of film festivals and won the 2009 Flyway Film Festival Award for Best Documentary. It, furthermore, excited viewers, attracting a number of Midwesterners to Two Rivers for museum tours. At the point in which the film leaves off, in the early spring of 2009, the director is getting ready to leave the museum due to lack of funds and despair. By April 2009, Jim Moran was hired as the new Museum Director, and in September 2009, Bill Moran was brought in as the Artistic Director and Development Coordinator. Long-time typesetters and historians of the medium from Green Bay, the Moran brothers, in taking over the job, would quickly turn the museum’s hopes around.

Circus Poster, Cut and Printed at the Hamilton Museum

On June 25th, Jim and Bill Moran spoke in Chicago, and I was fortunate enough to attend. The woman who introduced the brothers described the story of their transformation of the Hamilton Museum as “a fairytale come true.” Over the course of an hour the two switched off talking about what they have done, what they plan to do and what great challenges remain. One of the challenges presented in Typeface was the hundreds of boxes of old type that still needed sorting. Under the Morans’ leadership and with the help of tens of volunteers, Hamilton has gone through one hundred and twenty-nine of the one hundred and thirty-five boxes there once was to sort. In the process, they have discovered many different kinds of old type, some still extremely functional and others so complex in their intense stylization that one wonders what they were originally cut for. As Bill said, “When you find these things you feel as if you are unearthing a piece of American history.”

Set Type at the Hamilton Museum

First and foremost, the brothers are working to draw younger and younger audiences to the museum, to engage children and young adults about wood type. They are also going to where the students already are, teaching one and two day workshops at Midwestern art schools. They have begun utilizing social networking sites in order to reach broader audiences and have also begun producing and selling affordable wood type products, such posters and books, online. In doing so, they are often “re-striking” Hamilton originals, so that one can buy old movie posters, circus advertisements, etc. But they are also making their own artwork from these images, combining an image and a text or two images/texts that never otherwise would have gone together for creative aesthetic experimentation.

The Moran brothers have also begun taking on some interesting new projects. Rather than wring their hands in despair in the face of financial difficulty, the two are writing grants and petitioning for funds to take on some type design and type cutting work. They will be cutting the new wood font of the Lushootseedalphabet, the six hundred year old language of the Native American Tulalip tribe of Washington State. The language, which was only converted into writing in the 1960s, currently faces extinction. The Hamilton Museum’s cutting of the font and printing of posters will assist the tribe in their educational endeavor of restoring the language to every day use. The Morans also expect to begin a project shortly with the Gutenberg Museum, and though it is only in the preparation stages, it is bound to be something of significant historical interest to the medium. Together, the brothers are demonstrating that fresh eyes and enthusiasm can make others realize the magic of art previously neglected and nearly forgotten.