While for most people the words “wooden type” might not cause immediate excitement, once you step into the Hamilton Wood Type museum in Two-Rivers Wisconsin, that quickly changes.
The history of wooden type has seen it fall in and out of favor many times over the years. Movable wooden type was first developed in China around 1040 AD, though was rejected in favor of clay type, due to the presence of wood grain in the print, and the warping of the wood blocks due to the ink.
Wooden type returned to in China in the 1200s when a cheaper and more efficient method of producing it (including typesetting with bamboo strips to hold the blocks in place) was developed, making wood type a worthwhile alternative to clay. In 1834, William Leavenworth brought the use of wooden type back to America for much the same reasons, it was cheaper then lead, and now, it could be carved by machine, making it much more uniform.
Then in 1868, a young man named Edward J. Hamilton was asked by a rushed printer, with no time to order a special type set from Chicago, to carve a set of wooden type. Hamilton did so on a foot-powered scroll saw on his mothers back porch, and the type was a hit. By 1900 Hamilton was the largest wooden type provider in the United States. Many of America’s most famous printed materials were done in Hamiltons’s wooden types including the infamous “Wanted” posters so often seen in westerns.
Over time, wooden type, and then physical type altogether fell out of common usage. Today the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum is the only museum “dedicated to the preservation, study, production and printing of wood type.” The museum is run by volunteers from the Two Rivers Historical Society, has over “1.5 million pieces of wood type and more than 1,000 styles and sizes of patterns.”
The museums most impressive display is the 145-foot wall of type, the world’s largest wall of wood type and the 1,000s of different styles of wooden type in drawer after drawer. The museum also has “a fully functional workshop and educational venue” ‘illustrating antique printing technologies including the production of hot metal type, hand operated printing presses, tools of the craft and rare type specimen catalogs.”
As letterpress and other, once largely forgotten forms and crafts of typography come back into style, it seems wooden type, and the Hamilton museum which has kept the tradition alive, is once again ready for the spotlight.