Visiting Hamilton

The following is a guestpost by Adrienne Miller and Brad Vetter. Adrienne is an MFA candidate in Printmaking at Northern Illinois University and Brad is a letterpress printer and designer. Photo Credits: Stephanie Carpenter.

It is December 8th, 2012 and we are driving north on Highway 42 catching our first glimpse of the epic Lake Michigan on the way to Two Rivers, Wisconsin the home of Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum.

About two hours north of Milwaukee and an hour south of Green Bay, Two Rivers is a quiet town resting on the banks of the great lake. Like all too many Midwestern cities, Two Rivers was once a thriving industrial city now hit hard by the economy and changing times. Originally built in 1907 and Resting on the edge of the East Twin River, (one of the rivers that gives the town it’s namesake) the three-story Hamilton Manufacturing Company building adorned with countless windows and constructed of cream city brick dominates an entire three downtown blocks. A large smokestack breaks the skyline bearing the HAMILTON MFG CO name. The grandeur of the building is matched only by its contents, over 1.5 million pieces of letterpress wood type representing 130+ years of printing history.

We arrive at the museum bright and early in the morning. Brad was invited to teach a workshop, and I was visiting for the first time, the location I had been hearing stories about for years. To understand Hamilton Wood Type’s history is to know that it is not unlike many other industrial companies of yesteryear, full of changes of ownership and the focus shifting from the original product.

Although the building does extend over three blocks, the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum only takes up a small portion of the huge building, a mere 45,000 square feet. Over the years the Hamilton Manufacturing Company was sold and changed names several times eventually becoming Thermo Fisher Scientific, the manufacturers of scientific equipment based in Waltham, Massachusetts. Thermo Fisher Scientific, who were working out of the original Hamilton office and plant, let the museum stay there with the agreement that they would pay $1 a year for rent, while they continued contemporary manufacturing in the rest of the plant.  In November 2011 the company decided to end manufacturing in the Two Rivers area and move that location’s production to Texas and Mexico, eliminating over 200 jobs.

Understanding the treasure their town had and seeing the threat of its possible disappearance, The Two Rivers Historical Society founded the museum in 1999.  The museum was under the supervision of Greg Corrigan for the first several years of its existence. Jim Moran took over the museum directorship in 2008 and works as its protector. Under Moran’s supervision, the museum has gone from close to extinction to becoming one of the country’s leading educational institutions for typography and commercial printmaking.

Details of the Hamilton tour.

Hamilton is a mecca for printers and designers alike as they host regular workshops and events as well as the annual Wayzgoose conference, which brings in international visitors and speakers. They also host artist-in-residence programs, student groups and volunteers who catalog, organize, research and print in the museum. Although the need for wood type has lessened over the years, the museum is still producing wood type designed by contemporary typographers, such as Matthew Carter. Along with the 1.5 million pieces of wood type the museum holds in its archives they also have the Chicago Globe collection, original equipment used to produce and print wood type and other pieces of printing ephemera such as records and specimen books from other type manufacturers.

An interior view of the museum and much of the type they have on display.

Jim Moran, the museum’s director, and Stephanie Carpenter, the assistant director, both warmly greet us as we enter from the bitter Wisconsin cold. Although we are arriving at the museum early in the morning, the building is alive with activity. There are volunteers in the print shop cranking out an edition of benefit posters. Even more volunteers are measuring, and cataloging every piece of equipment and type cabinet in the museum. There is also a portion of the Hamilton artistic board in town for a meeting. Among the board members is Jim’s brother and third member of the museum staff, artistic director Bill Moran, who mostly works out of St. Paul, MN. This is not a typical day for the museum, this is the last workshop at this building, and after 130+ years in this location this is the last month that Hamilton will be operating at its original location. With Thermo Fisher Scientific pulling out, it became obvious that the Type Museum would lose its location with the inevitable sale of the building. The formal announcement for the museum’s move was made in November 2012 during Hamilton’s annual letterpress conference, the Wayzgoose, which is held at the museum. The move must happen before April of this year. The museum has aimed to raise $250,000 in order to facilitate the move. The museum will not move far, ensuring the legacy of the Hamilton name remains in Two Rivers.

The iconic Hamilton drawer pulls and just a glimpse of their enormous type collection.

The workshop attendees arrive and we begin the day with an extra long tour of the museum by Jim Moran, a great treat for the museum’s last workshop. As you walk around the immense museum you learn the history of the company, and the process of manufacturing wood type. The tour begins at an incredibly large table saw (think 3 foot diameter blade) where lengths of Rock Maple that was natural to the region, are cut end-grain (for strength and density), sanded and planed down to be type-high (.918 of an inch). The slices of wood are then trimmed to the appropriate lengths for the type being made. Once those pieces of wood are ready, they are brought to the pantograph where they are cut using type patterns. For the unfamiliar, pantograph machines were special routing tools that helped to create multiple sizes of the same letter using the same pattern. All the final trim marks were cut by hand. We also pass display cases of ornate antique wood type of many styles and sizes. The original patterns used to create the type are also housed in cabinets we pass along the tour.

The pantograph tracing a type pattern and examples of newly cut type awaiting their final trimming.

Extra large and hand carved!

The tour continues through the museum, showcasing other Hamilton products. Though Hamilton originally got its start making wood type, they also realized the advantage to producing other equipment such the cabinets to house the type, dryers, medical examining tables, dentistry cabinets, and other scientific furniture over the years. Exhibitions at the museum rotate every couple months. The show that is on display during our visit is that of two once-great American print shops, The Baltimore and Chicago Globe Poster Companies. The Chicago collection is protected behind the scenes at Hamilton, while the Baltimore collection is now protected by Maryland Institute, College of Art. MICA acquired the Globe Poster Company in 2011 using the collection as a teaching and research tool for its students.  The Chicago Globe Collection sat in a semi-trailer for years, before being donated to Hamilton. Seeing the work from these similar shops is a very present reminder of the importance of preservation, protection, and continuing education in the commercial printing industry.

When the tour ends we all head into the print shop to begin the workshop. Brad talks for a while about the goings on of the day and shop rules. He goes into his usual talk about keeping letterpress relevant through exploration and experimentation. After explaining how to print and clean, he lets the ten students run loose in the shop. The group of experienced and novice printers and designers come to the workshop to have a chance to print in the Hamilton facilities. The print shop includes about ten Showcard presses, five Vandercook presses, and a drool inducing collection of wood type and ornaments.

Brad introduces the students to a few alternative techniques inspired by the holiday season. Mounting Christmas ornaments on wood to create some unique “type high” printing blocks. He also encourages the students to cut out a paper snowflake to create stencils to print with. I help run an edition of snowflake prints to sell at a fundraiser for Hamilton the following weekend at Columbia College, Center for Book and Paper Arts in Chicago.

The labeled ends of larger woodtype in storage and a workshop student inking up a cluster of H’s.

A final workshop attendee working hard.

As the day comes to a close, the workshop students head home and the museum staff and volunteers go out for a celebratory dinner in Two Rivers. We eat and drink, tell stories of our printing misadventures and discuss the future possibilities of the museum. Although it is sad the museum is moving, it is exciting to think about the potential of a new space. The move will allow for more focus in individual areas of the museum. The new space has the potential to design specific sections of museum for public exhibition, education, retail and an organized print shop, potential that may have not been there before. Jim spoke about his excitement of having a print shop that does not leak every time it rains. We didn’t talk about our fears of having to move a gigantic printing museum with extremely heavy equipment, but talked more of how exciting the next Wayzgoose conference will be with bathrooms inside of the museum. We talked a little bit about the good times in the past, but shifted our focus to what really matters…the future.

Everyone at the 2012 Hamilton Wayzgoose!

The letterpress, design, and printing communities have been working hard towards the $250,000 goal, showing tremendous support and the obvious importance of keeping the museum secure for the future. The Society of Typographic Aficionados has produced a generous matching grant, as well as larger companies donating at the corporate level. Simultaneous events in December on the same day at Columbia College in Chicago and The Arm in Brooklyn raised over $10,000 through the sale of donated works and printing ephemera. With more events in Milwaukee, Chicago, etc showing the tremendous rallying of community support to keep the museum intact. Although the fundraising is going extremely well, support is still needed to reach their goal of $250,000. Volunteers are also needed to help with the physical moving and organization of the museum’s new location.

Donations to help this worthy cause can be made through Hamilton’s website

If you are unable to give a monetary contribution, they are also asking for volunteers to help with the move. You can sign up for a specific date at And you can find information about signing up here:

Or you can buy some prints or t-shirt at the Museum’s online store

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Categories: Printshop Tour

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