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Wood That Talks


A Pondering by Scott Thomas

Today, when we think of communications our mind likely conjures up images of the telephone, newspaper, the internet, maybe even Facebook or Twitter. But we probably don't imagine communicating through something as primitive as wood. The tree has afforded humans great innovation such as fire and shelter. It's also true that the leafy perennial plant allows us the ability to record information on a thin substrate better known as paper. But similar to how we press a little plastic key today to form thoughts (like the one you are reading now) people of the past gathered together pieces of wood to make big statements. Using wooden blocks adorned with letters measuring from a few inches to a few feet in height, wood type became a large part of communication history in the mid 19th-century, assisting in the formation of an industry known as advertising. Wood type enabled people to create a custom poster quickly and repeatedly. Today, we are bombarded with billboards, posters, signs all telling us where to go, what to eat, what to buy, and even what to think. The roots of our communication's past have nearly disappeared completely with billboards using flashing LEDs, Augmented Reality, and even scent to lure our attention. But there is still a place where these wooden hero's of communication past have gone to retire.

North of Chicago where two rivers meet the Great Lake Michigan, you will find the largest collection of American wood type. The Hamilton Wood Type Museum houses around 30,000 square feet with everything from A to Z in every size and style imaginable. Hamilton bares the name of it's cunning founder James Edward Hamilton, who's "inherent knack for working with machinery"(1) trumped the established east coast competitor William H. Page in 1891. Hamilton Wood Type developed major innovations in manufacturing techniques, which kept the price down and business up. In an ever-changing market nothing lasts forever and as printing innovation persisted the production of wood type declined at the raise of offset printing. Though wood was no longer the preferred means of stringing letters together the importance of preserving this history was clear. Jim Van Lanen spear-headed the preservation of Hamilton, he realized the gravity this collection had on the time "Whether it was the sale of horses or land, political rallies, booklets, packaging or circus posters - wood type helped express the message of that day." In 2000, Van Lanen and the Two Rivers Historical Society opened the museum in the original Hamilton factory where much of the type was originally born. People have flocked from around the world to see what 1.5 million pieces of the past actually looks like. Visitors to Hamilton not only see this massive collection of rare type and the machinery which allowed for it's creation, but can still see printers still using them to craft the message of today. Many leave with a taste of America's past and a better appreciation for the advancement we have made in the simple act of communicating.

The large collection of letters, numbers, and sorts have yet another chapter in their long history. It was recently announced these retirees would be forced out of their home at 1619 Jefferson Street in February of this 2013. Placing the museum and it's collection at risk, giving the organization but 60 days to raise the funds it needs to procure a place to house this massive piece of history. The reason for the move maybe the saddest part of the entire ordeal. What was once Hamilton Type Co. was bought, sold, bought again, and the now remains manufacturing not type but cabinets for science and medical laboratories, under the name Thermo Fisher. When the museum opened in 2000 the General Manager of Thermo Fisher dedicated 20,000 sq. feet of used space to the museum. But as the cycle of innovation goes, what once created opportunity for Hamilton and later forced it's demise, so goes the business of Thermo Fisher. Now laying off most of the workforce in Two Rivers moving the plant's operations south to Mexico. Leaving the Hamilton Type Museum out in the cold and leaving us all with a bad taste of America's present.

Though Hamilton's move will certainly require some heavy lifting the act of expressing through wood will continue. Not in the busy means of business but more in the leisurely act of creation. When a printer watches as their words in wood strike paper they see the same powerful reality that generations before witnessed. They see their voice being literally multiplied before their eyes. Printing may be threatened by the advancement of communication technologies, but it will forever be within the roots of our history. It's up to us to remember it.

(1) American Wood Type 1828-1900: Notes on the Evolution of Decorated and Large Types, Rob Roy Kelly, first published in 1969.