Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Inside the Hamilton Wood Type Museum & the Target connection August 17, 2011

A picturesque view of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, as seen from the historic Rogers Street Fishing Village.

We treated ourselves to ice cream sundaes after the museum visit.

IF NOT FOR MY SECOND DAUGHTER’S neighbor mentioning a day trip to Two Rivers, Wisconsin, I might never have discovered the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum or its connection to Minnesota-based Target.

The retailing giant collaborated with the museum on a recently-released fall Vintage Varsity collection promoted as “Cool Never Fades.”

With vintage so in vogue right now, Target definitely found the right place for designers to authenticate this new line. Hamilton made wood type from 1880-1985 and boasts a collection of 1.5 million pieces, the largest in the world. Target dipped into that collection to create graphics for the Vintage Varsity line.

The Target connection, however, wasn’t my reason for visiting Two Rivers, a city of 13,000 just south of Door County. Rather, Lake Michigan drew me here on a recent Sunday when my husband, son and I were visiting our daughter Miranda at her Appleton home 50 miles to the west.

My family can assure you that fashion wouldn’t draw me anywhere. But wood type would.

So, when I planned our day trip from Appleton to Two Rivers, Hamilton Wood Type ranked high on my must-see list, right after Lake Michigan. A promise to the teenage son of ice cream afterward at the historic Washington House, just across the street from the museum, kept him from complaining too much about my museum meandering. Interestingly enough, the sundae originated in Two Rivers in 1881.

Had I opted to take the official Hamilton tour, I likely would have learned much more about Hamilton Manufacturing Company and the museum, which also includes a collection of 1930s – 1970s advertising cuts, wood type and Linotype equipment, tools and more. The manufacturing company, which once made medical office furniture, appliances and more, is still in business today producing steel lab equipment.

Hamilton manufactured the first gas-powered clothes dryers.

The museum is a self-supporting, working museum where artists and designers and others get hands-on experience in wood type printing and where custom printing is done, according to a Minneapolis woman who was printing at the museum on the day I visited.

In all honesty, Hamilton’s historical details didn’t interest me. Rather, I was here because of my decades-earlier connection to Linotype and because of my profession. During my first job out of college in 1978, I worked as a reporter at The Gaylord Hub, a small-town weekly newspaper that still used hot metal type to create auction bills and other custom printing. At the time, I failed to appreciate this fading art. Rather, I found the constant clack-clack-clack of the vintage machines bothersome, especially when conducting phone interviews.

Today my attitude has changed. I appreciate printing as an art. I took that perspective to the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum and knew, even before I stepped inside the 1927 building, that my focus would be visual.

The Hamilton complex of buildings covers blocks.

The building exterior features aesthetically appealing letters and punctuation.

My eyes swept across the nothing-fancy, industrial space filled with letters in more fonts and sizes than I could ever imagine. Posters. Colors. Graphics. Drawers upon drawers upon drawers that I wished I could pull open. Machines. Cement floors and brick walls. Jumbled pieces of wood and smeared paint cans, and brushes hung on walls.

I felt almost overwhelmed by the photographic possibilities, the kaleidoscope of colors and shapes that changed as I circled the room.

Everywhere you'll see letters and numbers in differing sizes and fonts, a visual delight.

One of the many vintage prints you'll see in the museum.

Rows upon rows of tempting drawers, presumably filled with wood type.

An oversized vintage photo anchors the wall you first see upon entering the museum.

John Burnet, an early engraver at Hamilton.

Lines of type.

One of the many graphic cuts you'll see in the museum.

Only when I was in a back room, where the Minneapolis artist was printing and the museum manager/tour guide chastised me for taking his photo without asking, did I think about the Target collection. I had passed by a clothing rack earlier, hadn’t even looked. But then the Minnesotan mentioned Target. So on my way out the door I paused, shot a quick photo and then joined the impatient teen for an ice cream sundae across the street.

A t-shirt I pulled from the rack of clothing at the museum. I don't know whether this is from the Target collection, because I didn't check.

Stacks of paint cans clue you in that this is a working museum.

Prints hang on a wall in one of the back rooms.

This photo shows printers' aprons and, to the back, the wall just inside the museum entry.

The entry provides a sweeping view of the museum.

FYI: For more information about the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum, click here. The museum is open from1 p.m. – 5 p.m. on Sunday and from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday from May 1 to October 31. Winter hours are from noon – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Friday and Saturday by appointment. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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