A Treasury of Wood Type Online

The Hamilton Manufacturing Co. traces its roots back to the very first wood types made in the United States. Darius Wells produced the first American wood type in 1828; his business was reorganized into Wells & Webb, then acquired by William Page, later passing back to the Wells family, and finally sold to Hamilton sometime before 1880. The product of this consolidation was a type specimen book issued in 1900, Hamilton’s Catalogue No. 14, which offers a good survey of American display typography of the nineteenth century.

Open to the public is the Hamilton Wood Type Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, a collection of 1.5 million pieces of wood type maintained by volunteers of the Two Rivers Historical Society. For at-home viewing, the calendar printer Unicorn Graphics has just launched their Web Museum of Wood Types and Ornaments, which offers a sundry collection of scans and photographs of American wood types — including every page of the great Catalogue No. 14.

Above, a neat synopsis of the three major approaches to creating ornamental type. At the top right, surface decoration adorns a conventional design, in this case a condensed Gothic of the kind that inspired Knockout. Left center are some concave letters that introduce systemic morphological changes to the design of the alphabet, in this case turning the curves inside out. And finally, an emulative approach at bottom left, which imitates foreign materials or techniques. (This log type is a ham-fisted imitation of Vincent Figgins’ Rustic of 1845.) I find the geometric letters more successful than the fluid ones; the lugubrious vines in the lines BIE and SIT can’t hold a candle to the work of the Master of the Creeping Tendril.

Some letters made with greater competence. Type makers in search of novelty found countless ways to vary the designs of serifs, brackets, and stems, and cross-pollinating these techniques produced an endless number of new styles. I especially like the two in the upper-right corner, which combine outwardly flared strokes, nodules congregating around the midline, surface ornamentation, a vertical drop shadow, and trapezoidal serifs that master signpainter and type designer John Downer has termed “The Detroit Serif.”

A riot of inlines, outlines, and drop shadows. The white drop shadows in MATCH (center right) are innovative, as are the effervescent circles in RIMED, which echo the painted and lithographed letters of the Belle Époque.

Cameo” typefaces, featuring letters inscribed in ornamental cartouches. Even in digital fonts, these are notoriously hard to space: the lack of kerning kerning between the letters L and Y in FAMILY (top left) illustrates why. At bottom left, the word SHINE points to a common pitfall in planning an ornamented typeface: this design focusses all of the action on its beaked serifs, giving S and E considerably more esprit than their plain Jane cohorts.

The “French Clarendon” in the left column is a style that combines three nineteenth century innovations: it features supercondensed proportions, bracketed serifs, and a foreshortening which inverts the customary relationship between thin serifs and heavy strokes. This is an especially nice one, and rare in its inclusion of a lowercase. I would not relish having to improve on the tortured lowercase g in the top line.

More morphological experiments, eccentricies which look sober in this dizzying context. I like all three of these designs, especially the one at lower left, which combines concave stems with chamfered corners and inverted stress: there’s surely a way of interpreting this idea in a more modern context, which I hope someone explores. The design on the right is also witty, its soft and unthreatening corners wonderfully juxtaposed with menacing thorns.

Backslanted typefaces are another nineteenth century novelty, as are designs that emulate the brush or the graver. Above, the top two lines recall the handmade annotations on photographic negatives, their swelled strokes, trailing serifs, and soft edges clearly imitating pen-drawn forms. The lowercase g is great: that its lower loop is inflected in the wrong direction is a clever way of reinforcing the backwardness of the entire design.

At right, more variations on the theme of softness and thorns. It’s surprising how a subtle relocation of the spikes and knobs can so profoundly change the tone of the design: reading down from the top right, HUN has an indisputably aggressive tone, while CINDERS and BIRGE are sleepy and bucolic, and RIG has all the bombast of industry in full flower.

Big types customarily bring up the rear of a type specimen book, and Catalogue No. 14 does not disappoint. The book reaches an explosive crescendo with this design at 864 point, in which just two letters fill the entire page. This typeface, which Hamilton called “No. 266,” is the design that inspired our Knockout No. 66 font. It appears on p. 119 of Hamilton’s Catalogue No. 14; check out page 120 for the biggest type of all. —JH


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