“The best American writing has always been regional,” said Flannery O’Connor. Maybe, maybe not—but I would argue that the best American museums are. Further, I would offer that the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, may be the best regional museum in the Upper Midwest.
If you are suspicious of superlatives, here are some specifics: 180 miles from Chicago up the coast of Lake Michigan, 88 miles north of Milwaukee, sort of in the middle of nowhere, the Hamilton Museum is, per their website, “the only museum dedicated to the preservation, study, production and printing of wood type.” By “type” they mean movable type—as in Gutenberg, as in the reusable letterforms and decorative illustrations used by generations of printers, from the Middle Ages till the dawn of phototypesetting in the late 1950s.
Located in a vast and drafty factory building on Jefferson Street, the semi-haphazard, semi-organized museum houses—in drawers, cabinets, shelves, and boxes—1.5 million individual pieces of type in over 1,000 styles and sizes, from a quarter of an inch to four feet tall.
This is the largest such collection on public display anywhere in the country. But the largeness of the exhibit is not the reason why the Hamilton Museum is so powerfully awesome. Rather, the museum inspires awe because of its smallness: the narrowness of its focus, and its relative irrelevance to contemporary life and commerce.
Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker—herself awesome at least partly because of her own relative cultural and geographic isolation—wrote, “Civilization is an immense ad: Go to hell and be happy.” I recommend that you skip hell and go to Two Rivers. Yet even as I’m telling you this, part of me doesn’t want you to go—because the Hamilton Museum’s obscurity is part of what makes me love it. Big museums can seem overly civilizing—advertising, in their way, a false idea that everything worth knowing about art or history or technology is All in Here, Under One Huge Roof, and requiring you to pay handsomely to cast your gaze upon their narrative.
Which maybe is fair enough. The word “museum” derives its meaning from the idea of such a building’s being not just a structure in which to display objects, but also a seat or shrine of the Muses. Very grandiose. Very overarching. But these regional museums are not authoritative. They are not presumptuous. They do not pretend to present any kind of comprehensive Big Picture of culture or history. These little museums communicate an enthusiasm that enormous museums do not; they exemplify a form of passionate advocacy. This kind of museum is personal, even perverse.
I was thinking of Niedecker when I visited the Hamilton Museum—partly because she’s the only semifamous Wisconsin poet I could think of, and partly because she identified as an Objectivist. In the 1931 issue of Poetry that he guest-edited, Louis Zukofsky defined Objectivist poetry as consisting of “sincerity and objectification”—the latter meaning “to present or regard as an object.” The objects of poetry, the most basic ones, could be the blocks of pine, holly, and maple you see stacked as you walk into the Hamilton Museum: the wood that makes the type that makes the words that make the lines that make the poems that make the books that make the libraries that make the canon, or the conversation, or whatever you want to call it.
Of course, poetry books are not generally made using wood type anymore, unless they are self-consciously quaint, or retro, or special editions. If you are looking for an object lesson in how an enterprise can go from being widely practiced, lucrative, and popular, to relevant only as a focus of aesthetic interest and academic study, then look no further than Hamilton.
The J.E. Hamilton Hollywood Type Company began manufacturing in 1880, incorporated officially in 1889, and by the turn of the century had become the foremost producer of wood type in the nation, shipping their product to printers all over the globe. Yet by 1985, the Fisher Hamilton Company had stopped making wood type entirely, focusing instead on lab furniture and airflow systems.
The Hamilton Museum opened its doors in 1999. For a time, Two Rivers was a bustling timber and maritime town. But when I visited, the street that holds the museum was so sleepy that the only other human figures in sight were two female mannequins someone had placed on the balcony of the Waverly Inn Pub and Pizzeria.
For something to be commemorated by a museum it has to be over, usually. In the case of the Hamilton Museum—in the case of wood type generally—the phenomenon of printing by this method is not totally bygone, just no longer commercially viable. People still print with wood type, and do so with ardor. The zeal with which Jim Moran, Printer and Archivist at the museum, will give you a personal tour—showing you the saws, patterns, routers, pantographs, even the perforator—is unmatchable, palpable.
To experience a decline, you must once have been at a considerable height. It took Hamilton just 20 years to become the best of the best, and they were for some decades, and now they are no longer. The middle of nowhere was often somewhere once. Despite the assertions of conservative commentators, I don’t believe there was ever a golden age when poets were read ubiquitously and regarded as rock-star god-kings—but even if there was, I am neither supremely depressed nor righteously angry that these days most people don’t care about poetry. And I am not disheartened that most people won’t ever visit the Hamilton Museum.
Admission is free, but donations are welcome. You can become a museum member at the level of Gothic, Roman, Tuscan, or Aetna. You can buy samples made with wood-type from them through Etsy (www.etsy.com). But still, there is a general sense that a visit to the museum itself should be free—in one sense because, really, who would pay for this kind of thing these days? In another sense, for those people who do care, how could you ever hope to put a dollar value on what the Hamilton Museum is and does?
Many of Lorine Niedecker’s closest neighbors and relatives did not even realize that she wrote poetry. But the people who did know loved her work, and the following she has today is the best kind: the cult kind. In a way, poetry as a whole has been irrelevant for so long that its irrelevance has become a kind of strength.
Like poetry, the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum is a money-losing operation. It is clearly inefficient by design: inefficiency is part of the point. Neither the technique of wood type printing nor the art of writing of poetry is obsolete—at least not the way, say, Windows 95 is obsolete; rather, they are obsolete the way vinyl LPs or butter churns are. They are artisanal. But when does something go from being out-of-date crap to being classic and collectible? How did Irving and Nancy Silverman—the couple responsible for saving so much of the type now on display at the Hamilton Museum—know that they ought to save it? Why did they commit themselves to its rescue when almost everyone else was ignoring it or dumping it out by the truckload?
Some people just like what they like. They don’t just like poetry, or books in general, but the printed page and the markings on it. As a kind of fetish, an object to which one attributes value or powers—not just to a word, in this case, but to the very letter that can make the word. The pleasure of looking at letters and words on paper instead of as pixels; the pleasure of looking at and treasuring something that most other people would overlook.
A selling point for making literature digital is that it can be more easily accessible to everybody. A selling point for not going digital is that some literature should not be accessible to everybody. There’s something discouraging about the idea of a book of poems that is printed in a large run by a large publisher, and that finds its way into the stacks of every good-sized library and bookstore in America, and that virtually nobody actually reads. There’s something to be said for hitting what you aim at, for honestly assessing your position in the culture, and for having your means of production and distribution reflect that. Like: “About 300 people will dig this chapbook that I have written. So is it a good idea to send it to a printer and get it perfect-bound and do a minimum run of 1,500 copies to take advantage of economies of scale? Or should I get together with some friends and lay some type? And make exactly 300? And maybe make them at the Hamilton Museum?”
Because that’s the best thing: Hamilton is a living museum—30,000 square feet of space and a 4,500-square-foot printing studio that students, designers, and bookmakers are encouraged to make use of. In some ways, the Hamilton Museum’s mission is analogous to that of the “slow food” movement, which encompasses farmers who make heirloom crops and livestock viable for cultivation, as well as chefs and restaurateurs that prepare dishes with these ingredients and make them available to an interested public. All of this work—preservation, production, and promotion— quietly takes place under the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum’s roof.
After Jim Moran has carved a block of type with one of your initials, and your visit to the Hamilton Museum is finished, you can walk across the street to another Two Rivers attraction: the Washington House, where they commemorate the 1881 invention of the ice cream sundae. A Historical Society member in a striped apron will step behind the counter and carefully and lovingly make for you an edible replica of the original dessert. This will involve more time and patience than the assembly of your average ice cream sundae, but if it did not, then why would you or he or anyone bother?