As we in the newspaper industry wait to be relegated to museums ourselves, it’s instructive see how other aspects of our trade have fared in similar circumstances. Wooden type, for example. Used to be, you could see it wherever you found a wall suitable for posters. Now, as Justine Nagan’s satisfying little documentary demonstrates, it’s pretty much limited to the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin — also the birthplace of the ice-cream sundae.
Located in the former factory building of the now defunct Hamilton Wood Type Company (it folded in 1985, the year after the Mac made its debut), the museum struggles to keep this obsolete craft alive. As such, it serves as a resource for folks like the graphics-design professor from Purdue University who brings his class there so they can experience print as a tactile object rather than computer bytes. That way, as he mystically puts it, they can “see the spaces between the letters and the spaces in the letters.”
Nagan doesn’t idealize her subject; she points out how onerous wood-type manufacturing was, and how Hamilton himself was a cutthroat businessman who put the competition out of business back in the 1880s and then doubled his prices. It’s not all history, either: Typeface touches on notions about globalization and the nature of authenticity, turning a seemingly quaint subject into a meditation on the pressing issues of the day.