[Alyson Kuhn] You might be thinking, “Why, Y-E-S, I would love to adopt a font. I would give it a great home.” But the gorgeous font of wood type above already has a great home, in the Cary Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “Adopting” in this case means volunteering to clean a font of wood type, giving it some TLC on behalf of RIT.
The Arthur M Lowenthal Memorial Pressroom is home to many typographic treasures. The room beyond the doors is the Cary Collection Reading Room.
Amelia Hugill-Fontanel is the assistant curator at the Cary Collection, home to more than 400 fonts of wood type. Adopt-a-Font is her project.
What gave you the idea for Adopt-a-Font?
We had recently liberated a large collection of wood type from a storage area at RIT—over 100 fonts. This collection had been acquired in 2007, but it hadn’t been cataloged, cleaned, or printed. It was filthy, as it had been stored by its previous owner in a barn or garage. Some of the fonts were in typecase drawers, and some in old boxes that had originally held 16 x 20-in. photographic paper—which actually was a good way to store them. We don’t have enough typecase drawers to store all of the fonts, so some will go into archival boxes that can be stacked. Anyway, the type was grimy and dusty, and I couldn’t integrate it into the Cary Collection without having it cleaned. I didn’t have the people-power to do it with our limited staff and student employees.
And what are the official tools of the wood type cleaning trade?
Gojo Hand Cleaner, which contains nothing abrasive. It’s a mild hand cleaner for people who get grease on their hands. It looks like lotion in a tub. It’s got a little bit of petroleum to cut through the grime and grease—but the most important part is that it has mineral oil in it. Wood type is like furniture—the oil humidifies the wood. Introducing the oil remoisturizes the type and safeguards it against cracking.
We apply the Gojo with automotive shop towels. We rub it around the face, and the sides tend to be pretty dusty as well. Then all the excess gets wiped off. You don’t want the type to feel oily, and when you print, you need a clean surface. We have Q-tips for getting around the serifs and indentations. You might think we would use dental tools or something, but we don’t. Nothing pointy at all—even a pencil could scratch the face of the type.
Have you toured other big collections of wood type?
In the summer of 2012 I visited the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wis., and I was inspired by their hands-on approach to getting the public interested in wood type collections. This was during TypeCon MKE SHFT 2012. And speaking of wood, some friends and I rented a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Two Rivers. It was one of his Usonian homes, not Prairie Style. I slept in one of the sons’ bedrooms, which was like being in the cabin of a ship. The terrace around the house was fantastic.
So I decided to crowd-source the restoration of this collection by inviting volunteers behind the scenes at the Cary Collection to spend a little time cleaning up their own adopted font, and then have the opportunity to learn how to typeset and letterpress print a type broadside. We had been looking for a way for students to come in and print anyway, since letterpress is not in any arts curriculum at RIT.
How did you publicize Adopt-a-Font?
I had all these plans to do a poster and FB page, but it turned out I didn’t need to. My colleagues and I announced it in classes and demonstrations. I sent out a few emails to faculty, and I mentioned the project at the opening event for my recent exhibition on Wood Type [which is closing this weekend]. Adopt-a-Font has taken off by itself.
How extensively have you cataloged the Cary Collection’s wood type holdings?
Ours a very large institutional collection. Certainly print shops and book arts centers have their stocks of excellent wood type, too. But I know of only one other place that treats their wood type as artifacts and actually catalogs it as such—the Rob Roy Kelly Wood Type Collection at the University of Texas.
This trade edition presents reductions of about 300 prints made by former RIT printing student David Wall.
Manufacturers of wood type—they were not foundries, because wood type is cut, not cast—issued specimen books showing their available typefaces. We are very fortunate to have A Specimen Portfolio of Wood Type in the Cary Collection, based on the master thesis work of David Wall, a printing student at RIT in the ’90s. He proofed and identified all of the fonts and letterpress printed them. We later had the idea to make a trade book with reductions of his prints.
My goal for the Adopt-a-Font project is to identify the types reclaimed and get them into our purple specimen book. So I hope there will be a second edition party of some sort, but that is a bit into the future.
Pages 162–163: top, 6 line Chromatic Antique Tuscan Shade Nos. 1 & 2, William H. Page & Co., 1857–1859; middle, 6 line Chromatic American (one color only, actual size), William H. Page & Co., 1857–1859; bottom, 8 line Antique Tuscan Outlined ef. Hamilton: No. 416 (actual size), manufacturer and date unknown. Page 162 shows the type at actual size; page 163 is a reduced print to show the entire alphabet.
In addition to the Adopt-a-Font typefaces, how else has the Cary acquired its collection?
Most of it has been donated to us. Bob Bretz, one of the previous Cary librarians, was a great collector of wood type. Professor R. Roger Remington donated his collection of wood type to us. Several other collectors have donated their collections as well.
Manufacturers generally die-stamped their names into the side of the type, usually on the uppercase A. This can help you find the name of the typeface, the year it was issued and so forth, in the manufacturer’s specimen book(s).
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty! How long does it take, on average, to clean a font?
Depending on the number of characters in the font, the size of the type and how intricate the font design is, the cleaning takes from two to five hours. Then the volunteers spend some in the pressroom, typesetting their wood type specimens and printing them. We require that the print be a straightforward ABC specimen, and it takes about an hour to set and print. But some volunteers stay after they’re done and set various words in their font to pull their own special prints.
What’s next for Adopt-a-Font?
Right now, we are planning to design a wood-type-inspired T-shirt for all volunteers. We don’t have a specific shindig planned yet, but maybe at the end of the school year. The Adopt-A-Font project has already really worked out on so many levels: A collection is being restored, we’re getting help identifying the type, students are learning about letterpress, and the Cary has made some new friends.
All photos courtesy of the Cary Collection.