1.5 million pieces of wood type; where did that come from?

By: Jim Moran

Irving Silverman of Brooklyn, New York, was a copy editor from Knitting-wear News back in 1958. He had gone to his printer to check proofs on a job and while he waited in the pressroom, he saw a strange thing. The press operators were pulling drawers from cabinets and dumping hundreds of pieces of type into the trash. The ornate faces of the type fascinated Irving, who walked over to where they were working and asked what they were doing. “We’re moving to offset,” was the reply. “Yes but the type is so gorgeous,” he replied. “Why throw it out?” He was told the methodology had become obsolete and that moveable type was no longer to be used. Seeing the beautiful faces that were so intricate, an idea rushed into his head. “Stop," he told them. "I’ll take it all. I collect that stuff." What he did not say was that his collecting had just started. He took all the cases of type they had and Irving was entranced. The printers told him that everyone was doing this. No one wanted wood type anymore.

Irving was not interested as much in printing as he was in looking at the letters themselves and how detailed they were. He began traveling around Brooklyn to stop at printshops and many places were quite happy to let him take all they had. He became obsessed. From Brooklyn he went to Queens to the Bronx and Manhattan. Irving began bringing the type to his summer home in Maine and built a shed just to store it. As the years passed he visited New Jersey, upstate New York, Massachusetts and Vermont, New Hampshire and printers everywhere in between. A second pole building had to be built. Irving set up a stand at the home in Maine and sold letters to people who drove through. Always, he billed himself as having “The largest wood type collection in the country.”

A man from Texas passed by one day. He told Irving his collection was the largest, not Irving's. They had a lively discussion which ended with the gentleman telling Irving that he would bet his collection against Irving’s to see who had the most. Mr. Silverman was not going out on that limb. So he told the man, if he ever wanted to sell his collection, Irving would buy it. The man assured him, that would never happen.

And yet, seven years later, Irving got a call from the man who said the collection must be sold as part of a divorce settlement. Irving got the type and quickly realized his 600,000 piece collection had more than doubled. When Irving Silverman donated much of that collection (and sold the remainder) to Hamilton, his feeling is that the whole thing was probably a million and a half pieces of type. 

While no one has ever counted the collection, we have greatly added to it, keeping Irving’s guess, more than accurate.

We can still tell the type that came from Irving. He measured in inches, not picas, so if you see a drawer marked 2 1/2”, it was made by him. He also sorted the type by letter, not style, which means we’ll be working on it for years to come.

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