Wood Type Archaeology: The Archaeological Experiment

Part I: The Archaeological Experiment with the Border Stamping Machine

For an industrial archaeologist, it is a rare privilege to be able to operate a piece of machinery from the industrial past, especially one as engaging as the die-stamping machine at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this machine was used in the manufacture of decorative wood type borders at the Hamilton Manufacturing Company. After months of preparatory work, and several trips to the museum to make drawings and test motors (see past blog posts: http://woodtype.org/posts/blog/27 & http://woodtype.org/posts/blog/35), I spent March 10-14 operating the die-stamping machine.

I conducted the machine operations as an archaeological experiment for my thesis research in the Industrial Archaeology program at Michigan Technological University. My research focuses on worker skill in the manufacture of wood printing type, and the experiment with the die-stamping machine focused on how this machine structured work for its operator.

The mechanical movements and spatial gauging necessary for successful wood type border manufacture were built into the machine, and the stamping dies rendered the shapes for the different border designs. The work that remained for the operator consisted of putting wood blanks in place on a carriage, moving the carriage in prescribed intervals along a track beneath the machine’s oscillating stamping head, and transitioning from one blank to the next at the end of each stamping pass. My experience operating the machine showed this work required manual dexterity and a sense of rhythm from the operator and that performing these actions in time with machine’s movements required focused, tactile engagement.

I conducted this experimental work as a week-long public demonstration at the museum. Visitors came from as far away as Illinois to see the machine in operation, which shows the strength of their commitment to wood type history and the museum. Conversations I had with visitors throughout the week of experimental work generated insights into the machine’s operation, and useful questions I hadn’t thought to ask.

Subtle aspects of the machine’s operation revealed themselves, often in unanticipated ways, over the course of the experiment. I regularly oiled the machine’s bearings and other moving parts, and this included lubricating the channel the blank carriage rides in using sewing machine oil. This had an unanticipated effect in that too much oil would cause a hydraulic vacuum to form between the carriage and the bottom of the channel. This made it much more difficult to move the carriage, resulting in numerous mis-stamps.

Another seemingly small detail impacted the machine’s operation fairly dramatically. The machine had a “foot” to hold the wood blank down against the carriage block (with each revolution, after the stamping die pressed into the wood blank, the machine would lift the blank up, and the foot was there to keep the blank in place). Previously, the machine had two of these feet, but one had broken off. After two days of trying different, often awkward, hand movements to compensate for the missing foot, I fabricated a new one from a piece of mild steel (actually a display hook they gave me at the local hardware store). With this small change, moving the carriage required much less effort, allowing me to focus more attention on other facets of the machine’s operation.

Throughout my last day of experimentation, I worked to replicate Hamilton’s border design No. 138, a more complex design requiring three stamping passes and precise registration of two differently shaped stamping dies. By keeping track of how many times I turned each of the machine’s adjustment knobs, and in which direction, before achieving the proper alignment, I was able to write rudimentary instructions for producing the design. Continued testing and refining could yield more reliable instructions for manufacturing border No. 138 at the museum, as well as prove a method for developing instructions for other border designs. Hamilton Manufacturing Company type shop employees may have had a book filled with written instructions for making the different borders. Or these workers may have relied on any number of “shop tricks” to effectively set the machine up for stamping different designs. Either way, the rough instructions I produced during the experiment provide an abstract representation of past type shop workers’ knowledge.

In these small ways the experiment provides insight into the work experience of the Hamilton Manufacturing Company employees who operated the die-stamping machine, workers whose names have been lost to history.

Part II: Two Rivers Travel Journal

During my first two research trips to the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum, I sent members of my thesis committee “Dirtbag Diaries” along with updates on my research progress. The term “dirtbag,” here, comes from a moniker self-applied by a breed of outdoors types who travel the globe, searching for surf breaks or rock-climbing cliffs, and improvising their accommodations along the way. My dirtbag diaries were a kind of travel journal chronicling my life activities outside of the research work. Here is a sample entry from November 5 of last year:

Woke up at sunrise. Cooked curried lentils for breakfast with the Coleman stove on the tailgate of the truck. More roibos tea. Watched the changing colors in the clouds and listened to the waves. Drove down to Manitowoc for a shower at the YMCA, then walked across the bridge for coffee and to finish oral history interview guide. Walked back across the bridge, wandered some through some Manitowoc neighborhoods, taking in and generally digging the morning.

After reading a few of these, my thesis adviser commented on the prominent role food and its preparation played in the narratives. He pointed out Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Jack Kerouac, in On the Road, were similarly preoccupied with eating. I said this is probably because, when you’re on the road, food and its preparation are major preoccupations. This is especially true for a vegan travelling in northern Wisconsin. After cooking a few meals in roadside parks and hotel parking lots on my way to Two Rivers last August, it was a great relief to set up camp at Seagull Marina, where my Coleman stove was in its proper context.

As it turns out, the Seagull Marina is an excellent place for a student researcher to stay. The anglers who stay there, some on a semi-permanent basis, are quiet neighbors. They go to bed early because they are up cooking breakfast well before 5 a.m., so they can be motoring out onto Lake Michigan by sunrise. As an added bonus for people like me who appreciate industrial history, the tent camping area at the marina is located on top of what was formerly a coal yard.

Tent camping was somewhat colder during my November trip, when my work at the museum consisted of more drawing, artifact analysis, and attending Wayzgoose 2014. So I was glad that by the time I returned in January, during a week when temperatures seldom rose above 3 degrees Fahrenheit, the Two Rivers Type House had come into existence. With central heating, a full kitchen, and walls gradually becoming populated with letterpress printed posters, it is an excellent place to stay. The house is located in a blue-collar neighborhood on the northwest side of town. For the time, at least, the Hamilton smokestack and water tower are visible from its back porch. Ozzy, the caretaker and host at the Type House, is endlessly enthusiastic and helped me get to know Two Rivers much better than I could have on my own. He also helped deepen my appreciation for Motörhead, and maybe I contributed something to his appreciation for industrial history.

The five weeks I spent doing thesis research at Hamilton added up, in aggregate, to a relatively short archaeological field project. But I doubt whether I could have had a similar experience anywhere other than Two Rivers. I learned about work practice situated in the technological and social context of a factory, and I learned to play bar dice.

I am very grateful to the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum for the access they gave me to one-of-a-kind industrial machinery and a singular collection of artifacts related to wood type and its manufacture. I am equally glad that there is an interpretive display left to build and wood type border to make — enough work for several future trips to Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

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