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What are Hamilton Cabinets?

The Hamilton Manufacturing story goes back to 1880 in a small town called Two Rivers, Wisconsin... home of the ice cream sundae (maybe). Two Rivers sits on Lake Michigan, north of Milwaukee and southeast of Green Bay. James E. Hamilton started his business in 1880 making wood typeface characters, thanks to William Nash, the editor of the local Two Rivers Chronicle. Nash found himself in need of larger letters for a series of poster in a timeframe that made it impossible to order metal-cast letters from Chicago. This changed the course of James Edward’s life, and Two River’s history. How do we get from that to flat files and cabinetry we have in the SHOP?


Henry Carter Hamilton moved to Two Rivers in 1847, and gained employment at the general store of midwest pioneer, Deacon H. H. Smith. By 1951, Henry Carter started his own general store, was married to Diantha Smith, and welcomed their first child, James Edward Hamilton ("Little Eddie," "J. Edward," or "J.E."), on May 19, 1852. When Henry Carter was killed in the Civil War, Diantha moved the family back to her late husband’s home of Lockport, New York where James Edward completed high school.

1890s maps of Two Rivers Wisconsin

In 1868, the Hamiltons returned to Two Rivers, and J.E. held a series of jobs, none of which were particularly exciting for the young man. What was interesting to him was prospecting, and the Black Hills Gold Rush largely pushed by the Hearst Family, was underway displacing thousands of the Sioux Nation (a conflict that’s still going on today). Hardworking Americans were presented with wonderful opportunity in gold, and the Black Hills are a beautiful, enchanting change of scenery for anyone stuck in a drudge. It’s especially enticing considering James Edward’s father was an avid collector of Indigenous artifacts, as part of his expansion projects would level mounds to the northwest of Two Rivers and cemeteries along the route to Green Bay where many bodies were discovered next to items made of stone and copper. This fascination would've captivated young James, and between 1876 and 1877, he set out for the Dakota Territory.

Hamilton Holly Wood Type and Printing with James Edward Hamilton

 J.E. didn’t get rich in the Black Hills, nor did he find any "Indian Artifacts” like his father had. So upon returning home, it was back to his grandfather’s factory making, of all things, clothespins. It was there that J.E. became a master with a scroll saw. By the time former state senator and recent editor of Two Rivers Chronicle, William Nash, approached J.E. with his problem to get metal-cast typeface in time to print posters for the “Grand Ball at Turner Hall,” James was eager to show off his skills at the scroll saw, sending his life into a new trajectory.

Massive antique 63 drawer typesetter cabinet at Industrial Artifacts

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The beauty of wood typeface is that you can create the letters quickly. The hands of a skilled scroll sawyer can carve 3 letters in about a minute - much faster than casting in metal. Wood typeface can do larger letters without getting too heavy while metal castings have a practicality cap regarding weight. In a world were each poster has to be louder than the advertising next to it, large letters were a blessing. In the days before billboards, large posters on the side of buildings could be seen, and read clearly, for blocks down the street.  Custom fonts can be created, carved, and delivered in a matter of days rather than weeks or months. James Edward Hamilton had stumbled into a niche necessity with an extremely large reach.

Hamilton Manufacturing Company factory and ads

In the latter part of 1880, Hamilton quit his job to open J. E. Hamilton Holly Wood Type Company - “holly” referring to the wood used for decorative purposes, novelty carvings, inlays, piano keys, etc. He married Etta Shove on August 5th, a woman who was instrumental in developing and organizing her husband's new business venture. With their increased volume of production, the Hamiltons expanded to furniture manufacturing in 1885 to produce cabinetry to handle wood typeface storage and organizing. 

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As the world rounded into the 1900s, Hamilton Manufacturing was producing fine quality furniture for laboratories, doctor’s offices, drafting tables like THIS massive piece, and FLAT FILES. Their first steel factory was erected in 1912 in an effort to migrate from wood furniture to steel. But the remarkable timing meant that during the war effort of The Great War (World War 1), Hamilton produced a wide variety of wartime supplies from airplane fuselages to radios for the United States. This lead to a major pivot point for Hamilton, and in 1938 the company manufactured the first clothes dryer for the home. The symbol used in their advertising was the same wooden clothespin James Edward Hamilton had been producing at his grandfather’s factory 60 years before.

Hamilton Manufacturing Library equipment and Automatic dryer advertisements

James Edward was mayor of Two Rivers from 1893 to1895. He helped organize the Bank of Two Rivers and was its president for 31 years until J.E. retired to California, passing away in 1940. Changing its name to Hamilton Industries, the company continued to expand their furniture line in the 1950s for school and public libraries, folding and craft tables, THIS waste basket, and other industrial furniture all while maintaining their wood type production until the business was sold to investors in 1990. Hamilton was bought by Fisher Scientific in 1992, and in 2006 it became part of the Thermo Fisher Scientific merger.

Antique wall mounted electric light converted from gas.jpg

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“Typeface” (2009) is a documentary that centers around the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum, an organization doing astounding work in education of the art of wood type face, while maintaining the relevance of the classic printing process (the sound is out for the first few minutes). You can check the first 37 minutes of it below. Whether it’s for a unique dating experience, to gain a greater grasp of graphic arts, or for expanding on a new artistic path, check out your local print shops for workshops and classes. 

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