RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection preserves Hebrew wood type

Rare collection includes wood types used to print The Forward

RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection

These Hebrew wood type letters spell the word “wood.” The letters are part of a rare collection of 30 different Hebrew wood type alphabets housed at the Cary Graphics Arts Collection.

Rochester Institute of Technology is preserving a rare collection of Hebrew wood types used by the Jewish-American press at the turn of the 20th century. The collection will be made accessible online for students and scholars in advance of a digital and print publication.

RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection will print, digitize, and publish its collection of 30 different wood types of the Hebrew alphabet with a grant from the Rochester Area Community Foundation’s Historic Preservation, Restoration, and Literature Fund. The foundation is supporting the initial preparatory work needed to create a digital and print monograph of the Hebrew wood types, including typesetting, printing, cataloguing and digitizing the collection. Work on the project begins in December.

“This collection is one of the most extensive private non-Latin wood type collections in the United States (outside of the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum), and its significance crosses the boundaries of graphic arts teaching, as the type represents the development of the immigrant press in the United States,” said Amelia Hugill-Fontanel, associate curator at the Cary Graphic Arts Collection housed in RIT Libraries.

European Jewish refugees arrived in the United States in the late 19th/early 20th centuries and created a thriving Jewish-American press in major cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. The Hebrew wood types in the Cary Collection include sets from one of the longest-running Yiddish daily newspapers still in publication, The Forward.

 “One of the missions of the Cary Graphics Arts Collection is to tell the history of American printing through artifacts, typefaces, and printing presses, but the story wouldn’t be complete without referring to other languages and scripts,” Shani Avni, Ismar David Visiting Assistant Curator at the Cary Graphic Arts Collection.  “The immigrants who came here spoke in different languages and they are an integral part of the story.”

Letterpress printing fell out of favor in the mid-20th century with the advent of lithographic printing and wood type alphabets were cast aside. The hands-on printing method has gained new interest among the maker culture, Fontanel said, and has spawned “informal blogs and printers’ communities; digital font revival foundries; institutional collections; and working printing collections at private presses, book arts centers, and universities across the country.” 

Over the past six years, Cary Graphic Arts Collection staff and members of the RIT student-run program “Adopt-a-Font” cleaned and restored thousands of characters in the Hebrew wood type collection, using archival preservation practices. Now, the Rochester Area Community Foundation is helping the project enter its next phase. 

Hugill-Fontanel and Avni will lead a team of RIT student technicians and a research-and-design assistant co-op student hired for the project. Hugill-Fontanel, who is also a master printer, will typeset and print the alphabets using letterpress printing presses in the Cary Collection, and Avni, a Hebrew design expert, will analyze and catalog the print specimens. RIT student technicians will digitize the Hebrew alphabet specimens and publish the digital-type images online in RIT Libraries’ Digital Collections repository, making them freely accessible to the public. The student research and design assistant will digitally trace several of the Hebrew alphabets’ designs for use in desktop publishing applications and archive the wood fonts.

Avni will share her research about the Hebrew wood type project at the joint conference of the American Printing History Association and Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum, AWAYzgoose, Nov. 5-8, online. She will present “Back to the Shtetl: The Prospects of Hebrew Wood Type.”

The Cary Graphic Arts Collection is one of the nation’s premier libraries of graphic communication history and practices. Along with paper-based archives, the Cary maintains a unique technology collection comprised of a functional letterpress printing workshop with 30 presses and a full suite of printing equipment including metal and wood type. This working archive is used to teach graphic reproduction processes and typography, enhancing the curricula for students of history, art, design, and printing.

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