Considering Rob Roy Kelly's American Wood Type Collection

By Shields, David | Printing History, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Considering Rob Roy Kelly's American Wood Type Collection


Shields, David, Printing History


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THE Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection, now at the University of Texas, Austin, has long been recognized as one of the major archives of this remarkable form of printing technology, but in recent years I have attempted to expand rigorously upon the historical information Kelly himself collected for many of the types, to clarify the exact composition of the collection, and to better understand the stylistic development of wood type letterforms during the nineteenth century.

HISTORY OF THE COLLECTION

Rob Roy Kelly (1925-2004), the noted design educator, collector, and historian, collected wood type from local printers for use by his students at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He began gathering the types in the late 1950s and continued adding to the collection over the next decade. "Initially, my inclination was to collect wood type for students to use in class, and later, to find answers for student questions regarding the wood types they were using," he declared. (1) To find these answers, Kelly began researching the history, manufacture and use of the types.

His research was first published in the 1963 issue of Design Quarterly (no. 56), which was followed in 1964 by a limited-edition folio of specimen sheets from the collection, entitled American Wood Types 1828-1900, Volume One. Shortly after its publication, Ruari McLean hoped that Kelly's success with this volume would "lead the author to publish this material, and more of his collection, in a more accessible form." (1a) Kelly's research would culminate, answering McLean's request, with the publication in 1969 of the seminal American Wood Type, 1828-1900: Notes on the Evolution of Decorated and Large Types and Comments on Related Trades of the Period, later reprinted as a paperback in 1977. This text was one of the first, and remains one of the most comprehensive, histories of American vernacular printing types of the period.

In early 1966, unable to maintain the unwieldy assortment of wood types he had gathered, Kelly sold the collection to Dr. Bernard Karpel, head librarian of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Later that year, Dr. Karpel sold the collection to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin. Through the work and guidance of Richard Oram, at the HRC, and Gloria Lee, then Assistant Professor of Design at the University of Texas, the collection was transferred to the care of the Design Division of the Department of Art and Art History, College of Fine Arts, in 1993. It continues to be a working study collection for use by students and visiting scholars. (2)

Kelly's final work with the collection came in the early 1990s when he was asked by Adobe Systems to participate in a project to develop digital revivals of historic wood types as part of the Adobe Originals program. As consultant to the project, Kelly helped select, from his own collected materials, the type styles that would be made into digital fonts.

ORDERING THE COLLECTION

In my initial stages of working with the Kelly Collection, it became clear that the collection was composed of more types than either Kelly's folio or book indicated. To gain a comprehensive understanding of the actual composition of the collection, I developed a systematic process to organize the collection for analysis. The fact that the Kelly Collection is a working study collection necessitated the organizing of the types into a pragmatic system that allowed for unencumbered accessibility and ease of navigation without excluding any of the comprehensive historical data.

To this end, I have organized the collection stylistically based on Kelly's three primary categories of Roman, Antique and Gothic. (3) Secondary categories derived from these three styles are used to further differentiate the visual forms. Roman is subdivided into Old Style and Fat Face; Antique is subdivided into Egyptian (unbracketed), Clarendon (bracketed) and Tuscan (semi-ornamented); Gothic is subdivided into Lineal (uniform), Modulated (non-uniform) and Tuscan (semi-ornamented).

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