1840s shops and streetlight
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Detroit Historical Museum: The Streets of Old Detroit

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Time Travel Made Easy in Detroit …

With A Wood Type Press to Record the Experience

Time travel was never so easy, if you’re in Detroit, that is.

The Detroit Historical Museum has a permanent exhibition called The Streets of Old Detroit, which leads visitors through the city starting in 1840 then moving through six decades as it transforms from a rural frontier town to an industrial giant. The themes of industry, commerce, communication and retail are explored with facades of actual businesses such as a barber shop, hat shop, printer, blacksmith, and more, complete with cobblestone streets and gas lights.

1870 sanders

Of course, the storefront that most appeals to us paper and printing geeks, is the 1840s print shop, led by volunteer Ralph Rinaldi, who has manned the two historic printing presses to the delight of visitors for more than 30 years. He recalls, “I was running a community print shop in 1981, doing letterpress and offset printing, and a friend asked me if I would be interested in volunteering at the museum. “

He, along with Keith Brant and George Wanzug were instrumental in getting the 1840s print shop up and running. “It took us about three months to get the shop cleaned up and ready for the exhibition,” Rinaldi says. Wanzug sorted and meticulously organized the type that was scattered throughout the print shop and helped Brant repair the broken type cabinets.

To complete the shop renovation, they lovingly restored an 1813 Columbian Hand Letterpress, one of only 25 known Columbian Letterpresses in existence. Because the press was not in use for many years, Brant disassembled it to its bare frame, cleaning and lubricating it before reassembling. When the print shop opened in December 1981, Rinaldi was running the press, printing holiday cards and bookmarks for visitors, while they looked on. It was the biggest draw of the exhibit.


 The restored 1890 Washington press, near cabinets filled with wood blocks for printing. Ralph with kidsVolunteer Ralph Rinaldi demonstrates printing techniques for visiting students.

In 1991, the print shop acquired an 1890 Washington Press. Several parts were missing, but again, Brant disassembled it completely, and rebuilt it from machine drawings, acquiring new custom-built parts to complete it. Both presses are operational and Rinaldi has continued operating the print shop, giving demonstrations at least three days a week.

outside shop of print shop

 The “storefront” of the Democratic Free Press, which houses two historic letterpress printers.

While Keith Brant passed away in 2005, Rinaldi dedicates the history of the 1840s print shop to his memory. “None of what we planned to do could have been done without his ideas, time, and his incredible skills,” he says.

 image of columbian press

This 1813 Columbian hand letterpress is one of only 25 Columbian presses in existence.

“There are few letterpress printing presses in use today, and DHM visitors, students, and professional printers get to see and often experience the process and art of this craft,” says Tracy Irwin, director of exhibitions and collections. “For Ralph, his restoration, demonstrations, and numerous volunteer hours has been, and continue to be, a true labor of love.” Rinaldi is the exhibit.

index-001These holiday cards were made on the letterpress printer by Rinaldi, and handed out to visitors.

He likely could get on very well in the 1800s, as he seemingly avoids technology. He doesn’t own a computer, although he has an email account that he checks on a library computer. I found out the hard way, that he doesn’t check it often, preferring to speak by phone. Then last week I was delighted to find a package in my mailbox from Rinaldi, with my name and address written out in large calligraphic handwriting. It was a work of art in itself. Inside the package revealed three pocket folders taped together, containing various print samples from the historic presses.

If you’re in Detroit on Sept. 24 and 25, and want to see Rinaldi in action, DHM in collaboration with Wayne State University, Fine Arts and Art Education Departments, is hosting Detroit Print City, the Mid-America Print Council Conference. He will be doing print demonstrations on both presses using Neenah paper, followed by a showing of thePBS production, Typeface, the story of the Hamilton Wood Type Museum.

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  1. 02

    Haven’t been there in about 60 years. I’d like to return!