He’s just your type: Gary Walton enlivens Cincinnati’s rich printing history

Cincinnati’s printing professionals and print-history buffs should be thankful that Gary Walton fared poorly in woodshop class.

“I was a student at Schwab Middle School, and I struggled so much in the [shop] class that they kicked me out,” Walton, a printing industry veteran and founder of the Cincinnati Type & Print Museum, recalled. “Then, they moved into an engine repair class. Again, I struggled. The school counselor decided I should give the printing class a try.”

Walton found his niche. He taught printing for more than 40 years, including 35 at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, before retiring in 2011. Rather than adjourning to a Barcalounger and allowing his skills to atrophy, Walton seized on an idea from a Cincinnati State administrator that mused about the possibility of a print museum that would celebrate Cincinnati’s unsung role in the industry.

“At the dawn of the 20th century, Cincinnati’s print industry was the second largest in the U.S.,” Walton said. “It’s still the nation’s eleventh largest printing market. Proctor & Gamble plays a significant role in that, but the city has a diverse economy that provides opportunity. So, the city seemed like a natural venue for a museum that celebrated Cincinnati’s printing legacy.”

Walton drew inspiration from several venues across the U.S. that celebrate the history of printing, such as Nashville’s Hatch Show Print plus museums that celebrate printing located in Carson, CA, and Haverhill, MA. Predictably, evolving the museum concept required considerable resolve and an assist from the city. Walton found the museum’s site on West 8th Street in Price Hill and purchased it for one dollar from the city in 2011. However, the structure, the former home of a plumbing supply company, had been vacant since 1990 and was in dilapidated condition. With the help of a $250,000 grant from the city and numerous other benefactors, the Type & Print Museum continued to evolve, and was finally unveiled to the public during a 2016 open house.

Three students from Cincinnati Art Academy setting their poetry in letter press type.Walton describes the museum’s mission as three-fold:
1) to preserve and honor the city’s legacy as an essential printing hub; 2) to provide a place for artists and those curious about printing processes to “come and play” while they learn about the process’ intricacies, and 3) provide employment opportunities.

The museum fulfills the third piece of this mission with its partnership with BLOC Ministries, which helps provide job training for those fighting drug addiction, criminal backgrounds, and other profound challenges to stable employment. Walton said a three-to-four-week program teaches students the basics of printing processes: inkjet, offset, flexographic and screenprinting. He said, “With this foundation, our students are able to hire on with printshops that are able to build on the basic training we’ve provided. We’ve received positive feedback about their work ethic and willingness to learn.”

The training program has placed 45 students in long-term employment in the printing field with an 80% success rate. COVID-19 required a pause in the museum’s educational role, but it’s resumed, and Walton is hopeful to expand its instructional offerings to classes for the general public.

In addition to the aforementioned mission, Walton also strives to combat the notion that printing as an industry is waning, if not already obsolete. He said, “It’s no secret that (printed) newspapers aren’t going to make it, and large-circulation magazines are also in deep trouble. But book printing is continuing to have strong demand, and labels, flyers and other types of commercial and promotional printing are continuing to grow.”

Walton with a young homeschooler printing a bookmark on the Kesley Press.The industry’s past is well represented at the museum—an 1860-vintage Franklin press built in Cincinnati is a key attraction—the industry’s present is vibrant, and its future is what excites Walton. Inkjet printing inks and consumables continually evolve, and they’re the backbone for graphics applied to circuit boards and other electronic components used in smartphones, appliances, and myriad other types of consumer electronics. Suffice it to say, demand for these printed goods appears to point toward unabated growth.

“Printing press operators have a tremendous amount of responsibility. The wage for that type of work is typically $40-$50 an hour, which provides a good standard of living.”

Though COVID-19 required a reset, the museum “never really shut down,” Walton continues “we hosted socially distanced tours for individuals and families throughout most of the pandemic.” Interest in the museum has surged, and he anticipates it will host eight hundred visitors in 2022; its largest attendance figure to date.

Walton has purchased three additional buildings and will integrate them into the museum’s campus over the next three years. “The additional structures will increase the museum’s footprint from approximately 2,800 square feet to more than 10,000 square feet,” according to Walton.

Walton notes that printing’s transformative role in human evolution provides part of its appeal: “To the best of historical knowledge, only about 5,000 books existed in Europe before Gutenberg’s printing press was invented. A Bible printed by hand by scribes would’ve cost $55,000 in modern money. Twenty years later, there were more than two million books in Europe. Literacy and access to information was driven by the development of the printing press. The industry has a proud legacy and a key role in our economy, and we want the museum to represent that.”