Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection
The Collection
History Publications Specimens Details
American Wood Type
Production Manufacturers Bibliography
Contact & Links
The Rob Roy Kelly Wood Type Collection is a comprehensive holding of wood type manufactured and used for printing in America during the nineteenth century. It is comprised of over 160 faces of various sizes and styles, including examples of the most popular printing types in use between 1828 and 1900, and represents a period of history marked by a rapid transition to new printing technologies. This change precipitated a radical shift away from traditional hand production—which involved creating type with soft calligraphic forms—to a completely industrialized manufacturing process—which produced type constructed with hard angular forms that reflect mechanical origins.
The noted design educator, collector, and historian Rob Roy Kelly (1925–2004) collected wood type from local printers for use by his students at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design. He began gathering the types in the late 1950s and continued adding to the collection over the next decade. He started researching the history, manufacture, and use of the growing collection partly in response to questions that arose from working with his students. His research was first published in the 1963 issue of Design Quarterly (No. 56), and was followed in 1964 by a limited-edition folio of specimen sheets from the collection, entitled American Wood Types 1828–1900, Volume One. Kelly’s research would culminate with the publishing 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. American Wood Type was 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. During the 1970s, the publication of Kelly’s American Wood Type helped fuel a revival of interest in nineteenth-century American printing types, and in doing so, helped save a valuable facet of American history.
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 (HRC) at The University of Texas at Austin. Through the work and guidance of Richard Oram, at the HRC, and Gloria Lee, then Assistant Professor of Design, the collection was transferred to the care of the Design Division of the Department of Art & Art History, College of Fine Arts, in 1993.

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.
In 2004 David Shields joined the design faculty and began the work of organizing the Collection. He also took on the substantial task of correcting and updating the historical information for the types in the Collection that had gone unchecked during the 40 years since Kelly’s original publications. In the process of cataloging the Collection he uncovered a number of previously unidentified types. The discoveries expanded the known holdings from the 100 faces Kelly had previously published to over 160 faces along with a wide range of ornamental borders and decorative material. In 2008, Shields became the Design Custodian for the Collection and in 2009 launched the current website dedicated to the Collection’s holdings. Shields subsequently left the University in the summer of 2012.

Colin Frazer joined the department in January of 2014 and is currently overseeing and teaching in the collection.

The Collection remains relevant today as a physical study collection for use by students and visiting scholars.