For Immediate Release

October 25 has been designated World Pasta Day, and as part of typography’s contribution to this important initiative, we’re pleased to share the following: an excerpt from the typeface “Nr. 941. Dubbelmittel (corps 28),” as it appears in Berlingska Stilguteriet Stilprof, a type specimen book from the Berlingska type foundry of Lund, Sweden, circa 1900. It is a dimensionally extruded ring accent, shaped like a piece of rigatoni.

This concludes our contribution to World Pasta Day. See you in 2011. —JH

“Curved, Pointy, and Nervous-Looking Types”

It is 1953, and you are a graduate student at the Yale University School of Art. Alvin Eisenman has just established a new discipline called “graphic arts,” in which you are studying — under the legendary Josef Albers, Herbert Matter, and Alvin Lustig — a new approach to design, which will come to be known as Modernism. Five years from now, the world will witness the birth of Helvetica and Univers, typographic milestones that will forever affirm the ascendancy of the Swiss International Style. It is amidst this visual culture, with its disciplined sans serifs, rationalized grid systems, and asymmetric layouts, that you discover your deep love of typography. So you dedicate yourself to the study of its most unfashionable, shadowy, and anarchic tributary: nineteenth century American wood type. You are Rob Roy Kelly.

Today, Kelly’s name is synonymous with American Wood Type: 1828-1900, his 1969 opus that remains the standard desk reference on the subject. Forty years ago, the manuscript was the result of a long and difficult search for answers. After leaving Yale, Kelly went to the Minneapolis School of Art to establish a graphic design department, and his attempt to procure a collection of material for the school press revealed at once how moribund wood type had become, and how neglected it remained as an area of study. Beginning with a collection of ephemeral type specimen books, and ultimately growing to include several hundred full fonts of type, what quickly became “The Kelly Collection” served as a working library for Kelly’s own research. Between 1966 and 1993, the collection passed through the hands of several individuals and institutions, finally finding a home at the University of Texas at Austin. During this time, Van Nostrand Reinhold’s publication of American Wood Type went out of print; Da Capo Press introduced a paperback version, which also went out of print; what designers and scholars have been left with is the diluted and incomplete 100 Wood Type Alphabets produced by Dover Editions in 1977. Happily, the University of Texas has adapted the original work for the web: The Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection is now available online, featuring much of Kelly’s scholarship, and many of the illustrations from the original work.

In keeping with the traditions of the trade, Kelly’s enthusiasm for wood type was obsessive. Chronicling his work on American Wood Type in the book’s introduction, Kelly wrote, “my reputation as a bore at cocktail parties grew immeasurably during these years,” a sentiment doubtless familiar to anyone connected with type. Like many enthusiasts, Kelly’s devotion to typography was deep, sincere, and consuming, but it was also mercurial. In 1990, when I went to the Modernism & Eclecticism symposium to hear Kelly deliver a lecture entitled “Cast-Iron and Brass Trivets,” I learned along with hundreds of other graphic designers in the audience that “trivet” was not an obscure term of art from the golden age of wood type: Kelly had concluded his study of wood type, and had simply moved on to another area of scholarship, namely cast-iron kettle stands. Somewhere, I hope there is a blog devoted to trivets that will include the opposite anecdote, the story of the eminent trivetologist who was once, bewilderingly, a leading authority on wood type. I suspect Kelly would love it. —JH

A Treasury of Wood Type Online

The Hamilton Manufacturing Co. traces its roots back to the very first wood types made in the United States. Darius Wells produced the first American wood type in 1828; his business was reorganized into Wells & Webb, then acquired by William Page, later passing back to the Wells family, and finally sold to Hamilton sometime before 1880. The product of this consolidation was a type specimen book issued in 1900, Hamilton’s Catalogue No. 14, which offers a good survey of American display typography of the nineteenth century.

Open to the public is the Hamilton Wood Type Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, a collection of 1.5 million pieces of wood type maintained by volunteers of the Two Rivers Historical Society. For at-home viewing, the calendar printer Unicorn Graphics has just launched their Web Museum of Wood Types and Ornaments, which offers a sundry collection of scans and photographs of American wood types — including every page of the great Catalogue No. 14.

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Sham Rock

I have for exactly one year been waiting to open up the monumental copy of Ornamented Types of L. J. Pouchée that we have in the office, to find the example of the delicately curlicued shamrock type that historian James Mosley attributed to an unknown punchcutter he designated “Master of the Creeping Tendril,” and to post it here.

This is not that type. It turns out that Pouchée never made a shamrock type: what I was remembering was this, the Eight Lines Pica Egyptian Ornamented No. 2 of Bower & Bacon (1826), illustrated in Nicolete Gray’s Nineteenth Century Ornamented Typefaces. It is surely not the work of any Master, though perhaps it lends credence to the widely-circulated tale which holds that Mrs. Gray illustrated parts of her book by hand, rather than reproducing the work photographically. I’ve never heard an explanation for why this should be so, but there’s no denying that the bluntness of these forms suggests the pen more than the graver.

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Wearable Rococo

Look up and you’ll see the floriated, ornamented, shaded letters of the H&FJ logo (l. gravura tuscana), as well as an italic cousin used for the News, Notes & Observations nameplate. I have a special fondness for these kinds of letters, which reflect a synthesis of traditions from both typemaking and engraving. Is it therefore any wonder that I love these alphabet brooches from Bena Clothing, spotted by our friends at Design Sponge? They’re made from laser-etched cheery veneer over mahogany, thoughtfully offered as set of 53 pieces with duplicates of popular letters. (I wonder how the frequency distribution of initials differs from that of other kinds of words: extra Js, I imagine?) —JH

Heavy Metal

Photos: Left: Johan de Zoete, Stichting Museum Enschedé; Right: James Mosley

Four hundred years after Gutenberg’s death, “metal type” was still being made the way he made it. Using files and gravers, a steel rod was cajoled into the shape of a backwards letter; this steel ‘punch’ was struck into a brass blank, called a ‘matrix,’ which would serve as a mold for the casting of individual pieces of lead type. (The term ‘lead type’ is a convenience: the material of printing type is more accurately called ‘type metal,’ as it contains a special typefounders’ blend of lead, tin, and antimony.)

This elaborate pas de cinque requires five different materials, each chosen for a different metallurgical property. Steel’s tensile strength helps it hold small details and resist the blow of the hammer; the malleability of brass makes it a good candidate for receiving the steel; lead, cheap and abundant, has a low melting point; tin is more fluid than lead when molten (yet more durable than lead when it hardens); and antimony is highly crystalline, giving printing types more crisply defined edges.

The few typefaces that have departed from this process have done so for very good reason. Common were large typefaces that would have been impractical to cut in steel (and impossible to strike into brass) which were instead made as wood forms, which were pressed into sand molds from which metal type was cast. But a lingering mystery are the Chalcographia in the collection of the Enschedé foundry in Haarlem, said to have been made with ‘brass punches.’ James Mosley corrects the record on his Typefoundry blog, explaining the types’ unusual gestation through a convoluted five-part process. The photographs, like the types themselves, are marvelous. —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 2

A few weeks ago, I posted some scans of nineteenth-century wood types by William Page, from the rare specimen book Wm. H. Page & Co. Wood Type of 1872. The designers at the Cary Graphic Arts Press (Rochester Institute of Technology) apparently share my love of Page's colorful woodtypes, for their lovely Wood Type Notecards reproduce some pages from the exceedingly rare Specimens of Chromatic Wood Type, Borders, &c. of 1874. I don’t imagine I’ll need much of a pretext to send these to my favorite typophiles; I think I’ll save the SIN cards to send to clients who don’t correctly use small caps or smart quotes. —JH

Grecian Fonts: A Miscellany

I thought I’d bid farewell to H&FJ Greek Week with a glimpse inside some of our library’s more exotic type specimens. After the jump, some stellar Grecian typefaces which have yet to be properly revived, and the type specimen books in which they’re showcased so well.

The above is unusual: it’s the 10-Line Grecian Double Extra Condensed of William Page (1872), and eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that it’s printed not in black and white, but in retina-searing magenta. Why? It’s because this specimen, the rare Wm. H. Page & Co. Wood Type of 1872, was a joint venture to promote both wood type made by Page, and printing inks made by H. D. Wade & Co. of New York. Even at the age of 135, the book’s colors are alarmingly bright and rich, doubtless because they contain unlawfully toxic levels of cadmium and other heavy metals.

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Mrs. Gray and the Mystery of the Grecian Italic

“Grecians” are slab serif typefaces in which curves are replaced by bevelled corners. The fashion for octagonal letters took off in the 1840s (the style may have begun with an American wood type, produced by Johnson & Smith in 1841), and by the end of the decade there were all manner of Grecians on the market: narrow ones, squat ones, light ones, ones with contrasting thicks and thins, and ones without. It’s unusual that the rather obvious “square-proportioned” Grecian didn't arrive until 1857, and that no one thought to add a lowercase until 1870. It’s this very center of the Grecian universe that our Acropolis typeface occupies, which includes an additional feature of our own invention: a Grecian italic, something that no Victorian typefounder ever thought to create.

Or so we thought. This is the Six-Line Reversed Egyptian Italic of William Thorowgood, which sure enough qualifies as a Grecian italic. It has many peculiar features, but the most unearthly is its date: 1828, thirteen years before the first Grecian roman appeared. What’s the story?

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Time Traveler?

Except in the most conservative of settings, there’s nothing unusual about freely mixing serifs and sans serifs in text. This technique might still be unexpected in a novel, or in the main text of a newspaper, but otherwise it’s a familiar device that designers have employed for decades. This image could be a piece of printed ephemera from the thirties — a legal notice on a train ticket, perhaps, or a gummed label from an appliance box. It’s really only the loose spacing that marks this as an antique at all: track everything in a little, and brighten up the paper, and this could easily be a front-of-book service piece in a magazine.

Where it’s completely unexpected is in the pages of a 131-year-old type specimen book. This example, showing the eleven point Law Face in combination with an eerily Helvetica-like Gothic No. 7, is from the Compact Specimens of James Conner’s Sons (United States Type Foundry) issued in 1876. Conner’s foundry offered a promiscuous collection of fonts, and the layouts of his specimen books were pretty anarchic, so perhaps this setting was simply an accident of probability. Still, it’s odd to imagine this very modern piece of typography sharing a world with Wyatt Earp and Jesse James. —JH

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