Lettering of the WPA

Our creative director Brian Hennings stumbled across a great resource this morning: on the website of the Library of Congress, a collection of 926 posters from the Works Progress Administration. The LOC has done a nice job with this collection, providing for each poster not only the relevant archival information, but high-resolution TIFF files that are free to download.

I’ve yet to meet the designer who doesn’t have at least a little affection for optimistic lettering of the WPA. We’ve stopped short of ever developing a full-tilt Art Deco revival, but many of our sans serifs undeniably feel the pull of the Machine Age. Verlag’s stark geometries include a conscious nod to the bold logo of the National Recovery Administration, while Tungsten is a modular typeface that resists the retro vibe of WPA “gaspipe” lettering. The Library of Congress collection offers a rare opportunity to see rarer styles still, perhaps ones that might obliquely inform some future font from H&FJ. —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.

Continues…

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 12

I liked samplers as a kid. In the fictional account of my life, I could trace this affection to my dear great-grandmother Abigail, who spent hours embroidering by candlelight (when she wasn’t busy repairing uniforms for returning Union soldiers.) But having grown up in New York in the seventies, it’s more likely that I first noticed the style while watching Family Feud, and that a steady diet of Atari 2600 and NAMCO simply predisposed my developing brain to a sympathy for bitmaps.

Etsy is carrying a charming little bag that pays homage to the cross-stitch, a gusseted Canvas Tote silkscreened in orange or blue. At 11" × 14" (30cm × 35cm) it’s big enough for the usual junk that designers lug around, and is of course a sound alternative to grocery store plastic, whether you’re ecologically responsible or just self-righteous. Either way, be stylish. —JH

Large Hats & Small Caps

Having begun the week with Senator Barack Obama’s typeface, it seemed appropriate to look back at the typography of campaigns past. Here’s a splendid piece of Americana that will be at auction at Christie’s next week: a carved polychrome and gilt political hat, dated 1872, from the collection of Marguerite and Arthur Riordan. It captures a number of quintessential period styles: bold sans serifs in caps and small caps, “catchwords” festooned with calligraphic flourishes, and two styles of lettering interrupted by medial spurs. Measuring 25" deep and 18" wide, it’s a perfect fit for the head of any 21st century politician. —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 9

A visit to Shorpy inevitably lasts the rest of the day. This tremendous archive of hundred-year-old photos has much to recommend it to anyone interested in period typography: the optimistic lettering of the New Deal is well represented, and there’s an excellent cross-section of sidewalk Americana as well; entertainingly, the whole collection is leavened by an undercurrent of quiet menace that I find delightfully surreal.

There are impossibly old photos from Antietam and significant ones from Kitty Hawk, but it’s candid images like this that I find the most striking. For while it’s their farmers and seamstresses and street urchins who draw focus and take center stage, the true subject of these photographs is the lettering in the background, and the thousands of invisible hands responsible for every single letter.

To my delight, Shorpy is now working with the Juniper Gallery to produce reproductions of some of their most evocative Vintage High-Resolution Photographs. Produced as eight-color giclee prints on a variety of archival stocks, Shorpy’s photographs are available in sizes from 19" × 13" (48cm × 33cm) to 47" × 34" (119cm × 86cm). Order by December 18 for Christmas delivery. —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

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