His Name Was Almost Legion

Typeface: Great Primer Uncials

James Mosley shared with me this striking photograph of some of the world’s oldest type-making material. These brass matrices, made by a Dutch punchcutter in 1508, are now in the collection of the Enschedé Museum in Haarlem. It’s remarkable that they’ve survived long enough to celebrate their 500th birthday.

Especially enthusiastic type buffs might recognize these as the Great Primer Uncials that we adapted for our Historical Allsorts collection, but even the most devoted connoisseur is unlikely to know the name of the man behind them. It’s amazing that we don’t, given his significance: historian H. D. L. Vervliet identifies an entire historical period with the designer’s name alone, noting that as many as half of all books printed in Holland in the first half of the sixteenth century featured this one man’s typefaces. This was an extraordinary achievement for a man less famous than his contemporaries Garamond, Granjon or Plantin, so we have to ask — doing our best Graham Chapman impression — why is it that the world has forgotten the name of Henric Pieterszoon Lettersnijder?

Continues…

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

Selectric Days

My reputation compels me to deny that I ever spent adolescent weekends hanging out at Tannen’s Magic Shop or The Compleat Strategist, and I certainly never wasted sunny afternoons playing with the Ohio Scientific computer downstairs at Polk’s Hobby Shop (even if it did have Lunar Lander in 16 colors.) But having burnished my nerd credentials through a career as a type designer, it seems safe to admit that, as a teen, I sported an enviable collection of golf balls for the family typewriter, a beloved IBM Selectric II.

Yesterday, a conversation with my friend Tal induced a Proustian flash in which I recalled — and was actually able to find in the studio’s library — the above: entitled “GP Technologies Typing Element Handbook,” it’s a brochure from the early eighties that shows the complete range of styles available for the IBM Selectric typewriter. Sure, I had Courier, Orator, and both Prestige Pica and Prestige Elite, but it was more exotic numbers like these that I really went in for. A major coup was scoring Olde English, warts and all (let’s talk about that capital H some time), but my unattainable Philosopher’s Stone was Oriental, which no office supply shop in the five boroughs seemed to carry. What I would have done with the typeface is anyone’s guess (utility isn’t always relevant to the completist), but I can only imagine, given the font’s facile design and appalling intent, that it would have been something spectacularly ghastly.

Still, there are things to admire in old Oriental. Its ampersand is a model of efficiency, and the economy of its at-sign (@) is downright clever. That this goofball font was outfitted with such serious accessories as a paragraph mark and a set of fractions hints at the work of a wicked mind, not unlike that of the latter-day typefounder who soberly includes an fffl ligature in text face. Perhaps these are subtle absurdities that lie in wait for attentive eyes, or perhaps they really are useful things to have in a font. In either case, it seems evident that type designers of all ages are, in their hearts, completists. —JH

My Big Fat Grecian Lettering

Greek Week Continues!

Making good on his standing promise to rid the world of enamel signs, and warehouse them in the office for our personal amusement, Tobias came across this little bit of heaven in a local antique shop. The full image features a stalwart gent in lederhosen hoisting a beer stein, but for typophiles, this is where all the action is: cousin to the Grecian italic, it’s a (1) faceted (2) chromatic (3) blackletter that would have made a nice auxiliary to our Knox typeface. Three great tastes that taste great together! — JH

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