Collection of the Day

I am not wistful for the days of carbon paper and Ko-Rec-Type, and the era of the typewriter ended before I ever figured out what to do with those wheely-eraser-brush-things that populated my parents’ offices. But a truly grand leftover from the vanished world of the typewriter is the ribbon tin; my friend Tal sent me this collection of product packaging shots on Flickr, which are resplendent with lovely lettering. Some are sweet and others serious, some are frank, and some are simply fantastic. —JH

H&FJ Crime-Fighting Division

It was not a dark, stormy night at the H&FJ offices, and she was not a dame in a red dress who spelled trouble with a capital T. It was last Friday afternoon, and the caller was Bill Bastone, founder and editor of The Smoking Gun, with a question about forensic typography.

The story begins with last week’s report by the Los Angeles Times that murdered rapper Tupac Shakur was assassinated by associates of Sean “Diddy” Combs. The Times appears to have relied heavily on a set of FBI reports — 302s, in the argot — which cannot be found in the FBI’s own files. This morning, The Smoking Gun suggests that these may be the work of an accomplished document forger named James Sabatino, who conducted his hoax from within the walls of the Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex in Pennsylvania.

We’re not experts in forensic typography or document authentication, but were able to point TSG’s specialists toward one subtle typographic clue. To untrained eyes including ours, the three 302s look like genuine bureaucratic dross: form elements are typeset in a proportionally-spaced font that appears to be Times Roman, and the body of each document is filled in with a typewriter. (The occasional overstruck letter, as well as some very erratic line endings, suggest a typewriter rather than a word processor; never mind that the Bureau stopped using typewriters “about 30 years ago,” according to an FBI supervisor.)

But a telltale gaffe appears at the top of one document, in which the date is rendered in the proportionally-spaced font. The “advance width” of the periods are demonstrably narrower than that of the numbers around them (typewriter periods are famously aloof from their neighbors), suggesting that at least this part of the document was prepared digitally — but only this part of the document, and only this one document from the set of three. The Smoking Gun has all three documents online: compare them here, here, and here. You owe me, Diddy. —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

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