What’s in a Font Name

For as long as fonts have had names, they’ve had bad names. Historical inaccuracies have been common for two hundred years: typefounders of the Industrial Revolution groped for historical labels to apply to newly-invented styles (Egyptian, Gothic, etc.), and it wasn’t long before typefaces began to bear the recognizable names of unrelated historical figures. Alongside the very un-Dutch Series Rembrandt, a nineteenth century French specimen book shows the Series Victor Hugo, unconnected with the author but doubtless hoping to cash in on his celebrity; Hugo was still alive at the time.

But most entertaining are faces like this one, which honor prominent figures from typography’s own history. This charming face is from the 1928 type specimen of the Nebiolo foundry in Torino, and here we have a typeface full of Art Nouveau vigor, fresh from the window of a chic gelateria, or a cinema marquee. And what famous early twentieth century figure is it named after? Why, Johannes Gutenberg of course (d. 1468), father of movable type. Can’t you just see Gutenberg stepping out of his Fiat GP racer, his handsome olive complexion set off by a rakish tweed cap?

It seems that most of the world’s typefounders have suffered this cruel fate. Here are some especially juicy mistreatments.


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?


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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