In 1760, the American printer, Benjamin Franklin wrote to John Baskerville and paid him a visit.
Baskerville’s reputation, and even his eponymous typeface, had been maligned by “gentlemen” who may have been jealous of Baskerville’s talent, nonconformism, and increasing success. Baskerville used excerpts from one of Franklin’s letters as an “unsolicited testimonial“ in advertisements, but typographers will appreciate how clever Franklin was in his support of Baskerville:
“Dear Sir, Let me give you a pleasant Instance of the Prejudice some have entertained against your Work. Soon after I returned, discoursing with a Gentleman concerning the Artists of Birmingham, he said you would be a Means of blinding all the Readers in the Nation; for the Strokes of your Letters, being too thin and narrow, hurt the Eye, and he could never read a Line of them without Pain. I thought, said I, you were going to complain of the Gloss on the Paper, some object to. No, no, says he, I have heard that mentioned; but it is not that—it is in the Form and Cut of the Letters themselves: They have not that natural and easy Proportion between the Height and Thickness of the Stroke which makes the common Printing so much the more comfortable to the Eye.— You see this Gentleman was a Connoisseur. In vain I endeavoured to support your Character against the Charge: He knew what he felt, and could see the Reason of it, and several other Gentlemen among his Friends had made the same Observation, &c.— Yesterday he called to visit me, when, mischievously bent to try his Judgment, I stept into my Closet, tore off the top of Mr. Caslon’s Specimen, and produced it to him as yours brought with me from Birmingham, saying, I had been examining it since he spoke to me, and could not for my Life perceive the Disproportion he mentioned, desiring him to point it out to me. He readily undertook it, and went over the several Founts, showing me every where what he thought Instances of that Disproportion; and declared, that he could not then read the Specimen without feeling very strongly the Pain he had mentioned to me. I spared him that Time the Confusion of being told, that these were the Types he had been reading all his Life with so much Ease to his Eyes; the Types his adored Newton is printed with, on which he has pored not a little; nay, the very Types his own Book is printed with, for he is himself an Author, and yet never discovered this painful Disproportion in them, till he thought they were yours.
I am, &c.”
From John Baskerville of Birmingham, Letter-Founder & Printer by F. E. Pardoe 1975
The Rambler was a twopenny* sheet issued twice weekly in London between 1750 and 1752, each issue was a single anonymous essay. 208 periodical essays appeared, all but four written by Samuel Johnson. Dr. Johnson’s incentive in contributing Rambler essays was to pay the bills (“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”) while he was at work on his great Dictionary. He was paid two guineas (£) for each essay in the paper. The Rambler did not sell well as a periodical, but the essays sold well later when reissued, revised and collected into book form. You can even find it online today.
We picked up an original issue (#25) in periodical form and it is now framed and hanging in the office. The epigraph, “Possunt quia posse videntur,” means, “they are able because they seem to be able,” meaning If you believe you can do a thing, you can (and conversely, if you believe you cannot do a thing, you cannot). It was likely not the only time that Johnson pondered this aphorism while laboring on his monumental dictionary. This piece makes full use of the long ‘s,’ which is now archaic, and by the end of the eighteenth century had largely disappeared.
Thanks to the late John Louis Worden Jr. Ph.D, who retired from California State University, Chico, in 1983, for preserving this rare specimen.
*In Britain, the old symbol for the penny, as seen in the image, was ‘d,’ from the Latin denarius.
The ampersand has been with us perhaps since the first century CE in one form or another. It’s a conjoining of the e and t, forming the Latin et, which means “and.” You can still make out both letters in even the most abstract designs since typographers know that the ampersand is a ligature and design it as such. Because ampersands are so highly stylized, they can add verve to even the stodgiest of typefaces.
Designers, take note: as Robert Bringhurst has written, the italic versions of ampersands are less restrained than their roman counterparts. “Since the ampersand is more often used in display work than in ordinary text…there is rarely any reason not to borrow the italic ampersand for use with roman text.” An italic ampersand can bring verve, and a completed appearance, to even the stodgiest logo—like a colorful necktie.
Etymology: Pre-Victorian grammar schools included the ampersand as the last letter of the alphabet. Children ended recitations of the alphabet with “x, y, z and, per se, and” which through rote repetition became the garbled “ampersand.”
The ampersand is still used as a letter in “&c,” a widely-accepted abbreviation of et cetera.
American Type Founders was born of a merger of 23 type foundries in 1892. In the early 1920s, American Type Founders had come to dominate the huge metal foundry type market in the United States. They budgeted a whopping $300,000 (millions in today’s dollars) to produce 60,00 copies of their 1923 Specimen Book.
This immense, 1100-page catalog was distributed to print shops across North America. Most surviving copies were referenced for decades by printers with inky fingers, so clean copies are hard to find, and we’ve never seen one in mint-condition. Many copies have illustrations and decorations cut out of the book (probably to be used in a paste-up for an offset project).
ATF finally succumbed, in 1993, to the pressures of “cold type” and offset printing. Luckily for letterpress shops, which have had a resurgence in popularity in the digital age, Mackenzie & Harris Type Foundry, in San Francisco, still produces metal type. There’s also eBay, for metal foundry type.
The Specimen Book and Catalogue 1923 is available occasionally from used book sellers, but you can view the entire catalog on pdf here.
Old style text figures (or lower case, non-lining numerals) have become popular in graphic design in recent years. Typesetters use old style figures mainly in book publishing and magazines because they are lower case and blend into text, but graphic designers have been largely ignorant of old style figures owing in part to the lack of affordable extended type families in the early years of desktop publishing. For decades now, most numerals in text have been “lining” or “modern” figures—essentially all caps.
Matthew Carter designed Georgia in 1996 for Microsoft’s Web Core Fonts program, and it’s now everywhere online. Why?—because it was included (wisely) in the system software for both Macs and PCs. Web designers preferred system fonts for live type (type which is still editable or can be selected/copied—not a static graphic) so that default fonts (think Times and Arial) would not be substituted for screen display.
Georgia, a lovely, highly readable typeface has handsome old style figures, and since Georgia is now ubiquitous, it has renewed interest in non-lining text numerals. Thank you Matthew Carter, and (dare we say) thank you Microsoft.
The italic versions of ampersands are typically less restrained than their roman counterparts. As Robert Bringhurst wrote, “Since the ampersand is more often used in display work than in ordinary text…there is rarely any reason not to borrow the italic ampersand for use with roman text.” This is yet more true for display work and logos.
If a given typeface has a dull italic ampersand (some do), find an exciting alternative in another face (Caslon and Goudy Oldstyle are beauties). Make sure that the thicks, thins and overall weight are compatible with the rest of the type, but a Roman italic can be used stunningly even with a sans serif face.
We recently purchased this 11″ x 17″ sale flyer. Typographic ephemera typically consists of beautiful broadsides from foundries, advertising a new typeface on high-quality paper, but this is a notice of a sale of “secondhand job type” printed on low-quality paper. It was likely distributed to print shops in the region served by the Cincinnati Type Foundry. These faces would have been used in “job printing,” business cards, stationery, etc.
There‘s a mention of the “War of 1861,” so we know that it was printed after what became better known as the Civil War. In 1892 Cincinnati Type Foundry was merged into American Type Founders. View a larger scan of the entire flyer.
Here is our type anatomy chart, which was inspired by a similar diagram in U&lc magazine in the early 1980s. Access a high resolution pdf here. Besides typographic parts, we’ve included some sorts that will look familiar to most people, though the names of these characters may not be in common use.
Uncials from the The Book of Kells (or some other illuminated insular document)
Every year we trundle out the “Gaelic fonts,” for St. Patrick’s Day. Insular (Irish) scripts, or uncials started out as a Byzantine script which enjoyed widespread use, but they are now often associated with the Book of Kells and are viewed as Celtic, or perhaps even less accurately as Gaelic. Uncials are a script form which was developed from Latin cursive during the early Byzantine era (third century) along with the new, smooth media of parchment and vellum. Ascenders and descenders were developed in uncials, contributing to the later development of upper and lower case in early printed Gothic typefaces.
With the invention of moveable type, upper and lower case blackletter, commonly called Gothic, replaced uncials. Blackletter was perhaps less legible than uncials, and was soon supplanted by the more readable Roman types that are still popular today (“Roman” may be a misnomer in that they were based on the easy-on-the-eye Carolingian Minuscule script). Uncials were quite dead for a few centuries, but they were later introduced as display types for printers in the 19th century for decorative, antiquarian purposes, and now, of course, they are available digitally. Uncials are now so closely associated with all things Irish, that they could be classified as “chop suey” typefaces.
The etymology of uncial goes something like, “from Latin uncialis, from uncia (inch),” but Alexander & Nicholas Humez, in their brilliant book ABC et Cetera: the Life & Times of the Roman Alphabet, offer other etymologies. Uncial also could have been St. Jerome’s reference to either illuminated letters, or to “hooked” letters, depending upon how uncialibus was misspelled by the Saintly Dalmatian.
Either way, St. Jerome had sound advice: Use uncials sparingly. Nowadays, they are more likely to be associated with clovers, leprechauns, green beer, and kelly green “Kiss me, I’m Irish” t-shirts than with mediaeval monastic scribes.
Single primes are used to mark feet, and double primes for inches. They are no substitute for apostrophes and quotation marks—a mistake made even in (shudder) company logos.
The apostrophe, or single closed quote, is used for contractions or possessives. It’s also used as an elision (e.g., “the ’30s and ’40s were horrible decades for Europe”—the apostrophe stands in for the missing “19”). Some refer to typographers’ quotes as “curly quotes” or “smart quotes.”