Type specimen books provided printers not only with letters, but also with images. Ornaments (often called flowers even when they weren’t actually flowers), borders, and advertising cuts (the forerunners of clip art) were essential to a well-stocked printing office. Especially as the nineteenth century progressed, foundries sometimes devoted half to three quarters of a specimen book to non-alphabetic material. This cat stalking a parrot (because every printer is going to have lots of clients who need that image?) comes from the 1895 Les Nouvelles Creations of Deberny & Cie, an important French foundry.
In 1873, the Chicago type foundry Barnhart Brothers & Spindler published their Specimen Book and Price List of the Great Western Type Foundry (see it in the RIT catalog here). In an introductory note, the typefounders write that “We have endeavored to show, in a concise and convenient form, the most useful and popular styles of letter, omitting such faces as serve neither the purpose of utility nor beauty.” But take a look at the upper-case O in the double-pica grotesque above, seen in the word fashion. Is this an o? A p? A j-o ligature? Even in 1873, surely the typeface designer would have had a difficult time defending the usefulness and beauty of this particular face. Regardless, this specimen page is a fascinating window into the culture of typographic excess that was flourishing in the late nineteenth century.
In 1683, in the first printer’s manual to be published in English, Joseph Moxon wrote that “A good Compositer is ambitious as well to make the meaning of his Author intelligent to the Reader.” In other words, the typographer serves the text, and the author. For modern (and Modernist) readers, this idea is most famously expressed in Beatrice Warde’s 1955 essay, “The Crystal Goblet: Or, Printing Should Be Invisible.” It’s an essay I read as a beginning typography student with hardly any skepticism at all, and one I sometimes assign to my own type students—though with an eye toward deconstructing it, and with plenty of skepticism on everyone’s part. Imagine my delight at encountering this maxim in a seventeenth century text, complete with long-s characters and quaint spellings, to say nothing of a generous approach toward capitalization. (Notice the long-s characters in the words compositer and pleasant—no, the typographer didn’t just run out of s’s and replace them with f’s.) This is one of the reasons I love research: learning unexpected things is fun.
Archival adventures continue in RIT’s Cary Collection. Johann Ernesti’s 1721 printer’s manual (catalog record here) included 44 pages of typographic specimens, including alphabets in Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic. This Imperial-sized* German blackletter with its decorative capital seemed worthy of a close-up.
* As my fellow type nerds already know, the point system that we use to measure type today hadn’t been established in 1721; French typographer Fournier would introduce the idea about forty years later, and Didot would modify and codify it about twenty years after that.
COVER + INTERIOR SPREAD FROM READING MAPS, WRITING LANDSCAPES
In April 2010, I defended Reading Maps, Writing Landscapes: Cartographic Illustration in Arizona, 1912-1962 – my doctoral dissertation in design history – at Arizona State University. In fall 2012, a book of the same title will be published by the University of Arizona Press. The text documents and investigates cartographic illustrations of Arizona during the first half-century of statehood.