Today I spent time with William H. Page’s Specimens of Chromatic Wood Type, published in 1874 for use by Page & Company sales reps (catalog record here). Since every color had to be printed individually, producing the specimen was a labor-intensive task indeed. For readers who have seen the film “Type Face,” the Hamilton Company bought out Page & Company in 1891. This book is absolutely breath-taking and extremely rare. I’ve been saving it as a grand finale to my amazing time here at the Cary Collection, and it did not disappoint.
This masthead is from a 1929 Monotype publication full of short articles about how to be a better typographer. First, of course, it’s essential to use a Monotype casting machine. But there are other ways to improve as a designer, too. Be sure to stay current with the printed samples Monotype mails out to its customers on a regular basis. These show the latest trends in advertising and publishing as demonstrated by expert “type-men.” And don’t forget that Monotype’s San Francisco branch office is licensed to distribute types by Continental Type Founders, importers of the finest European fonts from Old World foundries. American fonts simply aren’t as fresh and sophisticated, while European fonts will lend “enchantment” to your work.
The American type foundry Barnhart Bros. & Spindler may have been fairly short-lived (it was founded in 1873 and bought out by American Type Founders in 1911, though it remained in business under its own name another 22 years after ATF purchased it) but it published some beautiful specimen books. During the nineteenth century, most of these were stout volumes with hundreds of pages. But by the early 1920s, when this beauty was produced, BB&S was releasing slender booklets devoted to a single typeface or a small, thematic selection of faces. This detail is from the cover of one such booklet that showcased “Modernistic and Extraordinary Typefaces.” With names like Cubist Bold, Old Dutch, Japanet, and Bamboo, the faces were guaranteed to give contemporary ads that much-desired, of-the-moment edge.
In 1900, the newly-consolidated American Type Founders released a book of “embellishments and ornamentations for the printer and publisher,” among which was this splendid piece of design. (Curious readers can see the book’s catalog entry here.) Hidden among the hundreds of pages of sickeningly sweet cherubs, faithful fidos, fragrant flowers, and star-spangled banners, there are some wonderfully wry and sarcastic images like this one. I’ve had a great deal of fun imagining the back-story here; I’d like to think the princess, having glimpsed the end of the tale, is getting ready to pack her bags and escape a life of uncomfortable shoes and high-handed princes.
In 1928, Frederic Warde designed a book showcasing printer’s ornaments for Lanston Monotype of London (catalog record here). Warde used Monotype’s existing, and extensive, collection of “printer’s flowers” to compose decorative frames and patterns. Most of the book featured typography in combination with the various borders and flowers, with title pages figuring prominently in the display. But the last few pages were colored paper printed only with patterns designed from the ornaments. Their sole purpose was to be beautiful. Frederic Warde had been married to Beatrice, soon to be of “Printing Should Be Invisible” fame, during the first part of the decade. Fortunately, he did not heed her advice when designing his Printer’s Ornaments.
Type specimen books simultaneously recorded the typographic history that pre-dated them and the spirit of their own moment in time. Classic faces always appeared in a foundry’s more complete specimen books, because printers always needed to be able to examine and order workaday fonts of type. (Imagine reading Moby Dick in the typeface featured above; the though is dizzying.) But innovative and ephemerally fashionable typefaces and ornaments could figure largely into specimens, too. This 1902 specimen by the Stempel foundry in Germany (catalog record here) is a beautiful example of the Jugendstil aesthetic. It features page after page of sinuous plants, flowing-haired maidens, and organic letterforms, all hallmarks of Germany’s version of Art Nouveau.
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.
I’ve just embarked on a month-long research fellowship in the wonderful Cary Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where I’m exploring the history of the type specimen: broadsides and books made to show off the different faces produced by type foundries. This detail of a specimen signature from Christian Friedrich Gessner’s 1740 handbook on the “necessary and useful art of printing” (catalog record here) is a beautiful introduction to my forthcoming series of images documenting what’s sure to be a rich and exciting month of archival research. This specimen signature is one of three that folds out of the first volume of Gessner’s two-volume handbook for printers. Unfolding the page is like opening a present.