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Rare Book School at the University of Virginia

Rare Book School
Preliminary Reading List

Type, Lettering, and Calligraphy, 1830-1980

James Mosley

Preliminary Advices

Some notes on the course, and a preliminary reading list

This course was first given at Rare Book School some years ago as a sequel to my survey of printing types and of letterforms in other media from the invention of printing to 1830. A terminal date of 1830 was chosen for that course since it marks the end of what is now termed the 'hand press' era. During the later 19th century printing and its related crafts largely became industrial processes, and the effect of the change can clearly be seen in the typography of advertising and works of 'information'. But in some ways type resisted the technical changes that took place in other areas of printing. Although the casting of type was mechanized, the punches continued to be cut by hand until the end of the 19th century and nearly all books were still hand set. However by 1900 it became possible to translate a designer's own drawings more or less directly into type by using Benton's new pantographic punch - or matrix-cutting machine - the device that had made possible the launching of complete composition systems like the Linotype and Monotype machines, and the marketing of named type series became necessary to the survival of the traditional typefoundries. Consequently type history in the 20th century is often linked to the names of star designers - Goudy and Gill, Van Krimpen and Koch, and so on. Type also reflects some of the movements that are well defined in the history of design: the Arts and Crafts movement, Art nouveau, Modernism.

I am bringing a course covering this later period back to Rare Book School. It begins with the growth of the aggressive commercial typography that served the promotion of industrial products, and provided type models which are still in use. It also surveys the typography that was coloured by the retrospective mood that set in quite early and which has similarly endured into the era of digital typography, producing many examples of the 'revival' of historical models from the 15th to the 18th centuries. The course will look at the work of some well-known type designers, but will also attempt to do justice to names like Morris Fuller Benton at the American Typefounders Company, C. H. Griffith at Mergenthaler Linotype, and Frank Hinman Pierpont (a Connecticut Yankee) at the English Monotype company - the 'type directors' who deserve a substantial share of the credit for the quality of many of the enduring types of the 20th century.

As we can now appreciate, this was a classic age of 'letterpress' printing, a period during which the new types made for mechanical composition systems could be used side by side with types that were newly-cast from the matrices of former centuries, and both were often excellently printed on machines built to an unprecedentedly high standard of engineering. I have given 1940 as a nominal terminal date, not only because the Second World War effectively halted the making of new types for a time, but because by 1945 the demise of metal type and its replacement by 'photocomposition' - a development that had long been predicted in printing trade journals - was beginning to look as if it would really take place, and the prospect haunted the traditional makers of type. All the same, there were some major achievements to come during the second half of the 20th century, and it would be a pity to end the course without saluting some of them, such as the brilliant series of types showing the inventive genius of Roger Excoffon, designer at the small Olive typefoundry in Marseille; or the titanic programme of punchcutting by Monotype in Britain - the last thing of its kind - which was required to make the multiple widths and weights of the typeface Univers from designs by Adrian Frutiger; and the enduring work of Hermann Zapf, whose first type, a pretty little Fraktur, appeared in 1939, whose Palatino was not only a best seller among metal types of the 1950s but became a basic font for the pioneering Apple Macintosh computer and its printers. I read that he has just completed a revised version of his Optima (1954), adapted to the digital typography of the present day.

Preliminary reading

Here are some titles that are worth looking at as an introduction to type and letterforms of our period. The most useful are marked with an asterisk. Bear in mind that in the United States works cited here with a British imprint will often bear that of the US distributor or co-publisher.

Making type

*T. L. De Vinne, Plain printing types. New York, 1900 (and slightly-revised editions of 1902, 1925). One of the best books ever made about the traditional way of making type. It is clearly written by an author who knew his subject thoroughly, and has many reliable historical notes. It has not been reprinted in facsimile, but copies should still be pretty easy to find secondhand and in libraries. (This is the title generally cited, but in searching for it bear in mind that it is one of four volumes issued under the overall title The practice of typography. The subtitle of this one is A treatise on the processes of type-making, the point system, the names, sizes, styles and prices of plain printing types.)

L. A. Legros and J. C. Grant, Typographical printing surfaces. London, 1916. More often cited than read, this work is full of accounts of composing machines of the early 20th century and of the making of type generally at its date. It is certainly worth looking at, but the detail tends to swamp the reader, and its authors were too close to their subject to provide a good overview.

General type history

*Philip Meggs, A history of graphic design. New York, 1998. This remarkably comprehensive work covers illustration and the modern concept of 'graphic design' as well as type and calligraphy. Up to date, well illustrated and readable.

*Michael Twyman, Printing 1770-1970. London, 1970 (revised reprint 1998). Twyman's wide-ranging work sets type history against the changing processes and purposes of printing.

D. B. Updike, Printing types, their history, forms and use. Cambridge, Mass, 1922 (second edition, 1937). Updike's book, like some other type histories of the 20th century, pays little attention to the types of the 19th, but can still be useful. It has a useful account of the types of the British private presses.

A. F. Johnson, Type designs. London, 1934. Later editions, 1959, 1966. Johnson was conscientious in trying to trace the evolution of the 'modern face' and the revival of 'old style' types, although it is evident that he disliked most of them.

Robert Bringhurst, The elements of typographic style. Vancouver, 1992. (2nd ed. 1996). Gives a good idea of the historical elements that lie behind many classical revivals that began life during the era of metal type and which have survived the transition.

Alexander Lawson, Anatomy of a typeface. Boston: Godine, 1990. This is a readable work, written with enthusiasm, even though it is not always reliably informed. Despite the puzzling title, it does in fact discuss many different types and their makers.

The 19th century

There are really only two essential works, both of them classics.

*Nicolete Gray, 19th century ornamented type (London, 1976) was first published in 1938. Its second edition, though only slightly revised, was given many more illustrations, newly photographed. It is easy to point out the work's shortcomings: it hardly discusses how such types were made, and the examples it describes are mostly taken from specimens located in London (at the St Bride Printing Library). Contemporary types in France, Germany and the US are mostly ignored. (For the new edition the US distributor demanded an additional chapter, by Ray Nash, on American types.) But however narrow its focus, Gray's work has the virtues of a pioneering history and still has no serious rival.

*Rob Roy Kelly, American wood type 1828-1900. New York, 1969, tells the story of their vigorous designs in the context of the mechanical inventions that made them possible. Kelly, who died in 2004, was an enthusiast, and his book is well-informed and hugely enjoyable.

The 20th century

*Sebastian Carter, Twentieth century type designers. 2nd ed. London, 1995. This is a very comprehensive and readable account of the artists whose work is seen in the metal typography of the century. He also deals well with several of the designers whose work provides the typographical landscape of the present day.

Lewis Blackwell, Twentieth-century types. London, 1992, a more sumptuous work, with excellent colour illustrations.

Mac McGrew, American metal typefaces of the twentieth century. Second revised edition. New Castle, Delaware, 1993. This is frankly an illustrated catalogue, comprehensive, and strong on facts and dates. It was wisely circulated in a provisional form before publication. This eliminated many myths and errors, but not quite all of them.

The modern movement

Many of the modernist designers of the 1920s - notably El Lissitzky, Moholy Nagy, Herbert Bayer - were interested in typography and their influence can still be seen, especially in the world of advertising.

*Jan Tschichold, The new typography: a handbook for modern designers, translated by Ruari McLean, with an introduction by Robin Kinross. Berkeley, 1995. Jan Tschichold was one of the most articulate and dogmatic of the exponents of the principles of modernism. The original edition of Die neue Typographie, his little handbook of 1928, one of the first textbooks published for typographical designers. Kinross's excellent introduction places the work in context. The original edition has now become an iconic, and very rare and expensive artefact. A facsimile was published in Berlin in 1987.

*Herbert Spencer, Pioneers of modern typography. London, 1969. Revised edition, 1982. A good overview of the movement generally, and of the work of some major modern designers in several different European countries.


A few selected examples. There are monographs on many of the major designers, and even a brief list would swamp this select bibliography. And yet the typographical work of some figures has been curiously neglected. For all their virtues, to my mind none of the biographies of Eric Gill does justice to his lettering or his type designs. His little Essay on typography, High Wycombe, 1930, set out his own philosophy on these matters. The Typophiles of New York coaxed brief typographical autobiographies from both Jan Van Krimpen, On designing and devising type, 1957, and Hermann Zapf, About alphabets, 1970. Here are some texts worth looking at.

*Stanley Morison, A tally of types cut for machine composition and introduced at the University Press, Cambridge 1922-1932. Cambridge, privately printed, 1953. Morison, an adviser to the British Monotype Corporation, The Times newspaper, and the University Press at Cambridge, was persuaded to write this typographical apologia pro vita sua for limited circulation. After his death this work was reissued twice, once in 1973 with the addition of essays by other hands on some types with which Morison had been concerned, and again by Godine in Boston in 1999. This later edition is worth seeking out for its new introduction by Mike Parker, who was type director of Mergenthaler Linotype in Brooklyn during the transition from metal to film and to digital formats. While generous to Morison, Parker even-handedly pays tribute to figures whose role with Monotype has been under-appreciated.

*Nicolas Barker, Stanley Morison, Cambridge, 1972. Morison's very full 'authorized' biography, written with much personal affection, but admirably clear-sighted about its subject. It provides a wealth of detailed typographical information relating to his period.

*Walter Tracy, Letters of credit: a view of type design. London, 1986. A work that can be recommended unreservedly. Like Morison's Tally of types, it includes a personal testament, but it is also highly practical. Drawing on his experience with the British Linotype company, Tracy provides more of the essential detail of making type than any other work I know. It includes case-studies of the types of W. A. Dwiggins and Jan Van Krimpen that are also highly illuminating.

*W. A. Dwiggins, WAD to RR.: a letter about designing type. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard College Library, Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, 1940. This brief (eight-page) work was adapted by Dwiggins from a letter to his friend the illustrator and type designer Rudolf Ruzicka. It is a revealing text about his own methods and his working relationship with 'G' or 'Griff' - the Linotype type director C. H. Griffith.

Calligraphy and lettering

*Nicolete Gray, Lettering on buildings, London, 1960. A brilliant and polemical essay. I recommend Gray's other writing on lettering, including the more diffuse History of lettering, 1987.

*Edward Johnston, Writing and illuminating and lettering, London, 1906 (still in print). The classic textbook which promoted the revival of the use of the broad pen and coloured ideas of the essential qualities of lettering of a whole generation.

There are many specialized periodicals. Browsing in these is one of the most effective ways of capturing the typographical flavour of a period, and there is much information in them that has yet to be incorporated in more general historical works. Here is a brief list of titles. Current titles are indicated with an asterisk.

USA. The Dolphin, PaGA (Printing and graphic arts), Fine print, Printing history*.

UK. Fleuron, Signature, Typography, Alphabet & image, Motif, Journal of the Printing Historical Society*, Matrix*

France and Germany between the World Wars: Arts et métiers graphiques, Gebrauchsgrafik