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.
Published by the University of Arizona Press in 2013 (purchase here), Mapping Wonderlands explores popular, illustrated sight-seeing maps of Arizona during the first half-century of statehood. Chosen as a Southwest Book of the Year (see the review here), Mapping Wonderlands investigates how imaginary geographies influence our experience of tourism destinations. The book is extensively illustrated with vintage maps and, though it is a work of carefully researched scholarship, is also accessible to a wide readership.