Book Excerpt



New York: American Printing History Association, 1998. 8vo. cloth. 176, (4) pages followed by 38 plates. This book is a fascinating survey of typefaces developed in America after 1892 and intended for composition in metal for the use of an individual or press. It includes essays by the following: Susan Otis Thompson on American Arts & Crafts typefaces, Martin Hutner on the Merrymount Press, Herbert Johnson on Bruce Rogers's Centaur type, Cathleen Baker on Dard..... READ MORE

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American Proprietary Types:

FOR A PRINTER, a proprietary typeface is the ultimate mark of individuality, one that sets the products of his press apart from all others. In the earliest days of printing, all types were by necessity proprietary since no separate industry existed to supply them. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, printers had long been used to procuring their types from professional founders and had no way of distinguishing the products of their presses by face alone. Though an abundant supply of lively, even riotous, designs existed for advertising use, a depressing sameness had come to characterize commercial book printing, where the typical typeface tended to be weak and undistinguished.
The notion that a private press, unencumbered by the pressures of the marketplace, could somehow recapture the glories of early printing originated with William Morris. An essential component of Morris's private press vision, articulated during the I890s, was the creation of a private typeface based on fifteenth-century models. Not only would this proprietary design be uniquely different from the crowd of bland nineteenth-century faces, it would be a symbolic connection to the uncorrupted early years of printing. Morris's Golden type was the result, and, along with forceful typography and bold woodcut illustration and ornamentation, enabled his books to burst like a desert sunrise upon the consciousness of the nineteenth-century printer toiling in the gray typography of that day. It little mattered that the rosy haze of four centuries intervened like dust in the desert air and conveniently obscured whatever was difficult and unpleasant about early printing. All that remained was the impression of great ideals, noble typography, and the sense that printers could publish what pleased them.
Morris and many of his imitators were particularly drawn to oldstyle Venetian roman models and from that lofty range of fifteenth-century exemplars declared that the types of Nicholas Jenson belonged on the very highest pinnacle, ripe for rediscovery.
The private types that ensued, first from England, and then from America and the continent, were characteristic of their creators: Morris, the bold, confident entrepreneur and socialist had his sturdy, yeoman like Golden type; CobdennSanderson, skittish and dreamy by turns, produced the graceful Doves type; St. John Hornby, looking for something distinctive and patrician, settled on the awkward, prepubescent roman of Sweynheym and Pannartz, and called his version Subiaco.
In each case, these private types were entrusted with greater roles than merely carrying a text to the reader. Imbued with the egos of their creators, they were meant to be noticed and admired. If deliberately archaic, they were also meant to show the modern eye that type design had wandered down an unrewarding and sterile path. Unfortunately, to be inspired by Morris did not necessarily mean that one could create like Morris. The poet and critic T. S. Eliot, writing about Milton, pointed out that" a man may be a great artist, and yet have a bad influence." Great types, like great poetry, have also been badly imitated, so that what was once distinctive and ground-breaking often breeds things tiresome and debased. On the whole, however, the private press movement was to have a stimulating effect on type design and typography, and a number of proprietary faces were outstandingly beautiful, if not always suited for the long haul.
The books of Morris and his immediate disciples began to circulate in the United States from 1892 on. Their influence was swift and startling and helped to pique the growing distaste for the text and display types of the Victorian Age. The display types, which once seemed fresh and assertive, were now dismissed as ugly and excessively maladroit, while the text types were branded as flimsy and characterless. At the same time, American typefounders, already reeling from an industry-wide consolidation, were trying to comprehend a landscape recently altered by the appearance of the composing machine and the professional typographer.
In the midst of this turmoil, the first American proprietary types began to appear, including those of De Vinne, Updike, and Goudy. The motives behind their creation were not purely idealistic, but were leavened with the spirit of American enterprise. Nor were these (and the types which followed) entirely "private," since some were released in commercial versions soon after they were designed, or were intended for proprietary commercial use to begin with. De Vinne was a well-established commercial printer, while Updike hoped to become one; both were steeped in the history of letterforms and had an appreciation for early types, but were sufficiently pragmatic to realize that a good proprietary revival was capable of adding not only distinction but profit to their enterprises.
Frederic Goudy was another of the pioneers. Alternately praised as a genius or shrugged off as an opportunistic hack, he, of all American designers of proprietary types, produced one-the Village type-which came the closest to the everyday Venetian roman of the 14 70S. Most of the American designers who were to follow, however, felt no compulsion to limit themselves to Venetian, or even fifteenth-century models, but explored a variety of sources.
The discerning reader may already have realized from a perusal of the table of contents that a type's design characteristics were not among the criteria used to choose the faces for discussion in this volume. More importantly, a typeface had to have been:

  • Designed by or under the direction of an American
  • Produced after 1892
  • lntended for composition in metal
  • Originally limited to the use of an individual or press, though such a press need not have been private.

For example, two types-Merrymount and American Uncial -were not designed by Americans. They are included, however, because the former was created for the Merrymount Press in Boston and produced under the direction of D. B. Updike, while the latter was the culmination on American soil of a design that had evolved over many years. Moreover, Victor Hammer, its creator, did make the United States his permanent home after being forced by political turbulence to leave his native Austria.
Have we interpreted the term "American proprietary types" rather too broadly? I don't think so; to be too restrictive would have been pointless. Type design, after all, is international in scope, and a type designer would be poorer indeed for looking only within his own borders for inspiration.
It remains only to be said that matrices, and even fonts, still survive for a surprisingly large number of these types. A few were adapted for the Monotype machine, and some still survive in film and digital form. The stories of their creation as told here are fascinating, and even those types which have been well-documented still have secrets to reveal. The American Printing History Association is grateful to all the authors who have contributed their scholarship to this volume. Proprietary or not, a well-designed typeface, printed in a book, is still the means by which we most heartily enjoy the act of reading.