Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Typography Geeks and Font Snobs

Are you one of those people who check the colophon of the bestseller you just finished reading to see what type was used? Me too!! Do you also lose all respect for people who use Comic Sans in professional presentations? It's like we were separated at birth. Knowing geeks in both the book world and in the digital domain, I know people who will almost come to blows over typeface choices. There are situations where you cannot even bring up Comic Sans MS without starting a fight.

The most recent issue of the Fine Press Book Association's journal Parenthesis contains an article on typography design that made me think about typefaces designed by printers long dead that influence our lives today. When you pull down the font menu in your word processing program, you may see fonts named Caslon or Baskerville. Both are named for important English printers.

William Caslon (1692-1766) was an influential English typeface designer (and gunsmith) whose Caslon Foundry produced the type that was used for the first printed version of the Declaration of Independence. Variations of his attractive serif font are still in common usage.

Specimens of Caslon Typeface

John Baskerville (1706-75) followed in Caslon's footsteps, developing new styles of type and printing, and developing a process to make paper smoother and whiter, the better to display his crisp black type.

Remember John the next time you choose Baskerville Old Face from your font menu.

The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century resulted in mass produced typefaces and poorer quality printing that offended the sensibilities of some, among them William Morris, leader of the Arts and Crafts movement in England. Morris, seeking a return to the proud artisan tradition of such early printers as Nicolas Jenson and Sweynham & Pannartz, founded the Kelmscott Press to produce beautiful books printed with handset types he designed himself.

Kelmscott books were printed in three great fonts: Golden (designed for and named for Voragine's The Golden Legend), Troy, a black-letter or Gothic-style typeface, and Chaucer, the typeface used in Kelmscott's greatest production, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Friends of Morris also founded private presses and designed their own typefaces. Charles Harry St. John Hornby and his wife Cecily established the Ashendene Press, where they resurrected the beautiful Subiaco typeface used by the early Venetian printers Sweynham & Pannartz.

The Ashendene Press Life of St Francis of Assisi

Type designer and illustrator Eric Gill worked at the Golden Cockerel Press, creating typefaces and woodcuts for what was the greatest private press in the period between the two world wars. When you review your font choices in your favorite word processing program, you are likely to see at least two of Gill's creations, Gill Sans and the lovely Perpetua, my personal favorite font.

Perhaps the greatest typography geek and font snob of them all was Doves Press founder Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson. C-S had already established a name for himself as a bookbinder when he decided to venture into printing as well. He collaborated with Emery Walker, an engraver who had an impressive collection of 15th century typefaces. Together they developed the beautful Doves type, one of the greatest typographic achievements of the modern age. Below is a picture of the opening page of the Doves Bible, one of the three greatest private press books (the other two being the Kelmscott Chaucer and the Ashendene Dante).

Like the classic English eccentric he was, Cobden-Sanderson decided he could not let his typeface be abandoned to the use of the undeserving when he shut down the Doves Press in 1916. Rather than let it fall into the wrong hands, he walked out onto Hammersmith Bridge in London and threw all of the type into the Thames.

The next time you find yourself cornered by typography geeks at a bookish cocktail party, all you have to do is say, "Which was better, the Subiaco type or the Doves?" You can safely slip away while the font snobs battle it out. Don't bother to thank me. Just avoid using Comic Sans in professional correspondence and I'll consider us even.

Images courtesy of WikiCommons.


  1. I'm not sure I could narrow a list of greatest private press books down to just 3 titles. I think I'd have to have five and add The Golden Cockerel Press's 'Four Gospels' and The Cranch Press's 'Hamlet'. Does that make me greedy?

  2. I definitely agree with you, bruce. The Golden Cockerel Four Gospels is one of my all time favorites. I'm not ashamed to say it moved me to tears the first time I catalogued a copy.


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