Posted by robert in winken de worde , whimsical , upper case , Typesetters , Typefounders , Typefaces , Type , slogans , Roman legion , robert lovejoy , printers flowers , Poliphilus , Meaningful art , lower case , letter cutter , keyboard , idea painting , graphically strong image , dissing , Buying paintings , Buying art , bold painting , Blado , Benjamin Franklin , Art I like , 26 metal soldiers
The hero of our story is an upright, Roman soldier named Poliphilus. Sadly, his first marriage ended in tragedy; his wife lost without trace. Alas, with no companion to share his life, he was a very lonely figure, indeed. Time (and Roman legions) march on, of course, and a new partner appeared on the scene: the pretty-faced Blado. The two would find greater expression together, than either one alone. Do you know these two characters? A new army of people, via computers and the dictatorial-sounding, “word processing programs”, now have access to, what was once, the esoteric province of graphic designers, typographers and printers. You may have guessed that I am talking about type styles; some, like Poliphilus and its italic version, Blado, have curious names. To explain the story I began with, Poliphilus is in fact a typeface of roman style. Its original italic was abandoned when the Monotype Corporation (an English type-founder) re-cut a new italic version. Blado was the result of the re-design, which Monotype considered a more suitable match.
I imagine poor Poliphilus pining occasionally for his previous (but equally, once printed, right-leaning) love.
The names of fonts or typefaces are myriad (actually Myriad is the name of one). Many names commemorate the early type designers (Baskerville and Cochin are examples) It seems a pity that you would choose Modern 20 or Sans 7 when naming your font, when Braggadocio, Albertina or Scherzo exist as inspiring examples. Recent ones such as Raincheck and Laserbeam are better! Each to their own, I guess.
To make type you need a letter cutter. He was the obsessive craftsman who could engrave a master typeface, letter by letter, on the ends of small pieces of steel. The smallest type cut was about an eighth of an inch (4pt) and the largest about an inch (72pt). Boxwood was chosen for even larger letters. When it came to immortality, letter cutters fared less well than the designers; many craftsmen may well have become blind from such exacting work.
Everyone sits together at the family table, whether you are big or little. It’s the same with type, since every size of inked letter has to hit the paper at the same time. Frustratingly, those heights varied with the whim of each foundry. At some point (I hope you are getting these puns) it was decided that some standard was required. “Good idea”, everyone said. Now I suggest that if you want to determine a common standard, the best way is not to divide 35 by 83. But such was the wisdom in those days, and, with a few other calculations, the letterpress printers and founders arrived at metal type with a height of 0.918 inches. Bravo, everyone cheered, a Standard had been achieved. (At 23.33, the measurement doesn’t even translate, sensibly into millimeters.)
Currently we have a practical, but dull, number system (6pt 12pt 48pt etc). When type was made of something physical, the font sizes had evocative names such as minikin, pica, excelsior, paragon or brevier. Sadly, the reasons for the names have faded from memory, along with the names of paper sizes such as “crown” and “atlas”. (My favorite is “double elephant.” What an image!) “Foolscap” survives, though. Gone the same way is terminology like “make-ready” which means adjusting the height of worn type with tiny pieces of paper.
Think of the writings of Benjamin Franklin, and you’ll realize what romantic types printers were. As you all learn in school, inky-fingered Mr. Franklin started his working life as a printer, and was later able to indulge in politics on the proceeds. And I further my case (more puns!) by telling you that the little ornaments, which once decorated the pages of books and publications, are known as “printers’ flowers.” The imaginative printer would adorn his work with a bouquet picked from the “garden” growing in his case of type.
When setting type, the compositor would place the tray or type case of small letters at the bottom of his sloping bench with the capitals positioned above - upper case and lower case! An apprentice’s task was to disassemble, and redistribute the used type back into the relevant cases. That was known as “dissing”. Many print shops used to line the banks of the Thames river in London, England, and, so the story goes, lazy apprentices, instead of “dissing”, would tip the type in the Thames. (Don’t drink the water!)
Today, newly emancipated by the genius of the computer, is the lucky typographer who once had to count every word in a manuscript before deciding which font, in which size, best fit the space available; a tedious, but necessary process. But made redundant by the same technology, is the poor compositor. He was the mechanic who placed every letter, one by one into a composing stick before transferring the backwards and upside down words into metal frames or “formes”. That profession is now lost to history, along with intricate beds of letters, heavy cases of type, and lead poisoning. Those that could, cheered!
Type founders are now computer-aided designers with marketing departments — a long way from those who supplied the descendants of the early printers, Gutenberg, Caxton and, the aptly but improbably, named, Winken de Worde.
The computer has liberated type from its physical body of an alloy of lead, antimony and tin. Lines of letters can now run outside their prisons. Words can bend and stretch without the straight jacket. They can overlap and fraternize. Letters can be made to soar and sizes changed at will. Designers can at last make type run and jump in the sun! Every letter of even the longest word can be a different size or typestyle, although I wouldn’t recommend it.
So, when you go to the default setting of 12pt Times New Roman, be grateful, and consider the sweat (and swearing) that used to be involved in getting those 26 metal soldiers to line up and march in step.