• Of Noah Webster, and footnotes ignored

    One of my favorite bits of typographical trivia holds that the “&” character is properly called “per-se and”, meaning “the word ‘and’ in and of itself”. This character was much more commonly used in the 18th and 19th centuries; it was even considered the 27th letter of the alphabet.

    But just yesterday I learned that this view wasn’t universally held. I have an 1820s copy of Noah Webster’s Blue Backed Speller on my bookshelf. Leafing through it, I found that the great American lexicographer and educational reformer also included “&” in the alphabet. Though according to a tiny footnote on the same page, he wasn’t down with the name at all:

    Now, Webster’s spelling book went through 385 editions in his own lifetime; it sold 60 million copies by 1890. There probably wasn’t a school child in America that had not sweated over its pages. Yet, somehow, throughout the 19th century, generations of elementary school teachers roundly ignored Webster’s advice, and students continued to recite “X, Y, Z, and per-se and” until they had ground it down into the now familiar “ampersand”.

    The moral of this tale is, I suppose, don’t put anything important in a footnote. But I do wonder what we’d call the ampersand today if Noah Webster had printed his advice just a little bigger.

  • The 1912 Schelter & Giesecke Specimen Book

    Here is last year’s Christmas gift to myself: a hefty catalog of long-forgotten typefaces by a famed German type foundry, which I managed to snag on eBay. More than a mere listing of available fonts, the book aims to show the foundry’s wares in the best possible light, putting the fonts through their paces in a variety of attractive use examples, artful layouts, and eye-popping arrangements. There even is a mock newspaper tipped into the book.

    What attracted me to this book was not the selection of Fraktur typefaces you’d expect to see from a German type foundry of the time, but the wealth of Art Nouveau typefaces displayed in the middle section. If all goes well, several of these will be featured in my next design kit!

    Read on to see a quick tour through the book, in 80 pictures.

  • A Brief History of Printing in America

    When we think of the history of printing in America today, we are most likely to place the starting point with Ben Franklin and some of the other great American printers of the 18th century. In fact, as early as fifty years after its invention the printed word had become an integral part of Western culture, and wherever European discoverers ventured, a printing press was sure to follow.

  • A Brief History of Fraktur

    At the end of the 15th century most Latin books in Germany were printed in a dark, barely legible gothic type style known as Textura. What little was printed in German used the rougher and more base Schwabacher type. 
    When the German emperor Maximilian (reigned 1493-1517) decided to establish a splendid library of printed books, he directed that a new typeface be created especially for this purpose. This typeface was to be more elegant than the boorish Schwabacher, more modern than the gothic Textura and yet distinctly “German” in that it should not incorporate elements of the Antiqua style typefaces that the humanist movement had just created in Italy based on ancient roman lettering, and which had become the rage of printing fashion south of the Alps. Based on the Bastarda handwriting used by the scribes of the Emperor’s chancery, the calligrapher Leonhard Wagner designed this new typeface, which soon became known as Fraktur (say frac-toor) for the broken character of its lines. Only four of Maximilian’s 130 planned editions were completed in his lifetime, but those four had been sent for illustration to the foremost German renaissance artists, Dürer, Cranach and Grün. The artists used the new typeface in their works and thus gave it a wide distribution. Albrecht Dürer’s “Unterweysung” is still one of the most famous books printed in Fraktur.