Readability and Revival: The Case of Caslon

Article excerpt

In his book Types of Typefaces (1967), J. Ben Lieberman, one of the founders and first President of the American Printing History Association, wrote an intriguing description of one particular typeface, Caslon. It has been, he wrote,

   the most controversial face in history. Some persons consider it
   the greatest type ever (they have popularized a motto, "When in
   doubt use Caslon") and others think it overrated, a collection of
   mistakes, elusively out of keeping with everything. But--it works,
   is highly readable, alive, with warmth and open dignity that has no
   pretense whatsoever. Caslon is the prime example of a face in which
   the individual letters are nothing, but the total effect is strong
   and honest--the reverse of an all-star performance in which each
   letter has such perfection that it competes to be noticed. (p. 39)

Further, Lieberman explained carefully what he meant by readability, one of the vaunted characteristics of Caslon, by separating the concept of readability from legibility:

   "Legibility" is based on the ease with which one letter can be told
   from another [Fig. 1]. "Readability" is the ease with which the eye
   can absorb the message and move along the line. (p. 85)

He went to explain that readability of text is affected by not only the typeface used but also letter- and word-spacing, leading, measure, margins, quality of printing, the paper, and so on.


Like many who had contact with him, including probably a few readers of this journal, I caught the "virus" of passion for typography from Lieberman--Uncle Ben to me--and his writings. And while the virus was dormant for a long time, it led eventually to my own revival of Caslon, Williams Caslon Text (Font Bureau). And the reason for my revival was to capture the readability and warmth of metal Caslon, which I felt the digital versions hadn't fully achieved. In the course of explaining my goals in reviving Caslon, and quoting Lieberman and others, I have found that not only is everything typographic subject to debate, but also that readability is a particularly contentious issue.

Did people really view Caslon as especially readable? And did that readability have anything to do with the revival of Caslon in the nineteenth century? And is the the concept of "readability" even valid? Who came up with the distinction that Lieberman makes?


We first meet with the issue of readability and Caslon with the first rival to Caslon's types, those of John Baskerville. Benjamin Franklin was an admirer of Baskerville and played a prank on a critic. As he recounts it in a letter to Baskerville, the critic and his friends complained that Baskerville

"would be a means of blinding all the readers in the nation, for the strokes of your letters, being too thin and narrow, hurt the eye, and he could never read a line of them without pain:" "I thought," said I, "you were going to complain of the gloss on the paper, some object to." "No, no," says he, "I have heard that mentioned; it is not that; it is in the form and cut of the letters themselves; they have not that natural and easy proportion between the height and thickness of the stroke, which makes the common Printing so much the more comfortable to the eye."--You see this gentleman was a connoisseur. (1)

That night, Franklin tore the top off a specimen sheet of Caslon, and the next day showed it to the critic, saying that it was a sample from Baskerville. The critic then proceeded to give a detailed critique, explaining why he was feeling so much pain trying to read the types in the specimen. However, as we shall see, Franklin's prank was only the first salvo in an ongoing battle over what makes type readable.


The first revival of Caslon, which was also the first sustained revival of any typeface, was done by William Pickering, publisher, and Charles Whittington, printer. …