The Materials of Typefounding: A List of Surviving Collections

By Mosley, James | Printing History, July 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Materials of Typefounding: A List of Surviving Collections


Mosley, James, Printing History


METAL type, although its use survives in the arcane craft of hand printing, has long vanished from the technology of making texts for widespread reading. One of the paradoxes that have accompanied this process lies in the fact that as this has happened-and partly as a consequence--readers, who were once largely ignorant of the ways in which their text was made and even of the names of common typefaces, have now become far better informed. The names Times New Roman and Garamond and Helvetica, and their sizes in points, are familiar on computer screens. In 2007 Helvetica, the movie, won an audience far beyond the specialist world of professional designers, something that not long ago would have been unimaginable. My object here is to present a brief record of what survives of the materials that were created for this obsolete technology, some of which bear the original form of designs that are perpetuated in familiar digital fonts.

Typographical hardware was durable. Garamond's steel punches for his Greek, cut in about 1540, survive in good condition, and so do the copper matrices for many of his roman and italic types and those of his contemporaries, which were circulated in many countries as multiple strikes from the original punches, and which in some cases survived in use for the next two centuries. Some matrices in the collection made by the Enschede type-foundry in Haarlem derive from punches that were cut in the 1490s. Types can be cast from these early matrices today that are identical in their face to the originals used by printers five hundred years ago. But the trade secrets of the makers of type were often jealously guarded and only reluctantly passed on. It is notorious that when Joseph Jackson, a skilled and intelligent apprentice to William Caslon and his son, made a punch on his own initiative and showed it to his employers, they--or most likely, the son, a jealous and less talented figure--hit him and threatened to send him to jail if he did it again.' Since the processes involved in making type were rarely written down or passed on completely, there is a danger that much knowledge will be lost along with the everyday habits of the punchcutters and typefounders, and our appreciation of exactly what the makers of type did will suffer for this loss. Moreover, if we no longer possess their knowledge and their skills, it will be all the more difficult to judge what we should preserve from the materials that have survived.

The reasons why the use of metal types faded away are varied, but the process, once it began, was inexorable. An important part of the market for type for setting by hand was severely reduced at the end of the nineteenth century by the introduction of the Linotype and other keyboard-driven systems for casting whole texts in metal and recycling the slug or type after printing, and not reusing it. "The Lino is ruining us," wrote one British founder to another. It also seemed likely quite early in the twentieth century that, despite the technical difficulties that would have to be overcome, other means of placing words on paper than the use of metal type cast in relief would be developed sooner or later, since such methods, once perfected, would offer great economic advantages. Indeed, according to some forecasts, metal type would be obsolete by 1940. Early in the twentieth century photogravure and offset lithography already offered alternative technologies for printing text and images together. All that was needed was a means of generating the text without the use of relief metal, and that was achieved by the 1950s.

But what then happened was--so far as I am aware--completely beyond any forecast that was made at that time. Filmsetting or photocomposition, based on familiar photographic processes, was done with proprietary commercial systems, some of which were developed and marketed by old-established names among the typefoundries and composing machine makers like Berthold and Linotype, and this seemed to ensure their survival as companies.

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The Materials of Typefounding: A List of Surviving Collections
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