A Typography of Impoverishment: D.C. McMurtrie's Reception of European Modernist Typography and an American Economic Depression

By Golec, Michael | Visible Language, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

A Typography of Impoverishment: D.C. McMurtrie's Reception of European Modernist Typography and an American Economic Depression


Golec, Michael, Visible Language


D.C. McMurtrie's Reception of European Modernist Typography and an American Economic Depression

This paper pries into the disclosures of design history by addressing the question of American modernist typography from the blind side as it were. One possible source of leverage, the one / choose for this brief and modest article, is to simply ask the question: What was the temper of typography in light of an economic and social debacle? That it took a modernist cast is significant therefore the queries raised from the nexus of American modernism and economic depression generates a particular course of inquiry beginning with location - McMurtrie typography and Chicago.

Language is the amber in which a million subtle and precious thoughts are safely embodied and preserved - a storehouse in which is contained the incarnation of the thoughts and feelings of a nation.

Frederick W.Goudy'

Goudy remarked on language as it related to typography. He wrote of an arrangement of alphabetic letter forms, the materialization of language composed, ordered and set.These modest marks gracing the pages of magazines, newspapers, billboards, etcetera, for Goudy, reflected the ideological state of the nation. Goudy wrote his introduction to Douglas C. McMurtrie's unassuming Type Design in the late 1920s, two years prior to this nation's downward slide into economic depression. In the 1920s the American economy was on a rapid and steady rise. A boom in advertising matched the country's prosperity; and advertising grew in response to an affluent public's purchase power. As a greater demand for promotional vehicles arose, primarily in the form of magazines, so too did the need for a diversity of typographic forms and layouts designed to capture the public's attention. But this would soon change, for by 1929 the stock market crash radically pitched the economic climb, and suddenly the nation's well-being took a calamitous dive. The 1929 collapse of financial markets effectively shattered the economy and the public's confidence in their country's financial institutions.

As Goudy would have it, the language of the day, circa 1929 and after, would have to store the nation's despondency, its destitution; while at the same time language would hold some glimmer of hope, a desire for a return to a lost prosperity. In light of an imminent depression, Goudy's articulation of language as specular, as mirroring the nation's sentiments, would take an apodictic turn.The auratic glow of language (like the glow of gold from which the nation's economic stability then depended upon),as Goudy would have it, soon faded into the semi-opaque veil of delusion. Indeed, by the 1930s, languages teleology, made manifest in advertising through typography, was economic resuscitation and national preservation. As the depression era came to a close, Goudy's storehouse" of language was packed with failed dreams and dashed hopes.The swift, and in its own way efficient, economic crash saw to this state of affairs.'

Despite national calamity, out of the depression's rubble rose a black cloud of typefaces and typographic production.' I say"black' because typographic production for advertising partially obscured the social and economic problems of the decade.Throughout the 1930s, a massing of typography in advertisements hawking various products seemed to be at odds with the public's conservativism in their resistance (or in many cases inability) to purchase goods. And while advertising layout was fast becoming more reliant on visual images,' the copy attached to ads suggested through what could be understood as obstinate language that the world was quite different than the public's Depression era experience.

The deliberate nature of this concealment is difficult to pry into, nonetheless, as it is historically apparent, one possible source of leverage is to simply ask the question:What was the temper of typography in light of an economic and a social debacle? …

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