Guest Blogger: Grendl Löfkvist on Wood Type


STEP right up, ladies and gentlemen, the show is about to begin…Witness the meteoric rise in the use of wood type, gasp at the unparalleled beauty of the sculpted letterforms, marvel at the incredible size of the enormous printed wooden letters placed before your very eyes, all right here at the SFPL, merely for the price of a library card!

Extraordinary Exhibitions: the Wonderful Remains of an Enormous Head, the Whimsiphusicon, & Death to the Savage Unitarians : broadsides, from the collection of Ricky Jay. Quantuck Lane Press : Distributed by W.W Norton, c2005. [SCOWAH Collection]
Just as the circus barker needs to shout to be heard over the general din, so did the type of the 1800s need to get larger, louder, and ever more bold to catch the eye of the public among the plethora of placards, propaganda, and playbills lining the streets and competing for attention.



Printers of the era used metal type to set copy, but that posed problems in display sizes. Large metal letters cooled unevenly and did not result in a smooth, ink-receptive surface. Also, when cast of solid type metal, letters were really, really heavy. One single capital letter “M,” just over an inch high, could weigh up to a pound! Fortunately, printers had a long history of working with relief woodblocks, so it was only logical to look to wood to satisfy the demands of the growing advertising industry.



Letters carved in wood not only weighed less, they were easier to manufacture, and were a fraction of the cost of an equivalently large letter made of lead. Wood was the obvious choice to fill the ever-expanding advertising industry's demand for big, bold, brand-new type.

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Let’s take a look at some of the beautiful and intriguing specimen sheets and broadsides available for public viewing in the SFPL Grabhorn Collection, all printed from vintage wood type.

Caslon (wood type) Specimen of Wood Letter Founts Plain, Ornamental, and Double-Working, supplied by H. W. Caslon & Co. Letter Founders. London: [1857?]
First, here's a title page with enough fonts to make a mid-century Swiss modernist recoil in horror. Of course, it is a specimen book, so the printer can be forgiven for mixing so many type styles, sizes, and weights.



[NB: “Fount” is British English for “font.” The word has its origins in the French word “fondre” (to melt...think of cheese fondue), describing the molten metal poured into a type mould. Perhaps not so appropriate to describe wood type...or type in the digital age, for that matter!]
Caslon (wood type) Specimen of Wood Letter Founts Plain, Ornamental, and Double-Working, supplied by H. W. Caslon & Co. Letter Founders. London: [1857?]
To the 21st century viewer, this “Chinese” type from the Caslon Wood Type Specimen Book conjures images of hair-metal bands from the 1980s, complete with spiked leather, spandex tights, and stuffed codpieces. It is hard to believe that this typeface was manufactured over 100 years before Mötley Crüe and Metallica howled their anthems to the raging crowds of 1980s headbangers. One wonders what the original type designers would think of such an association. 
Caslon (wood type) Specimen of Wood Letter Founts Plain, Ornamental, and Double-Working, supplied by H. W. Caslon & Co. Letter Founders. London: [1857?]
Another typeface ahead of its time...This low-slung, well-hung “Antique Condensed” from the Caslon specimen book seems reminiscent of platform boots or bell bottoms from the 1970s, and would not have been out of place advertising men’s belted cardigans in a ‘70s Playboy Magazine, or introducing the sensuous centerfold dressed only in her lucite-heeled disco platform boots.

Caslon (wood type) Specimen of Wood Letter Founts Plain, Ornamental, and Double-Working, supplied by H. W. Caslon & Co. Letter Founders. London: [1857?]
Another stellar specimen sheet from Caslon, showing a pair of elaborate “Tuscans” as well as a shaded (3-D) “Gothic,” a sans serif. The poetic phrases found on specimen sheets are worth a study in and of themselves, for the eclectic and often humorous word combinations designed to showcase a font’s most intriguing letterforms. 
Ornamented types : twenty-three alphabets from the Foundry of Louis John Pouchée : the specimens printed from the original wood-engraved blocks in the St Bride Printing Library : with two additional alphabets from other sources.
London : I.M. Imprimit in association with the St. Bride Printing Library, 1992-1993
An “historiated,” or illustrated, typeface from the Pouchée collection, each letter containing cryptic symbols from the mysterious, secretive world of the Freemasons. These historiated letters from the 1800s differ from the illuminated initials of the Middle Ages in that the images are contained within the letterforms themselves, instead of surrounding the letters in a larger frame. 

Ornamented types : twenty-three alphabets from the Foundry of Louis John Pouchée : the specimens printed from the original wood-engraved blocks in the St Bride Printing Library : with two additional alphabets from other sources.
London : I.M. Imprimit in association with the St. Bride Printing Library, 1992-1993
A close-up of this bewitching historiated Pouchée “J” and its mystical symbols of the Masonic Brotherhood. Today, this imagery seems well suited for a Goth nightclub, although the letterform itself is perhaps not adequately austere.


Wood Type, Wm. H. Page & Co., 1872
The wood end grain is clearly visible in this extremely large and well-formed slab serif “N” from the Wm. Page specimen book. Half-rounds of hard maple were stacked and dried for up to two years before being carved by a pantograph and router into the desired letterform. Note the difference in the counters (the spaces contained within the letterform)... one is pointed, the other rounded. Why? Type designers give careful consideration to issues of optical balance, so letterforms are not usually perfectly symmetrical, or geometric, although they may appear so initially to the eye.

Wood Type, Wm. H. Page & Co., 1872
And what type collection would be complete without a pointing finger? Informative, assertive, accusing...like the “yad” used by the reader to highlight passages in the Torah, this handy index finger points the way through the text, indicating the important bits...




American Wood Type, 1828-1900, Rob Roy Kelly Wood Type Collection, 1964
...such as the foxy tail* on this sensuous French Clarendon Bold lower-case “g” from the Wm. Page specimen book. It practically twitches off the page, poised to attack! (*NB: This part of the g is usually called a loop, not a tail, in type anatomy and nomenclature.)



Many innovative and eclectic type styles emerged during the Industrial Revolution, as these bold specimen sheets from the Grabhorn Collection demonstrate. Though some of these have long since been cast into the dustbin of history, wood typefaces (or facsimiles thereof) are experiencing a renaissance in today’s digital world. This phenomenon is evident in the offerings of popular modern foundries such as P22, which recently teamed up with the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum to digitize many of Hamilton's age-old faces.



Perhaps it is nostalgia for the imperfections of a handmade and well-worn object, in today's world where fonts are manipulated and fine-tuned with bézier curves to produce perfection at sizes much smaller than the naked eye could ever detect, that fuels this wood type renaissance.


Ornamented types : twenty-three alphabets from the Foundry of Louis John Pouchée : the specimens printed from the original wood-engraved blocks in the St Bride Printing Library : with two additional alphabets from other sources.
London : I.M. Imprimit in association with the St. Bride Printing Library, 1992-1993

Faces such as this one (from the Pouchée specimen book) have been revived and re-issued in digital form by contemporary font designers, and one can even purchase an app for the iPad which sets and “prints” wood type and cuts.



The ornamental spheres which adorn this face fill the extra white space inherent in certain letterforms, including this striking and original ampersand. The need to correct this "horror vacui" or "fear of the void" is a concept dating to medieval times that is still relevant to artists and designers today.

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Some critics (beginning with William Morris and continuing through the present day) allege that the Industrial Revolution resulted in the total degeneration of graphic design and typography, thanks to the cheapening of production standards and the loss of craftsmanship that resulted.



In some ways, that era is reminiscent of the boom in type design that occurred in the 1990s following the introduction of the personal computer. Suddenly, people, all kinds of people, many with no training in typography whatsoever, were stretching, manipulating, squeezing, and distorting type, adding shadows, glows, dimensions, and otherwise giving type traditionalists nightmares.



What happened in both periods was an incredible proliferation of type and design, some of it done by relative amateurs. A positive aspect of this boom was the massive experimentation and creativity that resulted…certainly not all of it spectacular, but as a whole, extremely intoxicating. So come on in to the circus tent, head to the 6th floor of the Main Library (Book Arts & Special Collections*), ask the librarian for the wood type specimen sheets from the 1800s, and let yourself be seduced by the show!


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Grendl Löfkvist is an instructor in the Visual Media DesignDepartment at City College of San Francisco, where she teaches the history of graphic design, book arts, calligraphy, and letterpress printing. She also offers a variety of courses at the San Francisco Center for the Book, including blackletter calligraphy, letterpress printing, and the history and practice of printing with wood type.Additionally, she is a press operator at Inkworks Press in Berkeley, a collectively owned, politically progressive offset printing company that has served the peace and social justice communities of the San Francisco Bay Area since 1974. She does letterpress and printmaking work under the imprint of Cloven Hoof Press, and is currently the President of the American Printing History Association's Northern California Chapter. Her interests include the study of printing as a subversive “Black Art,” and she is always on the lookout for bizarre, unusual, or macabre print and type lore.

*Please refer to the Guidelines for Using the Collections for more information.
 

 





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