Letterforms not only carry language, but also bear the story of the cultures and technologies that produced them. They convey a sense of how aesthetic values and the presentation of information itself are both shaped by processes that are not readily apparent to the untrained eye. Through the close inspection of their forms, as well as the study of the tools and machines that make them possible, we can learn to discern how letterforms were made and how they continue to make meaning in the world.
Inkstone, ink stick, brush (硯, 墨, 筆).
1. Natural inkstone, Japan.
2. Ink stick, partially used, made by Yidege, Beijing.
3. Two small writing brushes, made in Shanghai and Huzhou.
Gift of Xia Wei and Soren Edgren.
This modern-day inkstone, brush, and ink stick are three of the proverbial “Four Treasures” of the classical Chinese scholar’s studio (paper being the fourth “treasure”). Common desktop utensils, they were used to produce manuscripts and to annotate texts. Inkstones hold ink, while also providing a surface for grinding ink; they can also serve as a paperweight. Ink sticks often display fine examples of calligraphy and can include elaborate images—features prized by collectors. Brushes were used for writing on bamboo and silk before the invention of paper, with the earliest examples surviving from the 3rd and 4th centuries BCE.
Oak gall, ca. 2005.
Powdered oak galls, which are rich in tannic acid, are mixed with copperas (an iron-sulphate solution) to produce a dark purple or black liquid ink suitable for writing with a pen or brush (as this ink ages, it tends to change color to a rusty brown). Iron gall ink was widely used in Europe and the Middle East from the 11th century (and perhaps even earlier) into the 20th century.
Qalam, or reed pen, made from bamboo, ca. 2020. Goose-quill pen hand cut by Dennis Ruud, ca. 2018.
In the ancient world, reed pens were developed to write on papyrus before being used later to write on parchment. Pens made from the quills of bird feathers were used at a somewhat later period, perhaps in the 7th century CE. Quill pens were the most frequently used writing implement in the West until the early 19th century. Although quills are no longer routinely used for writing (except in penmanship exercises, such as those taught at RBS), reed pens remain the traditional tool used for Arabic calligraphy.
Japanese manuscript sūtra fragment (弘仁時代寫經). Kōnin period (810–824).
Gift of Xia Wei and Soren Edgren.
This manuscript fragment, which dates from Japan’s Kōnin era, contains a portion of text from one of the prajñāpāramitā sūtras, a body of Buddhist teachings focusing on the perfection of wisdom as realized through śūnyatā, or emptiness. Hand copied onto fine, 9th-century paper, the elegant script was made with a brush. Copying sūtras was considered a meritorious practice among Buddhists, and the prajñāpāramitā sūtras were among those most copied at the time.
Illuminated MS leaf on vellum. The Flight into Egypt, semi-grisaille. Bruges, ca. 1470.
This medieval leaf is in a transitional bâtarde hand often used for luxury manuscripts. It contains a text from Compline, a Roman Catholic prayer traditionally performed at the end of the day, and it features a seven-line historiated initial enclosing a scene of Joseph and Mary’s flight from King Herod into Egypt. The semi-grisaille painting is largely composed in subdued colors, and the letterform surrounding it is painted in blue pigment with white tracery. The burnished gold bordering the letter would have sparkled in candlelight.
“A black girle to a faire Boy,” manuscript poem. England, ca. 1655.
These poems—“A Black girle to a faire Boy” and “The Aunsw’r”—were copied out in an italic letterform that includes some characteristics of secretary hand. (Note the use of the raised e throughout.) The poems, written by Henry Rainolds and replied to by Henry King, address the topic of interracial love. First published in print in The Academy of Complements (London, 1646), the poems were copied, usually together as a pair, into numerous miscellanies and commonplace books during the 17th century.
Sefer Torah Scroll Fragment 1. Aleppo, Syria, ca. 1850.
This fragment of a Torah scroll contains the text of Numbers 5:6 to 7:10. It is written in square Hebrew script with black ink on gevil. While examining this fragment, RBS Research Fellow Sharon Liberman Mintz pointed out that there is scribal evidence indicating that the text was never completed; the scribe did not write out the name of God in the text but rather left four short strokes to indicate where God’s name would be inserted.
Giovanni Battista Palatino. Compendio del gran volume dell’arte del bene, & leggiadramente Scriuere tutte le forti di lettere e caratteri. Venice: Aluise Sessa, 1588.
In this later edition of an early and important 1540 manual on handwriting by Giovanni Battista Palatino (ca. 1515–ca. 1575), the Italian calligrapher presents some of the world’s alphabets, including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Arabic, as well as many of the scripts used in the European courts and chancelleries of his day. Here Palatino reproduces in woodcut his manuscript specimen of Cancellaresca Romana script; the text is an excerpt from Boccaccio’s novel Il filocolo (1335–1336).
Leaf from Maximilian I and Melchior Pfintzing. Theuerdank. Augsburg: Johann Schönsperger, 1517.
Gift of Don Fry.
The bespoke metal type used to print Theuerdank is the oldest, and perhaps the most beautiful and elaborate, manifestation of the Fraktur typeface. Fraktur was derived from a calligraphic script; it belongs to the blackletter family of letterforms commonly used in the German speaking regions of Europe. The large assortment of swashes recalls the flourishes of manuscript calligraphy. In this case, they were achieved by using additional, special sorts of type that could extend the descenders of individual letters.
Psalterium harmonicum, Ebraicè, Græcè, Latinè, & Germanicè. Nuremberg: Elias Hutter, 1602.
Gift of Jon Lindseth.
Elias Hutter (1553–1609), professor of Hebrew, produced various polyglot versions of Biblical texts. In this 1602 book, bound in blind-tooled pigskin, he presents the Psalms in transliterated Hebrew, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and German, with each language requiring separate typefaces. The numerous diacritical marks used in Hebrew and Greek required typefounders to cast fonts containing a large number of sorts.
Divided lay, ca. 1900.
Before the rise of automated typesetting, moveable type was arranged and housed in wooden type cases with dozens of small compartments or “boxes,” each devoted to a specific letter or “sort” of type. The type cases shown follow a pattern common in 18th-century English printing offices. They form a “divided lay,” which distributed a font (English, “fount”) into two separate cases: one for lowercase letters, and one for capitals—hence the terms “lowercase” and “uppercase.”
R. Stanley Nelson. Hand-held type mould. Columbia, MD, 1985.
In 1985, RBS commissioned R. Stanley Nelson to create a type mould for hands-on teaching and instruction. This facsimile was modeled on a 30-point, 16th-century mould of French design that Nelson studied at the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp in 1982. The mould breaks into two halves that can be adjusted to accommodate matrices of different widths, which are held in place by a curved spring.
R. Stanley Nelson. “From Punch to Printing Type” teaching kit. Columbia, MD: 1985. Custom enclosure created by Amira Hegazy ca. 2018.
This kit provides a step-by-step look at how R. Stanley Nelson created a lowercase letter e for a typeface he designed called Robin. He began by creating a punch to form a matrix into which type metal was poured. Using a soft steel rod (1) that he shaped with files, he created a counterpunch (CP) to form the letter’s bowl (3). He then shaped the outside contours of the e using gravers and files. After hardening the punch in a hot fire, he struck it into a small copper bar, which was then filed down, creating a matrix (M) to insert into a type mould. Molten type metal was dropped into the mouth of the mould. The resulting sort was cast (6), the jet removed (7), and the surface finished and dressed (8).
Commercially made fishing tackle box adapted by Terry Belanger to contain various typographical materials. One from a set of twelve.
What do fishing tackle boxes have to do with letterforms? This kit includes a selection of typographical materials, ranging from 17th-century foundry type and a sort of wood type to Linotype mats and slugs, Monotype sorts and rolls, and unfinished hand-cast examples made using the replica hand type mould shown in this case. Note how the unfinished sort of type still includes the jet of metal that resulted from metal being poured into the inner chamber of the mould.
Quinti Horatii Flacci opera. London: John Pine, 1733–1737; Select Fables of Esop and Other Fabulists. Birmingham: John Baskerville, 1761.
John Pine (1690–1756) was one of England’s foremost engravers. His fully engraved edition of the Latin poet Horace’s works was painstaking and costly to produce. Pine attempted to improve on contemporary letterpress work in his engraved edition of Horace. Theodore Low De Vinne characterizes the book as a “stinging rebuke to the wretched typography of his time.” Alfred W. Pollard noted that it “is probable” that Baskerville’s types—which featured thin upstrokes and thick downstrokes—were influenced by books such as Pine’s Horace.
Hindi Devanāgarī script wood type, ca. 1950.
Devanāgarī script (देवनागरी), one of the most widely used writing systems in the world, was developed from the Brahmi script that first appeared circa 3 BCE. It is now used for writing Hindi and many South Asian languages. The mid-20th-century Devanāgarī wood type in the RBS collection may have been used for printing signage or newspaper headlines.
Stenciled choir leaf. Ilbenstadt, Germany, ca. 1725.
This choir leaf was stenciled by hand letter by letter. Stencils were commonly used during the 17th and 18th centuries to produce large liturgical books as well as other items, such as playing cards. The use of a stencil is indicated by the presence of broken strokes around the bowls of letters (such as a, b, d, and o), caused by the need for the stencil to have bridges to prevent fully enclosed shapes from falling out. Another indication of the use of stencils is the inconsistent baseline of the letters, caused by the imperfect lining up of successive stencils.
A Specimen of Printing Types by William Caslon, Letter-Founder to His Majesty. London: Caslon, .
The first leaf of this 18th-century type specimen issued by the foundry of William Caslon includes larger display faces, while the remaining leaves feature a total of 90 flowers and 114 fonts of varying sizes. William Caslon (1692–1766) was one of the first major successful type founders in England, a nation which previously relied on type imported from Dutch foundries. This specimen, dates from the latter part of the Caslon firm’s activities; it was reproduced in E. Chambers’s Cyclopædia in 1786.
Cherokee Syllabary Flash Cards. Tulsa, OK: Cherokee Language & Culture, 1998.
Sequoyah (ca. 1770–1843) began developing a writing system for the Cherokee language in 1809. He perfected the 86-character Cherokee syllabary by 1821 and then presented it to the Cherokee National Council. Within three years, the easy-to-learn syllabary was widely adopted by members of the Cherokee Nation for reading and writing in manuscript. A few years later, the syllabary was used to create a font of type for printing. These late 20th-century flash cards attest to the living legacy of Sequoyah’s innovation.
Ebony-handled dip pen, ca. 1850.
Dip pens have nibs whose capillary channels readily allow them to be charged with ink, so as to make refilling the pen less frequent. Although they were used in the ancient West, dip pens with metal nibs became increasingly popular in the 19th century. This mid-19th-century example, with its ebony handle, has a metal fitting that readily accommodates a gilt J nib made by C. Brandauer and Co. of Birmingham, England. Other fittings and nibs could be attached to the handle to allow for different lines and effects.
The Best in the World! Stone & Murray’s Circus! [Philadelphia]: [n.p.], ca. 1869.
Gift of Patricia Otto.
Darius Wells (1800–1875) of New York City found the means to mass produce wooden letters in 1827 by using a lateral router. Large metal type was unwieldly, extremely heavy, and difficult to lock into type formes; wood type provided a cheap and durable alternative. Wood type was not generally employed in book printing, as very large types were not needed for printing hand-held volumes. But it was frequently and widely used in display advertising, such as this poster for Stone & Murray’s Circus.
Wood type. [Baltimore], early 20th century.
Gift of Maurice Annenberg.
These sorts are drawn from a double case containing 48 drawers of wood type donated in 1974 to RBS (then the Book Arts Press at Columbia University) by the Baltimore printer Maurice Annenberg (1907–1979). They are often used for printing demonstrations, workshops, and instruction in RBS courses, such as “The History of 19th- and 20th-Century Typography & Printing,” taught by Katherine McCanless Ruffin and John Kristensen.
Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. ART is the LANGUAGE the SOUL Speaks poster. Charlottesville: Book Arts Press, 2019.
Although the commercial use of wood type declined—and then largely disappeared—in the 20th century with the advent of photographic printing processes, today it is enjoying a resurgence among book artists and fine press printers. In 2019, the letterpress printer and artist Amos Kennedy offered a printing workshop at RBS as part of the School’s “Making & Teaching: Printing Technologies at Work” Presswork Symposium. Kennedy produced this poster using RBS’s Annenberg wood type and delivered a lecture that discussed his community-based approach to printing.
Linotype matrix assembler, ca. 1925.
Gift of Samuel F. “Bill” Royall Jr.
In 1884, Ottmar Mergenthaler patented technology that allowed text to be cast line by line instead of letter by letter, and a machine was introduced in the office of the New-York Tribune in 1886. RBS’s teaching collection includes several internal components of a Linotype machine. Shown here is the matrix assembler. The brass matrices were put into position for casting by using a keyboard resembling a typewriter. The text was set into justified lines, with each full line of text then cast in hot metal, creating a solid metal line of type (as the “Linotype” name suggests).
Monotype matrix case. [Philadelphia: Lanston Monotype Machine Company, ca. 1920].
Shown here is a relatively early version of a Monotype matrix case, containing 225 matrices for a font of type presented in 15 rows and 15 columns. The arrangement of characters in the matrix case would vary by typeface. This matrix case contains a 10-point font of Typewriter. Monotype was primarily used for book printing and fine press work in contrast to the periodicals and inexpensive, mass-market books printed from Linotype.
Anna Simons. Titel und Initialen für die Bremer Presse. Munich: Bremer Presse, 1926.
The German scribe and calligrapher Anna Simons (1871–1951) designed titles and initials for many of the fine press books issued by Bremer Presse of Willy Wiegand (1884–1961). Her letterforms, hand drawn and cut in wood, served as the Bremer Presse books’ only ornamentation. Here you see her rounded, interlocking letters designed for Bremer Presse’s 1921 Italian-language edition of Dante.
Russell Maret. “A Selection of Digital Alphabets Designed by Russell Maret for Printing Letterpress” in Visionaries & Fanatics. Ann Arbor, MI: The Legacy Press, 2021.
According to contemporary artist and printer Russell Maret, “digigraphic lettering,” or letterforms created via computer software, can be as variable as calligraphy while also affording the precise reproducibility of typography. The digital types designed by Maret and showcased in this printed specimen (including Hybrid II, Peter Sans Italic, Roma Abstract, and Hungry Dutch) are intended to be printed letterpress from a photopolymer plate. They were created by the artist specifically for use in his private press publications.
Amira Hegazy. Sorehead: A Font Painted by Jesse Howard for His Prophetic and Polemic Signs. Chicago: Statement Press, 2019.
Directly inspired by the sans-serif gothic style of wood type, Jesse Howard (d. 1983), a Missouri-based, self-taught artist, created distinctive, polemical, and text-laden signs. Using Adobe Illustrator and Fontself Maker, contemporary artist Amira Hegazy traced individual letters that Howard had hand-painted on signs. Maintaining the artist’s irregular punctuation, orthography, and placements, she created a new font dubbed Sorehead. A digital download of Sorehead is available with the purchase of the printed specimen book.