19th-Century Punch Cutters


Working with precision instruments plus a unique combination of creative judgment and tactile super-skills, type-cutters (also called engravers) hand-carved steel punches, the first step of producing matrices. Parisian typefounder Pierre Simon Fournier [1712-1768] extolled them as artists:

Labor of the engraver is without contradiction, of all those which join in bookmaking, that of which the execution requires the most special talent and of which the skillful results procure most justly for their author the honorable title of artist.1

In the second paragraph of his first biography of Designers and Engravers of Type, William E. Loy states Rule One of letterpress display-type research:

“Very few engravers of type faces work from their own designs; indeed, the qualifications are so dissimilar that one would hardly expect to find them in the same individual.” He then describes the usual collaboration of designer, TF executive and cutter: ideas, sketches, discussions, feedback and finally cutting the pattern font for reproduction in additional sizes.2

The first printers were book publishers, and all steps of production from type design through binding were performed on site by highly skilled, nameless craftsmen. Claude Garamond [c1490/1510?–1561], the first full-time punch-cutter and typefounder, pioneered a division of labor that led to professional specialization throughout the printing industry.3

Until the late 1880s (BBS), all type designers employed by US TFs also cut punches. While the most prosperous, trend-setting leaders of the late-1860s to the early 1880s retained staff designer/cutters, only type cutters were absolutely necessary for production of new faces drawn by independent lettering artists.

Globe-trotting executives of the most successful 19th-century US TFs wisely recruited some of the few men on Earth (primarily natives of Scotland or Germany) who possessed the unlikely/precious combination of manual super-skills and artistic talents that soon propelled them to worldwide dominance of display type innovation. At least during certain times in their histories, others (for example, BTF and DTF) relied almost exclusively on faces drawn by independent artists/illustrators and cut by staff or commissioned engravers.

Perhaps because these type designers/cutters worked with tools and machinery as well as sketchbooks and drawing boards, they were socio-economically classified as “blue-collar” workmen rather than as “white-collar” technicians or “professional” artists.

Traditional Historical Definitions of “Cut”

Unlike continental Europe, Great Britain aggressively policed the power of the press until the late-1600s and again a century later. Talbot Baines Reed [d1893] (Reed & Fox/Fann Street TF) writes that type was extra-strictly regulated—lest words incite and organize “sedition” perhaps characterized by the US Revolutionary War against England.

It was illegal for printers to buy or sell type; they were required to produce it themselves and to provide extensive records intensely scrutinized by an “inquisition-style” committee. The original punishment for offenses was the goriest-imaginable Death by Torture. In 1693, “letter-founding came from under all restraint” until 1799, when search of printing establishments was again enforced for seizure of unauthorized presses and types.

“Such was the law with regard to typefounding at the time when the widows of the two Caslons were struggling to revive their then ancient business, when Vincent Figgins was building up his new foundry, and Edmund Fry, Caslon III and Wilson were busily occupied in cutting their modern Roman to suit the new fashion. And such the law remained nominally until the year 1869, just upon four centuries after the introduction of the Art [Caxton, 1415/1422–1492] into this country.”4

Within this context, when English-speaking type historians write that a certain man cut a certain face, they may intend any of the following meanings:

  1. He personally designed it, cut the punches, struck the matrices and otherwise produced and manufactured it (as per Reed).
  2. He personally designed it and cut the punches.
  3. He personally designed it; someone else cut the punches.
  4. He cut the punches; someone else designed it.
  5. He cut punches for an “interpreted” design “inspired by” the work of someone else:

Studies of ancient scribal hands, medieval inscriptions or embroidery, incunabular romans; “artistic extrapolation” of full character sets from hand-lettered lithography, metal engravings or woodcuts.

Instructions by TF executives to “cut me a face combining the features of [two or more specimens of competitors’ designs].”

Ethically and legally, these definitions challenged the “thin line” between “new and original” and “copy of existing work.” This subjective distinction depended primarily on the mindsets of TF executives who ordered such designs, their attitudes about (and budgets for) patenting them.

2–5. To research his 1898-1900 article series, Loy corresponded with 27 US foundry employees and TF-trained consultants (or their surviving family members and colleagues) to identify which faces they had designed and/or cut.5 Theodore De Vinne, who heartily endorsed the project,6 recognized their contributions by publishing Loy’s Table of Contents.7

6.  None of the above. He or his company purchased the design from a freelancer and employed or commissioned others to perform all subsequent steps.

In 1906-1907, Henry L. Bullen [1857-1938] authored a series of 16 articles entitled Discursions of a Retired Printer published in The Inland Printer.8 Contrary to Loy‘s accounts, he consistently wrote that TF executives “cut” faces introduced by their companies. Without naming the designers and engravers researched by Loy, he referred to them generically as “workmen.”

Annenberg writes9 that Bullen had been employed by ATF in 1892-c1898, when he arranged safe storage of its members’ catalogs and records. When he rejoined ATF in 1908, he volunteered as the Historian/Librarian and continued in this capacity until c1934.

During preparation and publication of these articles, he “campaigned” for this position by suggesting it in the first installment, and later by advertising for and acquiring a world-class personal library of rare books and typographia that he “lent” to the ATF Library until it was transferred to Columbia University in 1934.

In this context, it is helpful to recognize that Bullen’s Discursions were written as a “job application.” He attributes all typeface designs to typefounders, particularly to then-current ATF executives. Loy’s articles offer far more accurate information on the actual designers.

Today’s Historical Definition of “Cut”

Starting in the late 1700s, the Industrial Revolution spread from England to Europe and North America. Commerce concentrated in coastal cities with well-established international shipping routes. Competition led to advertising and a new kind of large, distinctive typefaces that introduced literacy to ordinary people.10

The new types, called “job fonts” (display type), were developed for projects of one or a few pages instead of for books produced by publishing houses. Local printing shops emerged to serve the ad hoc needs of businesses, organizations and the general public. For the first time in history, there were two kinds of printing and two kinds of fonts for two kinds of reading.

The whirlwind of 19th-century display type production could not have functioned at the pace set since Gutenberg for text fonts. To succeed in this new market, the type industry evolved a “streamlined” division of labor with highly trained specialists performing each step of manufacture. Thereafter, the accurate definition of “cutting” type became the literal one as distinguished by Loy and written by Ringwalt:

“One who engraves or cuts the punches used in making the matrices for casting type. This art is so difficult, in consequence of the extreme care necessary to maintain an exact relation between the faces of all the type in a font, that even at the present day an exceedingly small number of persons understand it, and it is nearly as much of a mystery as when it was first practiced by Peter Schoeffer.”11


Footnotes    (← returns to text)
  1. Quoted in a monthly column entitled Graver and Matrix. In American Bookmaker 8:18, January 1889.
  2. Loy, William E.: Designers and Engravers of Type. In The Inland Printer, March 1898.
  3. Lieberman, J.B. Ph.D. (1967): Types of Typefaces and How to Recognize Them, page 37. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York. N.B.:  Cited as Lieberman throughout.
  4. Reed, T.B. (1887):  The State Control of English Letter-Founding. In A History of the Old English Letter Foundries|With Notes, Historical and Biographical, on the Rise and Progress of English Typography, pages 124-136. Elliot Stock, London.
  5. LoyW.E.: Designers and Engravers of Type. A monthly series of biographical articles published by The Inland Printer1898-1900.
  6. Letters of William E. Loy, August–October 1896. California Historical Society (San Francisco) reproduced in Johnston, A.M.; Saxe, S.O. [Editors](2009): William E. Loy|Nineteenth-Century American Designers and Engravers of Type, pages 10-19. Oak Knoll Books, New Castle, DE.
  7. De Vinne, T.L. (1899/1902): Punch-Cutters of the United States. In The Practice of Typography|A Treatise on the Processes of Type-Making, the Point System, the Names, Sizes, Styles and Prices of Plain Printing Types (Second Edition), page 290. The Century Co., New York.
  8. Bullen, H.L. [pen-name Quadrat]: Discursions of a Retired Printer. A monthly series of TF histories and type trends focusing on executives. In The Inland Printer, 1906-1907.
  9. Annenberg, M.; Saxe, S.O. [Editor]; Lieberman, E.K. [Index] (1994):  Type Foundries of America and Their Catalogs, pages 11-13.  Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, DE.  N.B.:  Cited as Annenberg throughout.
  10. Lieberman, ibid., page 44.
  11. Ringwalt, L. (1871):  American Encyclopedia of Printing, page 379. J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia.