Evolution of Display Type•2

A “Fast-Forward” Overview of Book Types, 1470-1800

Full Specimens are Digital Revivals
The # symbol indicates that the face has been digitally archived for Posterity
Underscored text marks future links to parts of this article in preparation.

Primary Source (unless otherwise cited). Lieberman, J.B. Ph.D. (1967): Types of Typefaces and How to Recognize Them, pages 33-43. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York (Bibliography).

Printing vs Publishing

Graphic designers today think of printers as “service bureaus”—businesses that output digital documents with offset presses or CMYK laser eqipment. Things were very different in the beginning, when all printers were book publishers…

Besides printing per sé, publishers juggle the executive gamut of financial, technical, creative and editorial responsibilities for producing books and periodicals: market research, content planning, layout design, page composition, distribution logistics plus copy-editing, proofreading and sometimes translation or authorship.

For 350+ years after Gutenberg (c1440), printing was engaged almost exclusively in publishing religious texts, classical (Greek and Roman) literature, ancient and subsequent scholarly works (mathematics, engineering, etc.) dating back to writings acquired during The Crusades (11th–13th centuries). The most prestigious houses were equipped with fonts of Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, Sanskrit, etc.

Until the mid-1500s, every step of book production from typefounding to binding and retailing was usually performed in the same building [sidebar]. Claude Garamond [c1490/1510?–1561], the first full-time punch-cutter and typefounder (more below), pioneered a division of labor that led to professional specialization in other phases of publishing.

Like their scribe ancestors, printers/publishers were the grammarians [sentence syntax, punctuation signals] and lexicographers [word meanings, spelling, usage] of their time. As printed books spread literacy, the first known newspaper was issued in 1609; the first magazine, in 1731.1

The first roman types [sidebar, top] were “humanistic”: They looked as much as possible like the dual-alphabet scribal hands then in use. Naturally, these available models were easily read by the literate, who at first disdained printed books as cheap imitations of hand-copied manuscripts. During the three centuries following the “Incunabula” (Gutenberg–1500), the trend steered steadily from simulation of handwriting toward faces exploiting advances in technology.

Early Experiments

As early as 1480, some of the best minds in Europe undertook the challenge of creating perfect roman majescules [capital letters] by applying geometric principles to the proportions. The most famous of them were artist/mathematician Albrecht Dürer (Nuremberg 1525) [shown] and Geoffroy Tory (Paris 1529), Printer to the King.

Their theories did not realistically affect type design until 1702: The French Academy of Sciences reinvented the idea by drafting a face called Romain du Roi# in grids of 2,304 tiny squares per letter. It was produced by the royal punch-cutter, Philippe Gran­jean, and identified future roman faces as such [sidebar].

It was the first “transitional” face—a milestone marking progression from humanist types to the “modern” ones developed in France and Italy nearly a century later. Lieberman explains that it was not well accepted: Besides being too “different,” it preceded Baskerville’s development of improved paper and ink for printing fine lines.

Today’s Classifications

The following “hindsight” system was formulated by 20th-century historians. The coined term Garalde blends the Aldine and Garamond categories, and the oldstyle designation refers to humanism.

N.B.: The academic definition of oldstyle text types is very different from the 19th-century commercial one for display faces. Titles like old style, antique, medieval and ancient were routinely applied to the latest “fashion fonts.”

The most successful publishing firms spanned centuries. Since they developed multiple fonts to suit certain purposes and refined them in the process, there may be more than one face rightly called Aldine#, Bodoni#, etc.

Venetian Oldstyle

Nicholas Jenson produced the first successful roman type. Mono-weight and pen-like, this beautiful face closely imitated Renaissance scribal hands. After his death, it was acquired by Aldus Manutius and all but forgotten until it became the model for William Morris’ Golden# (1889-1890), ATF Jenson# (1895) and 20th-century revivals, most notably Bruce RogersCentaur# (1914).

Garalde Oldstyle

Punch-cutter Francesco Griffo produced Aldine Roman# for Aldus Manutius’ publishing firm. More “regular” than Jenson’s face, it has shorter caps, some contrast in stroke weight and subtle dif­feren­ces that made it easier to read. Griffo also produced a narrow italic face for more compact, less expensive books.

French printers adopted Aldine types almost immediately. Claude Garamont (later spelled Garamond) added “a nobility and grace.” His masterpiece was the first with a lower case suitable in large sizes for title pages, which previously had been set in caps.

Furthermore, it is regarded as the first true “printing” face because it addressed such issues as “the proper combination of form and function, impersonality but also elegance, permanence but not heaviness, interest but not sparkle, with careful blending of all parts into a pleasing, undistracting style.”

For nearly two centuries, studies of the work of Garamond and his associate Robert Granjon (who designed italic companions to Garamond’s romans “for emphasis and touches of grace”) dominated printing in most of Europe. During the mid-17th century, Dutch publishers (notably Elzevir) developed a more solid, straightforward style.

England: A Bit “Out of Sync” with Europe…

William Caxton [d 1491], England’s first printer, learned the craft in Cologne, where only German gothic types were used. In ≤1477, he established a publishing business in Westminster with types produced during a year as a printer in Bruges.

From then until 1693 and again in 1799-1869, English printers were strictly prohibited by law from buying or selling type.2 So Caxton’s types and the derivatives produced by his successors, now called “Old English,” prevailed for more than 250 years until the 1700s, when Garalde romans were legally imported from Dutch founders.

William Caslon I cut the first romans produced in England; his earliest known specimen sheet was issued in 1728. His work, based on Elzevir models, was quickly accepted as their successor and positioned England as the center of type innovation.3

Depending on the authority consulted, Caslon# is classified as oldstyle or transitional. Lieberman observes that the difference between Aldine# and Caslon# is greater than between Caslon# and Baskerville#.


John Baskerville, a prosperous English industrialist and lettering master, applied the “rounding” effects of a new kind of quill pen to a more vertically oriented Caslon interpretation. Because he was the first known to draw letterforms on paper before they were cut, he is sometimes considered the first true “type designer.”


Studying the transitional examples of Granjean, Pierre Simon Fournier (St. Augustin Ordinaire#, 1742) and Baskerville, designers in France and Italy completely disconnected type from handwriting and embraced The Machine Age.

These faces are characterized by caps with fully vertical orientation, extreme contrast between thick and thin lines and unbracketed (or nearly so) hairline serifs.

At age 19, Firmin Didot, youngest grandson in the powerful Didot publishing family of Paris, cut the first Didone face, which was called Classical#.

After showing more than 100 original alphabets in his first specimen book, Giambattista Bodoni, private printer to the Duke of of Parma, designed his first modern face. He himself called it “modern,” the term still used today—200+ years later!

Footnotes    (← returns to text)
  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_newspapers_and_magazines
  2. 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.
  3. Reed, ibid., page 236.