Freelance Designers


The success of 19th-century display-font typefounders depended foremost on regularly employed type cutters, who produced punches (the first step of metal type manufacture). Staff type designers were relatively optional….

With rare exceptions (BBS since the 1880s), type designers employed by US TFs also cut punches. Furthermore, they frequently “moonlighted” by designing and/or cutting faces for others. For example, Herman Ihlenburg, historically associated exclusively with MSJ 1866–1902+, patented 15 alpha-numeric and ornamental fonts assigned to the Bruce TF in 1872–1884.

Globe-trotting executives of the most prosperous 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 skills and artistic talents that 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 commissioned faces.

Hundreds of type designs patented by 19th-century US TF executives are not attributed by Loy,1 whose scope was limited to employees or former employees of US TFs, nor by subsequent historians. Many, perhaps most, of these faces must have originated with freelancers.

For example, Henry L. Bullen reports that Central’s Harper# [left, top] and BTF Century# were so named because they were drawn by artists engaged by these periodicals.2 Both faces were featured in Hailing’s Circular, 1883.

Freelance lettering artists residing in or visiting Philadelphia, New York and Boston were abundant by the early 1870s. Their work was highly visible in trend-setting magazines and the title pages of literature targeted to the general public. The printing industry was keenly aware of it via international trade journals reporting the latest “cutting-edge” examples.

Except for A.V. Haight (a letterpress printer), these men (and, near the end of the century, a few women sometimes disguised by masculine pen-names) were commercial artists oriented primarily to the free-form lithography medium.  It is not likely that they cut punches nor that they understood the intricate logistic relationships between type and letterpress printing. On the contrary, they worked in their own studios, perhaps in consultation with a producer by correspondence or by telephone, and may have delivered their drawings from afar.

It was the (often highly challenging!) responsibility of an “ace” type cutter, who may have designed original faces himself, to tame these “envelope-pushing” letterforms as punches suitable for manufacture of Real-World Letterpress Type that worked for their employers’ most important clientele: Letterpress job printers, the Senior Art Directors of their era, who conceived and composed diverse layouts ranging from ads “stereotyped” for portable publication elsewhere to self-sufficient projects like local church-service programs or wedding invitations, routine business stationery and theatrical posters.

The following part-time type designers drew influential faces identified with US type producers:


Footnotes    (← returns to text)
  1. Loy, W.E.: Designers and Engravers Of Type. In The Inland Printer 22-25, 1898–1900.
  2. Bullen, H.L. [pen-name Quadrat]: Discursions of a Retired Printer. In The Inland Printer 39:193-198, 1907.