The history of type is literally the history of the world! THP knows “as little as possible” about the mechanical, logistic and technological aspects of printing in general, paper and ink, presses and type-founding that once limited or liberated letterform design from century to century and from day to day. Likewise, THP knows only a peripheral minimum about text type.
Instead, THP focuses on designs of western-European and North American metal and wood display type—Latin-alphabet faces used for letterpress job-printing during the 19th and early-20th centuries. For educational purposes, pre-digital “nostalgia” faces may be juxtaposed occasionally.
When Gutenberg first combined the processes necessary to print with movable type (c1540), most ordinary people were illiterate. Professional scribes read aloud to them such documents as business transactions, official proclamations and news of the day. Scribes used writing systems that gradually evolved from unique symbols taught to apprentices into semi-standardized regional “hands.”
The Industrial Revolution, which began in England c1760, created commercial competition and a need for advertising with large, distinctive letters. The new types, called “job fonts” (display faces), were developed for projects of one or a few pages instead of for books produced by publishing houses.
Because they were large and distinctive, these new types “unleashed” written words from the pages of academic volumes and presented them in plain view of ordinary people, who began to recognize them. They soon “broke the phonetic code” established by ancient Indo-European scribes when they agreed that alphabets would represent uttered sounds of local languages.
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:
- Ideal text type, intended for prolonged silent reading (textbooks, literature, web pages, etc.) is “invisible.” Display type jolts the attention, communicates subliminal messages and/or evokes an intended emotional response.
- Text type features complete character sets (dual-case alphabets, numerals, punctuation, diacritics, etc.). Pre-digital display type often lacked lower case, “figures” and “points.”
- Since the 1890s, text type has been teamed with bold and italic variations. Display type rarely offers such companion faces.
- 19th-Century italics were a minor independent class akin to calligraphy usually reserved for legal and business documents as if handwritten by scribes.
- Text type was always metal and usually sold by weight; display type (especially wood type and initials) was often sold as single characters.
- Text type, not meant to be “novel,” was rarely patented (nor patentable). In 1842–1915, more than 1,000 display faces were patented in the US by citizens and non-citizens.
- Since Gutenberg, the market for text type remains the publishing industry; for display type, the commercial art field (advertising, packaging, signage, social stationery, websites, etc.).
The Age of Advertising. By the 1830s, differentiation between book- and job-font specialization was beginning to characterize type producers. While some long-established European TFs offered only conservative ornamented romans and scripts for title pages of scholarly, religious and literary volumes, many new entrepreneurs emerged and prospered as they fanned and fueled an ever-escalating worldwide demand for eye-catching display faces.