John F. Cumming | A Humble, Honest Man


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This multi-part article is far more extensive than other designer profiles to be published in the THP textbook series. An early discovery contradicting accepted attributions in the literature led to intensive analysis and interpretation of available information about Mr. Cumming, his employers and their patent records, his colleagues and his personal life.

The following “bubble-burster” is offered as an unwelcome gift to type history….

Primary Sources. USPTO records and expertly qualified “eye witnesses” to 19th-century type history:

Founded in October 1883 by publisher Henry O. Shepard of Chicago, The Inland Printer was/is a premier international trade journal for the printing industry. After multiple interim titles, it was renamed The American Printer in 1982—easily confused (even by university librarians!) with an earlier periodical of the same name published by J. Clyde Oswald of New York.  The Inland Printer was not associated with Inland TF [1894-1911], which published a house monthly, The Practical Printer, in 1897-1911.

In the context of Loy’s biography of Cumming, the ubiquitous and perplexing mis-perception that he designed Bank-Note Roman and Bank-Note Italic# for the Boston Type Foundry [BTF] in 1870—eleven years before he first set foot there as a novice type cutter—is logically preposterous.

The following analysis establishes that typeface designs attributed to Cumming by 20th– and 21st–century historians were created by his BTF predecessor(s), drawn by lettering artists commissioned by his employers, derived or outright copied from existing faces. The inescapable conclusion is that he was not a “(prolific) type designer,” and it raises questions that may never be answered.

With the stunning exceptions of Kismet# and (not-so-stunning) Dresden, Cumming never claimed design credit for any of the 60+ fonts he so masterfully cut in multiple sizes for the Boston and Dickinson TFs. THP is convinced that, as he humbly and honestly told Loy, he “simply cut such designs as were furnished to him.”

  1. Designs Acquired by the Boston Type Foundry in 1870–1881, Before Employment of J.F. Cumming
  2. Designs Acquired by the Boston Type Foundry in 1881–1884, During Employment of J.F. Cumming
  3. Events Connecting J.F. Cumming, Dickinson TF, ATF Boston and H.C. Hanson TF
Table of Contents

   I. Biographical Overview.  Childhood, elementary-school education, teen years “on the road.” Meets James A. St. John of Central Type Foundry in St. Louis MO, later works in Chicago IL. Arrives in Boston 1881: employed by Boston Type Foundry 1881-1884, Dickinson Typefoundery 1884-1892, ATF Boston 1892-????. New information about athletic and Natural History interests, related “moonlighting” jobs, family life and activities after last-known type project in 1902.

 II. Loy’s Article.  In August-September 1896, The Inland Printer accepted Loy’s proposal to publish his landmark series, Designers and Engravers of Type. In his first letters to Cumming and Phinney, he specifically asked them to confirm a “tip” that JFC designed certain best-selling DTF faces. Neither man did so: Cumming claimed design credit only for BTF Kismet# and Dresden and no DTF/ATF faces; Phinney raised the point that determining and directing design development was the responsibility of TF management (see also Niggling Questions below).

III. Design Patents Issued to J.F. Cumming and Colleagues. Review of legal language distinguishing designers from other Inventors of Record. BTFDTF and ATF design patents and applicants during JFC’s employment. Nearly all ATF faces were patented or derivatives of patented ones, and applications were filed by the designers themselves. Besides the two BTF fonts that JFC reported to Loy, USPTO evidence supports originality of only three others: two design patents assigned to ATF in November 1896, and one to the Hansen TF (Boston) in 1899. Lack of patents assigned to ATF after 1896 suggests that he was employed elsewhere as early as September 1896.

  IV. 19th-Century Boston. If Cumming did not design most of the BTF fonts he cut, then who did? Boston was a highly civilized city since early colonial times: US center of chromo-lithography (Prang), first-chartered US public art gallery and related art school, MA public and adult education programs taught drawing and drafting. Boston typefounders freely networked with abundant local painters, professional or student poster and lettering artists, others in New York.  Fire of 1872 destroyed all four existing typefoundries and “birthed” a fifth one; fierce TF competition for market and especially for qualified local labor.

 V. The Boston–Central Connection. While working in St. Louis 1874–1879, Cumming befriended James St. John, Manager of Central TF and a former BTF executive. Because of a personal rivalry between himself and St. John, BTF Agent John K. Rogers had opened a St. Louis Branch and transferred him there to supervise it. During the first few years, the Branch was not successful; Rogers ordered it closed. St. John wisely recruited the BTF Superintendent as a partner: Together, they purchased the branch from BTF and named it Central TF. By the time Cumming moved to Chicago, Central was beginning its rise to becoming the top US type exporter and a worldwide trend-setter.

  VI. Boston Type Foundry, 1870–1881.  Comparisons of BTF specimen books issued in 1879 vs 1880 and of patent applications dated 1881 vs 1882. Inferences of BTF distress during four-year staffing gap between Heyer and Cumming, JFC’s likely Boston arrival date, interim negotiations with the Caslon TF. Table 1 documenting BTF typefaces acquired before JFC’s employment. Conclusion: JFC could not possibly have designed the seven faces highlighted in Table 1. As he told Loy, he cut them (or re-cut them).

  VII. Boston Type Foundry, 1881–1884.  In-depth discussions of cutting attributions proposed by THP, BTF’s “German City” and script collections, Kismet#, Century#=Century Boston#, possible connection between Caslon’s Enchorial#=BTF’s London# and Morris5=Runic Condensed of the 1860s. Preview: Table 2 documenting BTF  typefaces acquired during JFC’s employment. Faces that Cumming cut per Loy’s article are highlighted in violet; those “nominated” by THP, in green.

VIII. Dickinson Type Foundery, 1884–1892 (Preview). Phinney‘s role in DTF’s entry into the display type market.6 Early services of Henry Brehmer of New York, who cut DTF Renaissant# in 1879;7 identification of Renaissant# as JFC’s model for cutting Artistic (≤1888), a lightface derivative.8 Conclusion: DTF began to lead the display type industry soon after the fortuitous engagement of Cumming in 1884. This success occurred because Phinney became a DTF partner in ≤1883 [Loy9] or 1885 [Bullen10] and finally wielded the “clout” to prioritize production of job fonts. Distinction between DTF Globe (cut by JFC <1891 per Loy) and ATF Globe Gothic#, which was produced several years after Loy’s article about him was published (July 1898). DTF faces apparently introduced in 1884-1892 not cut by JFC per Loy.

The ATF chapter of Mr. Cumming’s career is now under intense analysis and interpretation in the contexts of Loy’s article, patent records and information published by The Inland Printer and other trade journals. Evidence leads to the conclusion that JFC may have left ATF employ as early as September 1896.

 IX. American Type Founders’ Company, 1892-???? (Preview). Two of Cumming’s three patents, Jenson Italic# and Satanick#, were assigned to ATF; both were controversial in terms of patentable “novelty and originality”: Jenson Old Style# was accused of plagiarizing William Morris’ Golden Type# after Morris refused (and how!)11 production rights to ATF. According to Loy, JFC cut Jenson Italic# and Jenson Old Style#; he patented and apparently designed the italic—perhaps the roman too. ATF’s Satanick#, said to be named for Morris’ rage, was likewise similar to Morris’ Troy#=Chaucer# types. Applications for these patents were filed on November 11, 1896—39 days after Morris’ death on October 3. Examination of ATF’s Binner#, Binner Gothic# (preview) and Florentine# series originated by the Binner Engraving Company of Chicago and Milwaukee.

   X. The Hansen Hypothesis. When did Loy complete his article about Cumming? What happened between then and July 1898, when it was published? New fonts introduced by ATF and the independent Hansen TF (also in Boston) began to “criss-cross” in 1891; Cumming, the only type-cutter in New England since c1891, is the logical link between them. A timeline compiling the design patent records and type introductions of these two TFs presents convincing evidence that as early as September 1896, JFC was self-employed, working for Hansen, Riverside Press (Montaigne, 1902) and perhaps other clients in the Boston/Cambridge area.

  Niggling Questions. Did Cumming demonstrate original design talent with Kismet#?  If not, where did this idea “come from”? If so, was his latent creativity stifled by Rogers‘ rejection of the pattern size? According to Loy’s account, this confrontational incident led to JFC’s resignation from BTF and engagement with DTF in 1884. Two years later, Rogers commissioned him to cut four additional sizes!

Did  Phinney‘s personal definition of “to design” (heartily endorsed by Bullen) influence Cumming’s self-image and communications with Loy? Did DTF fully comply with ATF’s design patent policies?

Footnotes    (← returns to text)
  1. 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.
  2. LoyW.E.: Designers and Engravers of Type. In The Inland Printer1898-1900.
  3. LoyW.E.: Typefounders and Typefounding in America. In The Inland Printer1900-1905.
  4. Bullen, H.L. [pen-name Quadrat]: Discursions of a Retired Printer.  In The Inland Printer, 1906-1907.
  5. Johnston, A.M.; Saxe, S.O. [Editors](2009): William E. Loy|Nineteenth-Century American Designers and Engravers of Type, page 58. Oak Knoll Books, New Castle, DE
  6. Bullen, H.L. [pen-name Quadrat]: Discursions of a Retired Printer.  In The Inland Printer 39:353-359, 1907.
  7. Johnston and Saxe, ibid. 117.
  8. c.f. Johnston and Saxe, ibid. 57.
  9. Loy, Designers and Engravers of Type. In The Inland Printer 22:49, 1899.
  10. c.f. c1872: Annenberg, ibid. M.; Saxe, S.O. [Editor]; Lieberman, E.K. [Index] (1994): Type Foundries of America and Their Catalogs, page 129. Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, DE. N.B.: Cited as Annenberg throughout THP text. (A patent application filed by Phinney in 1882 [Aesthetic, USPTO D13328] assigning the design to Messrs. Pierce, Phemister and Converse of DTF indicates that he was not yet a partner.)
  11. Peterson, W.S. (1991): The Kelmscott Press|A History of William Morris’s Typographical Adventure, pages 196-199. University of California Press, Berkeley.