John F. Cumming | A Humble, Honest Man


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I. Biography

The years between 1896 and 1902 are under intense scrutiny. In the context of Loy’s article (1896-1898), introduction dates of new faces originating from DTF/ATF Boston and the Hansen TF [HTF] of Boston present convincing evidence that JFC left ATF by Autumn 1896 and was thereafter employed by HTF and/or as a freelancer.

Early Years

William E. Loy accounts1 that Mr. Cumming [JFC] was born on May 20, 1852 in Harrisville PA, a tiny village between Pittsburgh and Lake Erie.  The next year, his family moved to Wisconsin [WI], where he learned the “3Rs” from “a maiden lady of uncertain age” who lived in a corner of the one-room log schoolhouse: “a gaunt, angular figure with book in one hand while the other poked the clothes in the boiler or turned the frying pork on the stove.”

They returned to PA in 1861 when he was about nine years old; whether he resumed education is unknown. His father, a wounded Civil War veteran, died in 1866.  Soon after, Cumming (age 14) left PA and spent several years “drifting around the west” (the States of WI, Illinois [IL] and Missouri [MO] were then the US frontier). Perhaps he visited the teacher he so vividly described to Loy.

In 1874-79, he was employed by two engraving companies in St. Louis MO, where he befriended James A. St. John [1841-1901], manager of Central TF [Central] and former executive of Boston Type Foundry [BTF].  Next he worked for the C.H Hanson Engraving Co. of Chicago. (not Binner Engraving Co., more in Part IX).

Type Career Overview

In 1881 (age 29), Cumming went to Boston, Massachusetts [MA], where his contact with St. John led to hire as a type-cutter by BTF Agent John K. Rogers [1821-1888].  In August 1884, he assumed similar employment with Dickinson TF [DTF], also in Boston, where he did his best-known work.

Even before ATF was incorporated (February 8, 1892), JFC was apparently the only type-cutter in New England. His nearest counterparts were staff employees of New York TFs. Loy chronicled six then-current, -past or -deceased Boston-area residents. All were associated with the Boston [BTF] and/or Dickinson [DTF] TFs.

Samuel Kilburn and Andrew Gilbert of BTF, and Alexander Phemister of DTF, had died. Carl/Charles E. Heyer had left BTF in 1877, joined BBS by 1878 and died in 1897. Julius Herriet Jr., JFC’s BTF replacement in 1886, had returned to New York by c1891. JFC was the “sole survivor.”

Cumming worked in or near Boston for his entire type career. His last-known project was cutting Bruce RogersMontaigne for the Riverside Press (Cambridge)2 in 1902. Eason and Rookledge write that Rogers was “disappointed with the punch-cutter’s interpretation of his drawings.”3

Personal Life

Cumming was an avid outdoorsman who especially enjoyed competitive rowing (he had met St. John as a fellow oarsman).  Besides the two Boston clubs mentioned by Loy in July 1898, he was captain of the champion Worcester crew team in 1889.4

The same summer, he was Rowing Instructor for the Natural History Camp for Boys at Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester.5 Starting in 1894, he served for many years as a Deputy Fisheries and Game Commissioner (sidebar).6

Cumming lived in Worcester MA since November 1896 or earlier,7 and THP has learned that he was married (year unknown, presumably ≤1891) to Isabella C. Thompson [1861-1934].  Considering that his Deputy Commissioner reports are datelined “Worcester,” it is likely that the family moved there from Boston in ≤1894.

Mrs. Cumming, already in her mid-30s, bore four daughters and three sons in 1891–1903. John Jr. (b 1899) and daughter Isabella (b 1901) died at birth or in infancy; another son, at age 14. Perhaps son Joseph P. (b 1903) was named in honor of Cumming’s DTF/ATF employer, Joseph W. Phinney.

Outliving his wife and four of their seven children, he died of unknown causes in 1940 (age 88) and was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Shrewsbury MA.8 The simple family gravestone represents a man of adequate, far from affluent, means.


The fact that JFC held part-time jobs suggests that he may have needed extra income and accounts for his “spare time” [sidebar]. Surely he was too preoccupied with earning a living, too busy (or too tired!) to independently imagine and draw new typefaces.

Death of the second Cumming infant occurred in 1901; son Joseph was “on the way” in 1902, the year he cut Montaigne. Perhaps the circumstances of his distressed family compelled him to seek a less-demanding and/or better-paying career for the remaining 39 years of his life.

Footnotes    (← returns to text)
  1. William E. Loy, Designers and Engravers of Type. In The Inland Printer 21:460, 1898.
  2. McGrew, M. (1993): American Metal Types of the Twentieth Century (Second, Revised Edition), page 223. Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, DE.
  3. Eason, R.; Rookledge, S.; Baines, P.; Rookledge, G. (1991): Rookledge’s International Handbook of Type Designers|A Biographical Directory, page 141. Sarema Press Ltd., London.
  4. Rice, F.P.: Dictionary of Worcester (Massachusetts) and its Vicinity, page 12.  F.S. Blanchard & Co., 1889.
  5. The Oölogist 7:115-116, 119, 1889.
  6. Loy, ibid.
  7. USPTO D26501, D29480.
  8. Jim Saunders,