John F. Cumming | A Humble, Honest Man


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VI. Boston Type Foundry, 1870–1881

Before Mr. Cumming arrived at BTF from Chicago in 1881, his position as staff type cutter had been vacant for about four years. His immediate predecessor, Carl/Charles E. Heyer, had left Boston in 1877 and joined Barn­hart Brothers & Spind­ler [BBS] of Chicago by 1879.1·2·3 Between 1876 and 1881, BTF Agent John K. Rogers acquired and patented designs for 17 known fonts (Table 1:22-38).

Who designed these 17 faces? Heyer?  His predecessor, Andrew Gilbert?  Prang, Art Club or student contacts? Sign Painters?  Whoever they were, they apparently furnished only drawings possibly delivered from afar—not the makings for production matrices.

These 17 faces are shown in the routine BTF specimen book of 1879 and/or in the 1880 edition, which was potent­ly entitled Original Faces Cast by the Boston Type Foundry.  Comparison of the two catalogs is most provocative:  Six of the seven new and original BTF fonts shown in 1879, two of them already patented, are not shown in 1880 (Table 1).  Why not?

THP deduces that Rogers withdrew them from sale because BTF could not fill orders for them.  Despite the hive of talented type designers swarming his very doorstep, Rogers could not manufacture them without a punch-cutter.  Instead, he “stockpiled” these designs, (desperately?) hoping for a solution to marketing them before they became obsolete in the US.

In the meantime, he prioritized development of well-received multi-lined brass rule (sidebar)4 and sold production and/or distribution rights for six faces to the Caslon TF of London.

BTF 1880The only new BTF font shown in both 1879 and 1880 was Double-Scored Gothic (Table 1:28), a caps-only “banner” style.  According to the patent application (1878), the only elements claimed as new were rules added above and below an “ordinary condensed gothic” [sans serif] plus decorative line finials similar to those of Motto♥, a light-face latin with “ribbon” options also patented in 1879.

Rogers repeated the same strategy with Single-Scored Gothic and Legend patented in 1880 (Table 1:31, 34).  Since the letterforms were not original, it is possible that Rogers “designed” these fonts in the sense that he combined existing materials in useful new ways.  No type cutter for these faces is attributed in the literature—perhaps Henry Brehmer managed these jobs during his DTF commissions in Boston?

Together, the following bits of information indicate that Cumming was probably hired in Spring 1881, that he soon produced new BTF type bound at last for profitable sale in the US and that Rogers was extremely optimistic about the financial future of BTF:

In 1881, Rogers filed only three (approved) patent applications:  February 8 and April 28 (Table 1:35, 37, 38). After Cumming arrived, he applied for a total of eight on March 16 and July 13, 1882 (Table 2)—tying the patents-per-year score of the prolific Herman Ihlenburg!

In all eight 1882 affidavits, legal language describing the specimens changed from “taken from said font” to “taken from the types themselves.”  THP concludes that Rogers’ 1881 applications were filed before Cumming learned to cut pattern fonts and that he “aced” this art within a few months.

In 1881, the year Cumming was hired, BTF issued no less than three distinctly different catalogs, 52 to 270 pages of different dimensions—and in 1883, four! This record is perhaps unprecedented in the history of letterpress type specimens and topped only by ATF in 1897.5 In light of the production expense involved, this investment signals a great deal of confidence in JFC’s ability to generate income for BTF.

Considering the scarcity of punch-type cutters in Boston, Rogers must have been overjoyed when 29-year-old Cumming appeared at BTF with printing-related metalworking experience and an introduction from St. JohnCumming confessed to Loy that his first BTF type-cutting assignment was a “total failure.” He recalled that Rogers urged him to try again and that his subsequent work was accepted.

Footnotes    (← returns to text)
  1. Hhmmm… Both Cumming and Heyer knew St. John, and they had overlapping interests. Did they happen to meet in Chicago, 1879-1881?
  2. Loy, W.E.: Designers and Engravers of Type. In The Inland Printer 24:573,1900.
  3. USPTO D11044, Armenian Extended (application filed January 25).
  4. New Things. In Hailing’s Circular 1:35, 1880.
  5. Annenberg, M.; Saxe, S.O. [Editor]; Lieberman, E.K.[Index] (1994): Type Foundries of America and Their Catalogs, pages 42 and 74. Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, DE. N.B.: Cited as Annenberg throughout THP text.