Friday, March 22, 2013

Font Frenzy

“Font” is a chameleon of a word – its meaning can change depending on who’s using it. When computer users or graphic designers talk about fonts, they’re referring to different styles of type, or typefaces. Font software packages featuring many kinds of type are available online or at any computer store.

When a letterpress printer talks about a font though, they’re referring to a complete set of all the necessary metal or wood characters in a typeface (letters, numbers, punctuation, or special characters). The number of each character in a printer’s font is based on frequency of use. In other words, there are lots more e’s than there are q’s .

A member of our letterpress printing group created a piece that captures a letterpress printer’s idea of “font” perfectly:

To illustrate the point further: a computer user can easily type, “The queen quickly and quietly quaffed a quart of quince juice.” Not that this is a likely sentence, but it shows there are no limits to the number of times a single character can be used in a computer font. A graphic designer can very easily type a character, “qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq” in any font they choose. In other words, the computer will generate an infinite number of any desired character.

Not so for the letterpress printer. Because handset letterpress involves putting actual pieces of metal or wood type into a composing stick to form words and sentences, there are only so many q’s. And so many A’s, a’s, and 1’s. That’s how handset typefaces are sold.

Typefaces are cast according to a font scheme. A good illustration of this is on the website of Skyline Type Foundry, a marvelous place to check out and drool over letterpress typefaces by the way. A diagram of Font Schemes explains how many of each character come with any font of type.

For a more vivid illustration: here’s what one font of Grimaldi, a charming old type face which we recently purchased from Skyline, looks like. You can see the varying numbers of each character in this 5-A, 10-a, 5-1 font of type.

Some letterpress fonts are larger and some are smaller, but they always have certain numbers of each character in them when they’re purchased new. When fonts are older or secondhand though, some pieces of type may have been mislaid.

Or in the instance of the very old 4 Line Pica Ornamented type below, some characters may be hard to use. Take a closer look at the two U's. Both are sunken due to a long ago flaw in casting. That means if you print a word with a U in it, you will have to work hard to get a decent impression.

My husband Bob and I recently experienced a practical lesson in the meaning of font. We purchased a secondhand font of Civilite jumbled in a case. I’ve long admired Civilite, and was thrilled to finally add it to our printshop. But when we sorted out the type, there was one capital A, no capital C, and worst of all, no lower case i’s. What can you write without lower case i? Not even a type case label for Civilite. Our font of type was pretty much useless.

Happily, my husband went onto the chat room of our printer’s group Amalgamated Printer’s Association and asked if anyone could spare a few characters. Two kind printers responded and offered to send the missing letters to us. With these “sorts”, as printers call small quantities of individual letters, we no longer had to be “out of sorts”. I’m not just making a bad pun here (though I am) -- that’s where that expression originated.

Now we can finally use our font of Civilite. And create a nice type case label. No more font frenzy for us – hooray!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Disappearing Newton P. Tucker, Printer

Two old type cabinets in our basement print shop may have been witness to the mysterious disappearance of a La Crosse printer in 1886.

In February 2011 I blogged about the La Crosse cases. The January 1886 Inland Printer published an article about the La Crosse case designed by N.P. Tucker, especially manufactured for his business by Marder, Luse of Chicago. The special 2/3rd size condensed cases had three rows of compartments in front, allowing room for capital letters and extra characters in a font of type.

You would think an up and coming printer like Tucker would have had it made. In 1883 he was running a successful shop with five presses, specializing in job printing and stationary. An 1885 ad noted that Tucker & Company were “Dealers in Printing Material of All Kinds.” The January 1886 Inland Printer article praised Tucker’s business as a model shop.

Perhaps Tucker was overextended. His business was definitely in financial trouble by 1886, when N.P. Tucker suddenly disappeared from La Crosse. His absence was noted in the local La Crosse newspaper, The Chronicle. As the Wisconsin Labor Advocate, October 29, 1886 added, “The disappearance of N.P. Tucker has created considerable talk since the Chronicle made it public.”
Tucker left behind his wife Mary, two young children ages 6 and 2, and a failing print shop. Employees E.L. Spicer and Victor Buschman purchased the shop in September 1886 for $20 on hand with a $900 mortgage.

But what happened to Newton P. Tucker? Did he end it all by walking into the Mississippi River? Did he hop a barge and cruise down river, lighting out for some distant part of the world? Or was there some more nefarious reason for his disappearance? Mrs. Mary Tucker stayed in La Crosse, continuing to be listed in city directories. In 1901 she first appeared as the widow of N.P. Tucker, continuing this until her death in 1919.

The firm of Spicer and Buschman righted itself and remained in business for another 82 years until 1968. Though Spicer died in 1939, Buschman continued to work there until his death in 1963, age 96. When Spicer and Buschman closed in 1968, Inland Printing Company purchased the shop, and sold the La Crosse type cabinets to my father, printing hobbyist Gary Hantke. My husband Bob and I inherited them from my father. That ends the story of how the La Crosse type cabinets came into our hands.

But what about the story of Newton P. Tucker? That remained a mystery until I discovered genealogical information about him on the Internet. His whereabouts between 1886-1889 were unknown. But in March 1889 he reappeared, marrying 19 year old Edna Georgia Todd in Chicago. The 1900 census showed them living in Wheaton City, Illinois with four children ages 10 to 1. Tucker was listed as a traveling salesman. Perhaps he sold printing materials? Tucker also had another wife, Birdie Lull, at some time before his death in Rock Island, Illinois in 1917. The occupation listed on his death certificate was “printer”.

So... did any of the three wives know about each other? Did Mary Tucker call herself a widow to avoid talk? Or did Newton P. Tucker truly disappear without a trace? In 1886 Illinois was a world apart from Wisconsin. People could more easily vanish and reappear at will. We will probably never know. But if the type cabinets along our basement wall could talk, they might have an interesting story to tell.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Kittypot Revivals

by guest blogger Bob Mullen
I am an enthusiast of old type. I mean really old and cool type. Not the 1950s Brush or the 1930s Kabel or the 1900s Cheltenham, but the good stuff—grand old Victorian curiosities, sexy Art Nouveau and stylish Art Deco faces. My wife Carole and I have collected quite a few of these typefaces and inherited others from her father, Gary Hantke. They’re not easy to find, and usually expensive these days. But there is one way to get them at reasonable cost and without the wear and broken serifs that are often found on the genuine antique. These are the revivals that are being offered by a number of the twenty-first century letter founders of metal type: Skyline, Monumental, Dale Guild, Hill and Dale, etc.
Probably the first of the revivalists was a retired ATF employee of many years named Steve Watts, who had been in charge of type sales and design. When Watts worked for ATF, he became well acquainted with the vast holdings within their matrix vaults. About 1957 he decided there were certain faces he wanted for his home shop, so he arranged to have special castings of antique faces made from the original matrices at ATF. The company required a minimum order, so in order to get what he wanted, he began offering special subscription castings through his large network of printer friends. Though the demand was not big enough for ATF to go into regular production of these fonts, there was enough demand so Watts could get back his investment. He called them his Kittypot Revivals.
My father-in-law Gary Hantke corresponded with Watts for several years, and we have in our possession many of the cards and fliers offering kittypot revivals in addition to some of the type.
The first offering was in 1957, 24 point Cincinnati Initials, an elaborate Victorian initial that had been made by the Cincinnati Type Foundry in the 1880s. Watts offered a 3A font, 58 characters, for $4.40, postpaid. Yeah, postpaid! His second casting was 18 point Original Old Style Italic, an italic face with an oversized a, e, and o that was first shown by Farmer, Little & Co. of New York in 1858. Price: 6A 12a font $9.60; 9A 24a font, $16.80; 18A 120a font, $49.50, all postpaid. At the APA auction last year, not knowing what we were getting, Carol and I bought a barely used large font of Original Old Style Italic for less than the original price. After some typographic sleuthing, we were thrilled to discover what we had.
Altogether Steve Watts offered at least eleven Kittypot Revivals between 1957 and about 1961. They were (as best as we can figure):
 1. 24 pt. Cincinnati Initials, circa 1880
2. 18 pt. Original Old Style Italic, 1858
3. 11 on 12 pt. body Wayside Roman, circa 1906 (ATF)
4. 18 pt. Pekin, circa 1888 (BB&amp S)
5. 24 pt. 2-color Cincinnati Initials, circa 1880
6. 18 pt. Trocadero (Great Primer Ornamented No. 3). Circa 1850 (Dickinson)
7. 48 pt. Wedgewood Cameo Ornaments, 20th century
8. 18 pt. Great Primer No. 8 (also called Cicero, Gentry), circa 1860 (English)
9. 18 pt. Pacific, circa 1890 (Dickinson)
10. 12 pt. Oxford Roman and Italic, Circa 1822 (Binny & Ronaldson)
11.. 48 pt. Munder-Hoyle Corners & Ornaments, 20th century
In his June 1959 flier, Watts showed all of his first six Kittypot Revivals for sale, and listed everyone who had ordered from him, three pages of names from 30 states, including some very well-known names in letterpress.
In addition to the eleven Kittypot Revivals shown above, Watts attempted to have 18 pt. Tuscan Floral cast by ATF for his seventh offering, but the company said the matrices were too damaged for them to work with without re-making them. That would have made a price people in 1959 wouldn’t want to pay, $20.00 per font!
By the early 1960s, Steve Watts’ health was failing, and he was forced to slow down with his printing and his revival castings. He died in 1966 with more projects on his plate, but they were, unfortunately, projects he was never able to complete. Other people followed with revivals: Andy Dunker, Charles Broad and Phoenix/LA type Foundry and more. For them all, we who have a fascination with old typefaces owe a great debt of gratitude. Thank you, Steve Watts.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Extinct Typefaces

Can typefaces become extinct, like dinosaurs? Not quite, but they can become hard to find. Computers offer fonts galore. But one of the delights of being a letterpress printer is the ability to use fonts that are available only in metal or wood. Personally I love using typefaces you can’t find in font software or on the Internet. That way nobody will pick up my letterpress printing and say, “Did you do this on your computer?” Ouch! Not the best thing to say to someone who’s spent hours setting slivers of metal type by hand.

Here are a few of my favorite extinct typefaces. These are creations of the 19th century, though some more modern faces have become extinct, too.

Scribner, illustrated above and at the top of this page, can best be described as eccentric. The wiggly, curlicued letters, designed by the Central Type Foundry of St. Louis in 1883, seem to wander all over the place. Below is a piece we printed that takes advantage of this tendency.
The “Attitudes” piece above is printed in Grolier, an elegant MacKellar, Smiths, and Jordan script from 1887 designed by Herman Ihlenberg. This lovely face is hard to find, sadly. My husband Bob and I have metal fonts of it in 12, 18, and 24 point. Its fragile kerns have held up over time thanks to careful storage and babying. The design is timeless, as beautiful in the 21st century as when it was created. Below is a valentine that shows off some of Grolier’s gorgeous capital letters.

Vertical Writing is another favorite of mine that you don’t find available very often. Joseph W. Phinney patented it 1898 for the Boston branch of American Type Founders. Designed to look like informal 19th century handwriting, its letters appear to be fully connected and widely spaced. It’s surprisingly legible, and quite charming in an old-fashioned way.
If you’re sad because you don’t have “extinct typefaces” at your disposal, there’s a way to remedy that. Some of the older fonts are being recast and are available again.

One of my favorites is Freak, recently produced by Sky Shipley of Skyline Type Foundry This wildly eccentric 1889 gem is pictured below.

Yes, fonts are fun, and especially if you’re using one that very few people commonly see. Using extinct typefaces is a big perk of letterpress printing. It’s great to be able to share them with the world!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

River Rat Printers

My husband and I have spent most of our lives along the Mississippi River, appreciating both old time letterpress printing and the romance of the steamboat era. We began in La Crosse, Wisconsin, moved downriver to Lynxville, Wisconsin, then to St. Louis, Missouri. We’ve learned that our twin interests are more linked than you might imagine: newspaper printing was the mass media of the 19th century, and riverboats a major form of transportation. The Mississippi was like a super highway in those days, and printers depended on it to deliver presses, type, and paper, and distribute news up and down the river.

As printers interested in history, we’ve done quite a few pieces relating to riverboats. Our first was “A Little Book of Steamboat Puns”, a small booklet of atrocious river puns we made up ourselves. Though the puns were bad, the booklet was nice. We gave a copy to the late John Hartford, musician and river lover, at one of his performances. Years later we met him again, and he actually remembered our booklet. Maybe it was because the puns were so awful.

While in St. Louis we became volunteers at the Golden Eagle River Museum, and got to use our riverboat cuts some more. We printed programs, name badges, and bookmarks for the group.

We also added to our riverboat cut collection through the generosity of Golden Eagle members. Irv Braun had worked for transportation printer Con Curran, and saved many railroad and riverboat cuts from oblivion when the company switched from letterpress to offset. And James Swift, known to everybody as Jimmy, was a writer and historian for the Waterways Journal, a St. Louis based river magazine. Jimmy bequeathed his collection of river cuts to us. Some of our cuts from Irv and Jimmy are shown below.

While in St. Louis, we actually had the opportunity to print on a steamboat. The Bibliographical Society of America hosted a Mississippi River cruise at its 2004 meeting. Bob and I hauled a Baltimorean table top press, paper, and supplies over uneven riverfront cobblestones and onto the boat, where we were offered a small, wobbly table to set up. We wondered if any of the attendees from major libraries and rare book rooms would want to bother printing our little bookmark. To our surprise, we had a long line. People were thrilled to have the opportunity to print something themselves.

Years later we once again find ourselves printing along the Mississippi River, this time back in our hometown of La Crosse. We’ve come full circle, and we wonder what links between letterpress printing and the river we’ll discover this time around!