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!