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.