Type(face)s and Tokens

The development of movable (metal) type presses is, of course, a revolutionary technological feat that changed how information was presented, stored, and shared. While we often (“we” being general folks who aren’t printers and know more about the results of the printing process than we do about the process itself) speak of printing in terms of typefaces, presses, and binderies as they are related to their output, I suspect that we don’t spend much (if any time) thinking about the internal business of typeface production, as accomplished and owned by the printers and foundries that produce the type. Among the things we (the outsiders to the business of printing and publishing books) perhaps don’t consider at all are what I think of as internal sales matters. How do printers and foundries catalog, present, and sell type itself, as they surely must?

One way in which a typesetter, printer, or foundry sells and organizes  type is through a Specimen Book of Types. These books serve as sample sales catalogs presenting available types (including ornaments and borders as well as letters) in multiple sizes; they may also demonstrate a model binding style. The trick to creating such a catalog, of course, is figuring out how best to show off the typefaces, and different printers and foundries have often put their own spin on the business. While some use lorem ipsum (a deliberately garbled selection of the Latin text of Cicero’s de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum), others have historically found ways to make their type catalogs into both subtle and overt representations of the kinds of printed content they sell.

Book of Types, Athenaeum Press

Detail of the spine of a specimen book of types from the Athenaeum Press

A few posts back, I took a look at a book from the Athenaeum Press in Cambridge, MA, created and run by Ginn & Co. in the late 19th C. The company specialized in textbooks for students in the US; according to their own promotional material, their founder, Edwin Ginn, was among the first to take the student reader seriously in his approach to textbook selection and printing. The book in the image here is a Specimen Book of Types of the Athenaeum Press (1907), and it’s a lovely example of how a press might use a type catalog to do more than just sell type. Physically, it’s a sturdy book about 19cm tall, with signatures of heavy paper held together by a sewn binding. Assuming the typical binding from Athenaeum didn’t change too much between 1907 and 1925, “the thread is made of the strongest linen and will support a sixty pound boy,” at least according to the film linked above.* The copy I own is a bit water-damaged, but the thick paper holds up well for all that, with only a moderate amount of discoloration and a little rippling to indicate where the water had gotten to it; the cover is solid, and shows little evidence of water touching it at all.

A little water damage

Pages 12-13 (slightly water damaged) of the Specimen Book of Types of the Athenaeum Press (Cambridge, MA 1907). Note the sample text.

Athenaeum’s educational mission lived not only in its products, but also in the company’s specimen book, which made do with no lorem ipsum to speak of. The English language body type is presented using a selection on the history of printing from one of Ginn & Co.’s own textbooks, Philip Van Ness Myers’ A General History for Colleges and High Schools from the 1890s. The German fraktur typeface samples discuss the history of print through Gutenberg, and the Greek samples are based on Homer’s Odyssey. Discussions of the history of printing, as it happens, aren’t at all unusual in specimen books. The Keystone Type Foundry’s abridged type specimen book from the same year (1907), for example, is one of several that used the introductory text from Theo L. De Vinne’s lecture on “Historic Printing Types” (1885) for its body type samples; it appears to have been fairly popular material for textbook publishing operations. Interestingly, lorem ipsum was not the only Latin choice for printers to play with — the Austin Letter Foundry’s type specimen book (1838) made extensive use of Cicero’s Catiline Orationsspecifically the beginning of the first. The Athenaeum specimen book, however, uses no Latin at all (although there are two sizes of Anglo-Saxon and Hebrew and a set of inscription Greek and Latin characters on p. 80).

The pages of the Athenaeum book themselves present some additional curious features. Between pages 2 and 3 (so, between the end of the list of types at the beginning of the book and the section title page for body types) there’s a much-faded sheet of graph paper with a slightly different weight and texture from the pages around it. This sheet isn’t stuck in the book like a bookmark — it’s bound there, quite clearly threaded into the first signature. It’s not entirely clear what the purpose of the graph sheet is, although it might be useful for a salesperson mocking up typeface arrangements for a client. At the end, after p. 170, there are 26 blank pages (13 sheets); there may have been more at one time, as a few sheets seem to have been very cleanly cut out, perhaps to demonstrate something about the binding. There seems to be nothing about this catalog that doesn’t somehow represent the company’s product — type is merely the beginning.



* I’m not sure why supporting a sixty pound boy is supposed to be an impressive indicator of the strength of binding thread. Why exactly are we suspending sixty-pound boys with linen thread? Was this a thing? Are sixty pound boys more of a challenge than other objects or people of the same weight?

Screen Shot from archival footage of Ginn & Co.

Apparently, that’s some strong linen, right there.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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