The Oxford rule sounds like article of law, but in reality it is something more mundane: a thick and thin line that sits side by side. Still, this fairly innocuous device has its origins in the earliest printings in recorded history.
As far back as c. 950 A.D., a Chinese woodblock illustration of Manjusri—the Buddhist personification of supreme wisdom—is contained within such a border. In 1249, in a woodblock book on Chinese herbal medicine, the ruled lines bring order to the pages contained within.
Along with woodblock printing, playing cards made their way to from Asia to Europe, where c.1400, a woodblock edition was distributed that featured a version of the double rule. Continuing throughout the century, the first European printers simplified the ornate decorative borders that had appeared in Illuminated manuscripts prior. Frenchman Nicolas Jenson employed a version for his mark for the Society of Venetian Printers in 1481.
Another of the earliest appearances of what was to become known as the Oxford Rule was in the book “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” (“The Dream of Poliphilus”), printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1499. The book featured woodcut illustrations framed by the thick and thin rules. Both the author and the illustrator were anonymous. These illustrations are said to have influenced Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Crane, who utilized double rules in the 1800s. Down through the centuries these rules continued to make regular appearances.
Which brings us to newspapers and Broadsides of the Victorian era. By then the Oxford rule had become a mainstay. So what does all this have to do with Rolling Stone magazine?
According to Mike Salisbury, the second RS Art Director, “Freeman Gossage was a San Francisco ad agency known for its classy layouts by Marget Larsen. She created the once indelible looks for The Sierra Club, Rover Cars and Eagle Shirt ads.”
The Eagle Shirt ads probably started it. To compete with preppy clothing companies like Brooks Brothers, Marget went even preppier. She went to Fleet Street, London. She took the typefaces from establishment Edwardian newspapers there and she took the Oxford Rules those side-by-side thick and thin black rule lines.
Freeman Gossage ads were a distinctly different look than the other smart ads like the Bauhaus Futura straightness of Helmut Krone for VW. Larsen’s ads looked almost scholarly with long copy, subheads in classic typefaces, dingbats and rules—Quasi Victorian my friend San Francisco photographer Jim Marshall called the looks of his city by the bay.
When Ramparts magazine was very successful San Francisco its base, had a newspaper strike, Warren Hinckle the editor created Sunday Ramparts in Berkley to be the new paper of the Bay Area
Marget Larsen had a big influence on Ramparts magazine including its typeface Times Roman which later became co-opted for every publication redesign in the country almost all printed offset using a type created for high speed letterpress and therefore too black and stocky for a Time size magazine. The Sunday Ramparts newspaper had more Times Roman tricks than the magazine including Oxford rule borders.
Jann Wenner was the music editor of the Sunday Ramparts and when it folded he left and took all the Oxford rules he could to make his new Rolling Stone very Fleet Street.”
Those Oxford rules, inherited from the Sunday Ramparts pre-printed mechanical boards, used to create the first issue of Rolling Stone in 1967, are still in place to this day.