The Origins of Social Stationery Lettering

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Figure 1 – Hand engraved lettering styles—these are not fonts—offered by Nancy Sharon Collins, Stationer LLC

Through the advent of desktop publishing in the 1980s, social stationery was a ubiquitous part of every day life. Printed calling cards, business cards, letterhead, correspondence cards, note and thank you cards, invitations, announcements and other stationery items were mass-produced and used as quickly and expendably as Tweets and text messages are today.

Now, we love paper products nostalgically supporting independent letterpress, screen printing and book arts shops nationwide.

Many social stationery fonts, such as London Script and Bank Gothic, have origins in letterpress printing. Amazingly, there are over three hundred more lettering styles from another source, social stationery engraving. Most of these have never been digitized and are still found in the Cronite Masterplate library. This article explains Masterplate technology and a little about how the Cronite library came to be.

Figure 2 – Cover from Engravers Lettering Styles catalog. Lettering in this library is produced using a unique, scaling transfer device, or specialized pantograph machine, still manufactured by The Cronite Co.

Figure 3 – Close-up of page from the catalog.

Figure 4 – Cronite Masterplate for style Medium Roman B61.

Cronite lettering styles for social stationery engraving are created with a Masterplate. This is a large metal template, similar to plastic templates formerly used for technical and architectural lettering.

Figure 5 – Example of a mid-20th century industrial drafting template from my collection. In addition to some Masterplate styles, commercial alphabet templates such as this inspired Mark van Bronkhorst’s Sweet Sans Pro.

Figure 6 – Characters on a Masterplate are an inch or so high and scale down to text sizes typically used in stationery and invitations, 4pt to 48pt, approximately.

Engraving was developed simultaneously with letterpress circa 1450 and is known for its ability to produce the finest detail possible in print.

Figure 7 – Real, hand engraved lettering by Yvette Rutledge, Mystic Blue Signs, New Orleans, LA. This specimen is smaller than 3″ across.

Contemporary stationery engraving, which includes etching, can without difficulty create 6-point, and even 4-pont letterforms, .25-point hairline serifs and comparably thin script swashes, too.

Figure 8 – This system is capable of rendering strokes and tiddles (the dot on a lower case “i”) so small they require a magnifying glass to read. Stationery engravers typically work with a 10X loupe for magnification.

Figure 9- Cronite Universal Engraving Machine as seen in Engraved Stationery Handbook by Robert N. Steffens, 1950.

Figure 10 – Cover, Engraved Stationery Handbook.

Stationery engravers, 10X loop at hand, use Cronite Engraving Machines (pantograph) to manually scale and transfer artwork from Masterplates to the surface of a thick steel die.

Figure 11 – 1″ wide by .5″ tall by .5″ thick engraved steel stationery die in paper wrapper. Wrappers, typically, are proofing prints from the engraving press run. Read more about this particular set of dies created in 2001 for Nina Subin, photographer, on Instagram. Note that the photographer’s website continues to use lettering created in 2001 from the stationery engraver’s system.

Figures 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 – Pages from Engraved Stationery Handbook.

In the olden days, this tracing alone was used to guide an engraver cutting designs freehand. In the middle of the last century, etching was employed to make the “cut” expediting the engraving process. Sometimes etching removes enough metal for sufficient detail. More often, the engraver finishes the job by hand using traditional tools.

[Related: Chasing Sackers, an Early Photocomposition Adapter | The Visual Culture of Color: A Brief History of Color Matching Systems]

Until these ingenious machines, pantographs specifically engineered for social stationery, were widely in use, engraving was accomplished entirely by hand. Learning—and mastering—took about a decade and required a lengthy apprenticeship.

It takes no stretch of the imagination to understand why a system of templates guiding relatively easy-to-use pantographs became preferable to a lengthy old-school apprentice system.

Figure 17 – “Etching Machine” by W. S. Eaton of Sag Harbor, NY. This image is from an U.S. Patent Office application granted 1912.

Eaton is a name often associated with 20th century pantograph machines. Contemporary Cronite “Engraving Machines” function in a similar manner.

Figure 18 – “Advertising illustration for the ‘New Century Engraving Machine’, an appliance by which the makers claim it is possible to do…Engraving that Pays”—

I would imagine Eaton, and then Cronite, engraving machines caught on like wildfire.

In 1974, Cronite acquired the Library of Engravers Styles from Eaton, Sag Harbor, NY. In so doing, Cronite came to control the largest collection of pantograph lettering templates in North America. Cronite continues to make, sell and service machines, materials, tools and ink for the graphic arts and intaglio printing industry, and to manufacture pantograph machines for stationery engraving.

Post-desktop publishing technology has made purely mechanical devices, such as the pantograph, all but obsolete. We are lucky that Cronite still represents this charming, nostalgic and unique Masterplate system otherwise unavailable.

Read more about stationery engraving terms in this article from November 13, 2016 on PRINT.