Founder of Photo-Lettering Inc. Dies at 104

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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Ed Rondthaler (below) was quite the character in the world of characters. As early as 1936, he founded Photo-Lettering Inc., the go-to font shop in New York (and the Eas Coast). He died this week at 104, and his legacy is ensured: In 1936, he and colleague invented the Rutherford Photo-Lettering Machine, the first photographic typesetting device. It enabled printers to use hand-drawn letters instead of being limited to metal typefaces.

He wrote the book Life With Letters and co-authored The Dictionary of American Spelling, a phonetic spelling dictionary. He also was the editor of the “Alphabet Thesaurus,” a three-volume compilation of types. Just watch this wonderful video by House Industries to see Rondthaler’s wit in action.

So by way of a farewell, here is an anecdote: When I was the 17-year-old art director of Screw magazine, I wanted to have a “professional” masthead typeset by a professional type house (not one of those 50-cent-a-word places). So I roughly drew out the word “Screw” in some approximation of a Victorian slab serif face and trekked over to Photo-Lettering Inc., where I looked through their catalog with a helpful counterman to find the perfect face.

Once decided, I paid the $25 and was told it would be ready in two days. Upon my return the counterman was not as friendly; what’s more, he told me that Photo-Lettering would not set the word “Screw,” as the magazine was deemed obscene. I was dumbfounded, yet able to sputter out the question, “Who said so?” The answer was “the boss.”

The boss was Ed Rondthaler, and given that his father was a Moravian minister (which I only learned yesterday), I see his point. When we met many years later, I reminded Ed of the incident, which he did not remember. In fact, he said it was odd, since he never turned down a job.

Photo-Lettering Inc. was the essential link between hot-metal and digital typesetting. Without Rondthtaler’s business, it is hard to imagine what New York advertising and editorial design would have been like in that critical era.