The Daily Heller: The Enduring Stencil

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Most typographers have probably never heard of Ruth Libauer Hormats and her brother, Robert Libauer. But someday these siblings will be elevated from a lowly footnote to a major paragraph, if not an entire chapter, in the history of type and letters. In the 1940s Ruth conceived and Robert marketed an easy-to-use stencil letter drawing system for the student, teacher and basic do-it-yourselfer that made drawing letters for signs and displays much easier and efficient. Ruth was a Baltimore teacher and although she did not invent the stencil process per se, her Stenso guide sheets produced on heavy cardboard (or oak tag) were state of the art long before phototype. Ruth and Robert captured a market with a venerable image and lettering method that has endured for centuries: The stencil.

(Probable origin of the word was 1707 yet "not recorded again until 1848," notes Merriam Webster, probably from Middle English stencellen "decorate with bright colors," from Middle French estenceler "cover with sparkles or stars, powder with color," from estencele "spark, spangle" (Modern French étincelle), from Vulgar Latin *stincilla, metathesis of Latin scintilla "spark.")

Stencil designs were made from brass and used for marking crates and bales filled with all manner of goods. This process dates back to the 18th century. Heavy paper stencil templates were also used during the 19th century Victorian period in very intricate compositions often used for bales, sacks and boxes as identification and advertising. They were popular as home decoration as well, replacing wallpaper in many instances.

DIY stenciling was both style and pastime. Books on how to decorate home, school and church were in demand. The stencils below came from an early 20th century stencil-making manual, exhibiting a variety of styles and motifs, including Art Nouveau.

Stencils have never gone out of currency. Consider "Post No Bills" signs, military labels, parking garage directional signs and Venetian street signage. Stencils are perpetually with us in quiet, vernacular ways. Yet for the past few years they appear to be coming back as brash and stylish fonts. If you have not paid attention lately, look around — they are everywhere.