The Everlasting Allure of Vintage Type Catalogs

Posted inHistory
Thumbnail for The Everlasting Allure of Vintage Type Catalogs

The end of mass-market commercial letterpress printing in the second half of the 20th century marked the death knell of a once-flourishing industry. After 500 years, the moveable type revolution gave way to photocomposition and then (if you don’t count press-type) to digital typefaces in various programmatic incarnations, which reduced the need for factory-foundries. “Physically, the only remaining vestige of an American foundry … could be an old worn type catalog,” wrote Maurice Annenberg in Type Foundries of America and Their Catalogs (first published in 1975 in an edition of 500).


A commercial printer who had an early interest in studying and chronicling the history of his profession, Annenberg (1907–1979) collected a substantial library of rare printing manuals, journals and specimen books—the type of pieces that comprise the raw materials of design history, and are treasured and fetishized today. “The artists and designers of the present century,” Annenberg wrote over 40 years ago, “now find these catalogs extremely valuable in tracing old alphabets to be used as a pattern in creating ‘new’ typefaces using the photo distortion camera.”

When his extensive research into America’s foundries and their catalogs was first published, Annenberg learned from librarians that the pilfering of vintage type catalogs had increased ten-fold during the 1970s. Type and graphic designers realized their value as an original resource for exotic and eccentric fonts, resulting in the emergence of classical revivals and contemporary retro graphics. Type vendors like Morgan Press and Tri-Arts Press sold antique wood and metal types, while Dover Publications, among others, published clip art books filled with copyright-free reproductions of pages containing full or partial alphabets, dingbats and a wide range of printing ornaments copied directly out of original foundry specimen books.

Decades earlier foundries gave the books to customers—mostly for free—as part of printing toolkits, which in addition to type included presses, binding, cutting and folding machines, and other hardware. These books were so heavy that sales agents often complained about having to carry so many. New ones were retained for a while and old ones discarded because they took up so much space. While large books gave way to sheets and brochures, no one at the time could predict that the specimen tomes would eventually be categorized as rare, expensive artifacts. (In fact, twice during the early ’70s I was given the opportunity to sift through the stores of catalog and specimen libraries from two failed printing companies. One of them simply left the material in a flatbed truck parked for a week on a street in lower Manhattan.)


Viewed today, type specimen books are wellsprings of all kinds of socio-historical (and even political) documentation. The late 19th century, for example, was the early period of “capitalist modern” printing in most industrialized nations of the world. Type foundries were integral to the publishing of information but also to selling goods and services through advertising and packaging. Type was no longer just a means, as it was in Gutenberg’s time, for efficiently propagating religious teachings, or later in proclaiming government decrees. Nor were books and magazines the primary type venues. The rise of industry and spread of commerce created a need for an entire printing realm and, of course, distinctive type designs played a large role in articulating the importance of business and the joys of consumption.

Type itself became a competitive business and the majority of late 19th- and early 20th-century catalogs were designed to sell the new and old styles. Typical of the sales text in type bibles is the following, from New York foundry Adorinam Chandler & Co. (which Annenberg notes “is obscured in type founding history,” save its specimen book): “The ornamental types exhibited in this specimen are cast in stereotypical plates, and the letter separately fixed to wooden bottoms. … Printers are left to judge for themselves, whether it is not a saving to buy this, instead of giving forty-two cents per pound for type metal.” In similar prose, the 1893 Boston-based Dickinson Type Foundry specimen books admonished type cast from copper alloy metal, noting, “The arrangement and printing of these pages is the result of necessary haste, but we bespeak the leniency of their printer when considering these imperfections in connection with the large labor involved.”


Catalogs also often made clear to customers that while their faces may not be all of the latest fashions, they were nonetheless more reliable. From the Western Type Foundry in Chicago and St. Louis in 1909 came this: “Whenever you see the name WESTERN TYPE—it is as good as the type made by the foundries 20 years ago. … Better material was never made than that which goes into WESTERN TYPE.”

The problem with publishing specimen books was keeping up with the plethora of newly designed faces. The Inland Type Foundry preface from 1906 asserted, “The printing of a specimen book requires time, and the Inland Type Foundry produces new faces with such rapidity that a new edition was scarcely off the press until it was, to some extent, obsolete, as one or [more] faces had been produced while the book was going thru the press.” It added, “The experiment was tried of issuing supplements, but this was found unsatisfactory. Often they were received by people who thought them to be ordinary circulars and threw them in the wastebasket.” Inland’s answer to this problem was a loose-leaf volume of updates and a specific set of criteria: “We particularly request that you designate some person who shall receive these … and shall have positive instructions to place them in the book as soon as they come to hand … [and] promptly send us the name of this person.”


One specimen book generally looked like another, though each handled samples differently. In Alphabets to Order: The Literature of Nineteenth-Century Typefounders’ Specimens (2000), type historian and printer Alastair Johnston analyzes the typographic/word juxtapositions in scores of vintage catalogs for their literary merits. For example, the line “HAMBURGH Beautiful Sierras” appeared on the same page as “ARTISTIC SELECTION / The Modern Sciences 2567.” In another, from Chicago’s Union Type Foundry, was the line “MONOPLE RARE / CHANCE TIDBITS / 23 MERE 62,” which seems a bit like a touch of absurdist modern poetry.

One of my favorite combinations was an 1894 ad for Inland with the headline “This Is Not Pi” set in a rash of different faces. For those who don’t know the term, Pi is when a type case or chase is accidentally dropped and all the types are dislodged on the ground in mixed-up sizes. This ad was reminiscent of the Futurist and Dada typographic mischief that began more than a decade later.


Type specimen books are now cherished gems of legacy. The era of this kind of elaborate bible (and some actually resembled bibles) of typeface design is long over; digital times require digital samples with “test-drive” capacity and other manipulation software. Yet even some digital foundries—Emigre, Hoefler and Terminal, among them—continue to produce paper specimen sheets and posters to pay homage to the past, and to leave an analog collectible behind. Still, there’s nothing quite like the holy books of type that they were—and paging through a vintage type catalog remains an experience somewhere between the religious and the ecstatic.