• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Wood Type Printers of the World, Unite!

With only a few days left before the general election, and many dedicated citizens having already exercised their Constitutional rights in the states with early voting, it's time to get the lead out—time to call to arms the vintage wood fonts that once called Americans to arms. Do what many letterpress printers and typographers, like Ross Macdonald of Brightwork Press, have already done: Ink up your rollers, compose those pieces of wood in your chase and run your memorable pre- and post-election 2020 broadsides off your press.

Nothing says democracy better than printing, and nothing says typocracy better than screamers printed from wood. And would that I could, I'd be in a press shop right now. However, even more important than getting the words out, is to get your vote in!

In case you were wondering, the typefaces featured here are all Antiques—Antique (1828), Antique XXX Condensed (1859), and Antique Extended (1838)—with the exception of the colophon, which is 3 point Blair (1900).

Frankly, since we've all had enough politics of late to last a lifetime (until the results come in on Nov. 3, that is), I asked Macdonald to turn his attention to the form rather than the content of the broadside—to tell us more about the typefaces's special characters. His response follows (and I, for one, can listen to him for hours). The stage is his:

The top line is Antique, first shown by the great Darius Wells in his 1828 specimen book. (This cutting is by William Page, circa 1854.) Wells was a New York printer. During those boom years of the American Industrial Revolution, printers were being called upon to produce bigger and bigger posters, as manufacturers competed to sell their wares to the new swelling populations of city factory workers. New, bolder display typefaces date to this time—the Ornamented faces (1801), Antiques (1815), Fat Face Moderns (ca. 1803–1820) and Gothics (ca. 1830), but due to the issues of metal shrinking as it cooled, type foundries struggled to cast type bigger than 84 point. Printers hired woodcutters to hand-cut letters for them, sometimes entire fonts, but it was slow. In 1825, during a period of isolation due to illness, Wells mulled over the problem and came up with the idea for the steam-powered vertical router. Within a couple of years, he had built the first one, and formed the first wood type manufactory. He didn’t patent his invention, and it spread quickly, with wood type factories springing up in other cities. Printers could now quickly make bigger and bigger posters. This led to the flowering of 19th century display typography as the wood type manufacturers and foundries responded to the huge new demand for more, bigger, bolder, new faces.
The second line is Antique XXX Condensed, first shown by William Page in his first 1859 specimen book. Page was an amazing guy—printer, newspaperman, inventor, businessman, and probably one of the best under-appreciated typeface designers of all time. All of his typefaces are beautiful. He came up with a lot of inventions and improvements to wood type manufacturing, employed many women in his factories because he found them to be very adept at the work, and paid his workers by the piece, which enabled them to make more money in a shorter day. He also came up with the idea of doing several extended and compressed versions of the same font—like the XXX Condensed Antique and Gothic—both his designs. His company was the largest wood type and printing equipment supplier in the U.S. until he sold it to Hamilton in 1891. Hamilton had been producing something called ‘Holly Wood’ type for a few years. Holly Wood type was basically letters cut from wood veneer, glued to a wooden block. Hamilton ran hundreds of ads claiming that Holly Wood Type was superior in every way to traditional end-grain wood type, but when he bought Page’s equipment, he abandoned the Holly Wood type, and began manufacturing end-grain type, continuing to produce Page’s faces. Page, meanwhile, had invented a steam heater, and started a steam heating company. I have several of the original Hamilton Holly Wood typefaces—they do not live up to Hamilton’s claims of superiority. They’re fragile, prone to crushing under pressure, and come unglued.
The third line is Antique Extended, first shown by George Nesbitt in his 1838 specimens. This font has no makers mark, which means it likely predates the manufacturers’ practice of stamping their name on the side of the cap A, which makes it possible that this font was manufactured by Nesbitt.
Page seems to have originated the practice of stamping the company name on the side of the cap A. The style with the curved top line (on the side of the smaller letter in the photo) was used between 1857 and 1859. The stamp on the side of the larger A, with two straight lines, shows that the font was manufactured after 1870, although the actual type design was from 1857, shown in Page’s first catalog of 1859. I hope that’s unclear enough!