Alphabets to Order: The Literature of Nineteenth-Century Typefounders’ Specimens

Alastair Johnston

Here is the idea: Typefounders, in the process of showing off their fonts in the 1800s, developed a nearly poetic sense of expression that revealed issues of the day. As Johnston puts it, “…Typefounders, like graffiti artists, have nothing in particular to say but an overwhelming need to say it.” The book grew out of a pair of lectures Johnston, a Scotsman who teaches at UC Berkeley and edits The Ampersand for the Pacific Center for the Book Arts, gave in 1979 on the roots of concrete poetry and the origins of display typography.

Johnston “came to typography through poetry and… was well aware of the modern experiments with language and letterforms… Dadaism and Surrealism, however, were movements that grew out of broader cultural contexts than simply poetry, and in this case, the specimen books reflect a ground-swell of nonsense that can be traced back for decades into popular culture.”

.A few examples of Johnston’s observation, are in order, haiku, gustatory, typographic, sexual, and racist:

What’s this bug travelling up my coat sleeve?




The smile of the Chinese
so Childlike and Bland

The preceding examples, set in text type using only capitalization and line breaks for emphasis, illustrate the biggest failing of this excellent book. Though there are forty-one illustrations spread throughout the book’s 213 pages, this seems few given the visual nature of the subject. Pages look overly busy because many more examples are provided in text weight type within the main body of the text. The copy is heavily footnoted in a scholar’s margin. I would have preferred that the outer margins be used for showing original specimens or resetting them in appropriate fonts. The book would have made its points more clearly and convincingly. Indeed, by more of the visual materials already discussed in the text, it could have served as a ‘Greatest Typographic Hits of the 19th Century’. By printing dozens of examples for the type lover as well as the neo-poet, it could then be used as a visual reference on a daily basis.

Johnston’s is highly intellectual writing and more than a little dense. A typical section reads, “On the other hand, ‘massorients’ could be an arcane reference to what Rabelais calls “the Massoretic gloss’, the mediaeval controversy surrounding Hebrew punctuation. Given the exegetical problem faced here, Caslon’s polymath comp is pointing to the endless speculative possibilities.” Simplicity is perhaps the hardest thing to achieve in writing. I wish Johnston or his editors had made his wonderful book more accessible so I wouldn’t feel I needed to prepare myself by drinking a double espresso before cracking its spine.

Alphabets to Order can be opened anywhere. Like the Guinness Book of World Records, the fun of this book is dropping in for a bite or two and letting a new idea rumble around your brain while you go about your own typographic work.

There are many fascinating details that fill in the historical development of typographic standards. For example, Johnston writes in a footnote, “Although early scribes broke words irregularly and without hyphens, the tradition of ‘proper’ word division was well established by the 1800s. Looking for non-typographic forerunners of this style, I noticed that arbitrary word division, without hyphenation, to facilitate layout in embroidery, may be seen in samplers going as far back as the Renaissance.” And, on changing readers’ habits with the development of display type, “There was a typographical explosion at the beginning of the nineteenth century… There were… new eye-catching inventions: the slab serif, sans serif, and shaded and decorated types. Their introduction led, in turn, to changes in reading, not only in scale and pace, but in the readers’ understanding of emphasis through weight & colour. With the arrival of display types, the specimen books became the playground of the compositors.”

Alphabets to Order concludes with twenty-seven pages of useful Appendices, including the Lineage of British Typefounders from 1764 to 1850; the Lineage of American Typefounders from 1867 to 1919; Type Specimens Consulted; Names and Sizes of Types; Glossary; a vast Bibliography; and a comprehensive Index.

Alex W. White is the author of five books including Advertising Design and Typography (2007), Thinking in Type (2005), and The Elements of Graphic Design (2002), as well as numerous articles on typography and visual communication. His consultancy works with ad agencies and their clients to improve the visual power of their messages. White is an award-winning designer and has spoken professionally and taught for twenty-five years, currently at Parsons and City College of New York. He is a past president and chairman of the TDC.