On the Importance of All Typefoundries

A Personal Polemic

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In my research as an apprentice typefounder, it seems obvious to me that I should attempt to learn the history of this craft. This, to me, involves at least knowing the names of all of the typefoundries - all of the companies (or sometimes committed individuals) who cast type. I have found that there have been a surprising number of these.

Yet I have encountered an unexpected degree of opposition to this undertaking. Such a list of typefoundries includes the many smaller and independent typefoundries of the Twentieth Century, in both America and England (and elsewhere, though I know less of these). Most of these typefoundries are, however, stigmatized as "merely Monotype houses" which cast type which "wasn't real foundry type" on supposedly inferior machines from matrices which they did not manufacture themselves of typefaces they did not design themselves. I have been surprised by the vigor of the opposition I have encountered to documenting the history of these typefoundries, as expressed by well-respected friends both online and in person. It isn't simply that these friends don't themselves care about this history, or even that they feel that I might be wasting my time with it. They don't see this research as simply a useless or zero-value activity. Rather, they see this as an undertaking of negative value - that the world would be a better place if these "mere Monotype houses" were forgotten, and that it is morally wrong to apply the revered term "typefoundry" to them.

I greatly respect my friends and their views, and readily concede that these views are at present clearly the consensus of the majority. Nevertheless, I believe that this view of independent typefounding is deeply mistaken and impoverishes typefounding in the Twenty-First Century. Here I would like to articulate several reasons why I believe that this is so, starting from the least important reasons and concluding with the most important.

1. Typefounding Machinery

A part of the opposition to independent typefoundries is, I think, simply a hold-over of earlier typefoundry marketing. Larger and longer-established typefoundries typically would promote their products as superior to those of smaller foundries because they were claimed to be produced on better machines or made with better metal.

I would certainly concede that (on the one hand) type made on Barth typecasters is as fine as can be made; the Barth is a remarkable machine (as were its European competitors). I would concede, as well, that type cast on the Monotype Composition Caster, necessarily from a softer alloy, is not as durable. However, these extremes do not characterize the situation well.

Aside from the Cincinnati Type Foundry (which developed the Barth), Nineteenth Century "foundry" type was not cast on Barth casters; it was cast on pivotal casters. The Bruce style pivotal caster, not the Barth, defines Nineteenth Century machine typefounding. Moreover, the pivotal caster remained central to American Type Founders until the end. Theo Rehak writes: "In the halcyon days of ATF the largest, busiest, and most intriguing casting bays were those in the Hand and Steam Department. Here, side by side and row after row, were the hand-cranked pivotal casting machines and their powered 'steamer' counterparts ... which could cast anything ..." ( Practical Typecasting, p. 11). While the Barth no doubt represented a high point in typefounding machinery, the pivotal caster represented traditional typefounding more generally.

The independent typefoundries of the Twentieth Century used machinery of three general classes: Monotype display casters (Type-&-Rule, Giant, Supercaster), sorts casters (primarily the Thompson), and some pivotal casters (including the Nuernberger-Rettig, which is really a pivotal caster even though it is often classed as a sorts caster).

I don't have enough experience with the Monotype display casters to comment upon them, but I will note that Rehak writes of the products of these casters, if well run, as being the equal of "foundry" type. I do, however, have some experience with the Thompson. On the basis of that experience, I would argue that the Thompson is at least the equal of a pivotal caster; indeed in many respects the Thompson is the more sophisticated machine. It operates in the same general range of pump pressures, with molds which are at least as accurate, and it delivers type which is better finished.

2. Matrix Making

This is perhaps the most serious objection to the worth of the independent typefoundries. Most of them did not, in fact, design their own faces or make their own matrices. The surviving catalogs and materials indicate a heavy preponderance of Monotype faces, together with a few faces from Linotype and elsewhere. However, I will note three things here:

First, even major typefoundries such as ATF who did develop their own faces and make their own matrices didn't do so exclusively. ATF may have cut the matrices for Spartan, but they hardly designed it when they copied it from Futura. Practices such as these go back to the Nineteenth Century, when matrix electroforming made the copying of type easy. I find it odd that someone would be unwilling to call a small company a "typefoundry" when it cast type from honestly purchased matrices, yet would willingly call another company a "typefoundry" when it cast type from matrices of a design it copied.

Second, many independent typefoundries did in fact either make or have made their own matrices. Since the Nineteenth Century there has always been at least a small independent matrix making capability in America - from the Wiebkings in Chicago at the turn of the Twentieth Century, through the Williams Engineering Company (UK), Baltimore Matrix, and on to several foundries and independent craftspeople today. While small in scale by comparison with, say, ATF, these activities were not unimportant. Yet little is now remembered about who made what.

Third, one must distinguish the history of type design from the history of type. This is rather important. If you are interested in the history of type design, you can dispense with typefounding entirely. All you require are the first instances of the type designs as shown in specimens. If, however, you are interested in type as it was actually used, then the making of that type is important, regardless of how it was made. It may be tedious looking through largely identical specimen books from different typefoundries casting the same Monotype series, but the repetition itself is important to a historian. The fact that everybody was casting face X while few were casting face Y reveals a lot about changing tastes in type. Type use and type design are both legitimate subjects, but they are different subjects.

3. Typefounding as a Fine Craft

There is a class division between those who work in clean offices at desks and those who work at dirty machines in factories (even when the machines are, in fact, meticulously clean). In a 1903 advertisement in The Inland Printer, Lanston Monotype shows their keyboard user wearing a business suit, but their caster operator wearing a smock and cap (symbols of a lower class). Ellic Howe, in "The Typecasters" (published as Vol. XLI, No. 1 (Summer, 1957) of The Monotype Recorder) observes that it took decades for the pay scale of Monotype caster operators in England to match that of keyboard operators.

This class division is even more extreme between "designers" (who are artists working with their minds at drawing boards) and casters (who are stigmatized as simply mechanics tending a machine). It is very easy to find information on the great type designers; indeed, there is a small industry devoted to their hagiography. It is much more difficult to discover any information about the higher class of artisans who made matrices. It is nearly impossible to discover any information at all about those who actually made the type without which none of this would matter.

As an apprentice typefounder, I can assure you that there is much, much more to casting type than simply putting the matrix in the machine and pulling a lever. Every sort must be aligned three ways (vertically, laterally, and in set width). Even if alignment information exists, it is not to be trusted. Every type needs to be checked for quality. Thousandths of an inch matter.

Typefounding is a fine craft, and the history of every fine craft is worth recording.

4. The Continuity of Typefounding

Finally, and most importantly, I would argue that, far from being incidental, the independent typefoundries of the Twentieth Century, these "mere Monotype houses" in fact constitute the continuity of the tradition of typefounding today.

In this second decade of the Twenty-First Century, we are in a small renaissance of typefounding. Although it never disappeared entirely, the craft of typefounding ceased to be a significant industry with the advent of the computer. In the years after that, all of the major surviving companies making matrices and casting type ceased (at least in the matrix and typefounding businesses). Yet today, albeit at a smaller scale, the craft has been reborn. The letterpress printer can now buy type newly cast from a surprising number of typefoundries (see a List of Current Typefoundries).

Yet with one small exception (the materials rescued from the demise of ATF by Rehak and a few dedicated individuals), this renaissance in typefounding does not trace its roots back to ATF or other major typefoundries. It comes, instead, out of the independent typefoundries, the "mere Monotype houses," of the Twentieth Century.

If you look at the history of typefounding from its origins, it is, over and over, a history of the transmission of materials and skills. The materials of typefounding (matrices, punches, molds, engravers and electroforming apparatus, and typecasting machines) are specialized and expensive to manufacture. They tend to be passed on from one typefoundry to another; this is why the great traditional typefoundries such as Stephenson, Blake could carefully trace their lineage back for centuries. They were tracing the survival of actual physical pieces of fine technology. The knowledge of typefounding, similarly, passes from one foundry and one generation to another.

Only one typefoundry in the US today, The Dale Guild, can trace both its materials and skills to the large typefoundries of the past. But much as their work is to be admired and encouraged, a single typefoundry does not make a renaissance of typefounding by itself. All of the other US typefoundries operating today trace their roots back elsewhere, to the "mere Monotype houses" and independent typefoundries of the Twentieth Century. Those much-maligned typefoundries used, preserved, and passed on the materials (matrices and casters) with which most type today is made. As importantly, they kept alive the pool of knowledge of typefounding practices. Other factors were important as well, of course (especially the contributions of the community of enthusiasts calling themselves the American Typecasting Fellowship), but without these independent houses there would be very little commercial typefounding in America today.

As an apprentice typefounder aspiring to become an heir to this tradition of practice, I feel that it is entirely appropriate to call these houses, all of them, "typefoundries."

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