Egyptian slab serif

missgiggles's picture

Did the Egyptian slab serif in the late 19th century take inspiration after the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb by Howard Carter? but wasn't that in 1922 though? so how was it possible?

Manlio Napoli's picture

"The first square-serif type to be introduced was the Antique of London's Vincent Figgins Foundry, turning up in the 1817 catalogue of that firm in four sizes [...].
The provenance as much as the use of the term Egyptian is obscure. Most authorities agree that it was the coincidence of the emergence of the square-serif types with the popular interest in Egypt following the Napoleonic conquest [...] that gave the design its name."
Alexander Lawson, Anatomy of a typeface (pp. 308-311)

I was reading that just yesterday

claaspb's picture

Now, I have no ides if this is true... but the story my boss told one day was that Napoleon wrote some sort of a text (might have even been a book) about his fights after he had conquered Egypt. This piece of writing was supposedly set in the one of the first slab-serifs ever – hence they became known as egyptiennes.

Nick Shinn's picture

The word Egyptian also has a gnarly sequence of descenders.
The first word I use to check out the appearance of descenders, when I'm designing a new font, any style, is always "Egyptian".

There can be no doubt that Egypt fascinated Western Europeans at the beginning of the 19th century. Check out Shelley's poem "Ozymandias".

blank's picture

The term Egyptian arises from coincidental connection. Napoleon did a big PR tour that wound through Egypt where his archaeological team picked up and deciphered the Rosetta stone, which lead to a huge boom in Egyptology. At the time Egyptology was funded primarily via tomb robbing, so Britain was overwhelmed with looted Egyptian artifacts, sort of like Banshees albums in the 1980s. Slab serifs came and went along with the trend of propping a mummy up in the corner of one's dining room; and so the two are inextricably linked.

Nick Shinn's picture

The inspiration for the form of the Egyptian style is generally believed to be the boom and emergence of commercial "job" printing that began around 1800. Previously, most type was for books. But type for handbills and fly posters had to make a powerful impact. This from 1835.

Bruce's picture

Marvelous image, Nick! Thanks for (er) posting it.

bieler's picture

missgiggles

The answer to your question is no.

missgiggles's picture

I found out that in a publication of the treasures found in Egypt by Napoleon in 1798 was written in slab serif and so its name originated from there.

blank's picture

I found out that in a publication of the treasures found in Egypt by Napoleon in 1798 was written in slab serif and so its name originated from there.

Mind naming your source? It sounds worth reading.

timd's picture

I found out that in a publication of the treasures found in Egypt by Napoleon in 1798 was written in slab serif and so its name originated from there.

Since serif didn't become part of the English language until 30-odd years after Napoleon's invasion of Egypt was it referring to Egyptienne? But that is an interesting piece of research, let us know about it.
Tim

timd's picture

I think you are referring to Description de L'Egypte
http://2terres.hautesavoie.net/degypte/texte/descrip0.html

Or La Décade égyptienne, journal littéraire et d'économie politique
http://2terres.hautesavoie.net/cegypte/texte/caegysa2.html

btw there is an exhibition, until the end of the year, in New York
http://www.daheshmuseum.org/collection/exhibitions/index.html#current

Tim

missgiggles's picture

www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slab_serif

Not much info on it though.

blank's picture

And it's a Wikipedia entry with no citations... now that's a useless source if I ever saw one.

I double-checked in Typographic Design, Stop Stealing Sheep, A Type Primer, and ETS 3.0 and there isn't a single mention of the idea that the name comes from the publications about Napoleon's journeys.

Google books has a scan of Description de L’Egypte and it is most certainly not printed with a slab face. Typographic Design presents the idea of a connection between popular type and Egypt mania, and since Meggs is one of the writers, I'm sticking with that one.

Edit: The version on Google books is from 1845, the original was 1809. This still negates the story, as slabs appeared in 1815. I'll be at the Library of Congress next week and double check the 1809 edition, assuming that they have one.

Now I have a Wikipedia entry to fix...

Grot Esqué's picture

I have a finnish book that cites another one saying that the name comes from Napoleon’s war in Egypt. The original book is Graafisen tyylin perusteet by Olof Eriksson (1974). The name translates “The Principles of Graphical Style”.

timd's picture

I don't think that is the same book, it should have illustrations or descriptions of them throughout (and mention Napoleon, although the second edition is dedicated to the king).


Tim

blank's picture

I have a finnish book that cites another one saying that the name comes from Napoleon’s war in Egypt.

Does it cite Napoleon's campaign as inspiring the name because it caused the Egyptian mania, or does it specifically cite Description de L’Egypte? Graafisen tyylin perusteet is in the Library of Congress as well as the Helsinki University library, but there's no hope of me deciphering Finnish, are you interested in looking it up? Maybe we can put all this together into a short paper on the etymology—and misconceptions thereof—of the name Egyptian.

I think that the only thing that can really prove the Napoleon link is if the 1809 edition of Description de L’Egypte is in fact printed with slab type and someone can find a reputable original source. I've located the book in the Library of Congress, it's too late to go today, I'll go check tomorrow.

I can't believe I've turned into such a type nerd. But I have to spend my month-long Christmas break doing something.

timd's picture

Although Description de L’Egypte sounds like the correct book, it is not certain that the original wikipedia article was referring to it, it is also in several volumes, not all from 1809*, some date from 1822.
Tim

*wikipedia states that the volumes indicated as 1809 were printed in 1810

{edit: Not that I want to discourage any research}

blank's picture

I'll have to see what I can come across. Hopefully the LOC keeps them together (I doubt that I can just call these up like I do other stuff in the rare books section) and I can look over the set. Since Wikipedia mentions that it was exhibited at Georgetown I can see if they actually have a set, and I'm sure that the National Geographic Society will have at least some of them around.

I'm also tryierng to think of someone else to pose the question to. In Typology Heller writes that the faces are linked to the post-Napoleon fad, but no more detail is given. I'll try contacting him about the subject.

Grot Esqué's picture

Graafisen tyylin perusteet is in the Library of Congress as well as the Helsinki University library, but there’s no hope of me deciphering Finnish, are you interested in looking it up?

The library of the University of Art and Design Helsinki has the book too, I’ll go check tomorrow.

Grot Esqué's picture

Okay, maybe not. They’re closed till January 2nd.

Nick Shinn's picture

Why slab?

Slabs serif faces were more often referred to as "Antique" in type specimens of the early 19th century.

The first sans serif type was published in a Caslon specimen of 1816 (there are no extant examples of it in use), and named "Egyptian".

In applying the term "Egyptian" to a sans serif, at first, there may have been the association with something ancient and primitive -- this is James Mosley's thesis for the cultural space the sans came from, as told in "The Nymph and the Grot".

Updike (Printing Types, Volume II), mentions in an anecdotal footnote that in a "London Jest Book" of 1806 (unfortunately, an internet-quality reference...) there is a joke about an Irishman's reaction to a "Fashionable Egyptian Sign Board". There is no way of knowing wheher the lettering thereon, in which the "thin strokes were as thick as the thick strokes" was a sans or slab. Anyway, the signpainters were ahead of the typefounders.

Updike conjectured that there was some racial correspondence between the dark weight of the style and the Egyptian term, however, this was probably the influence on him of a later 19th century concept, encapsulated in the term from the title of the explorer Stanley's book "The Dark Continent", dark meaning undiscovered, unilluminated by civilization, and with dark-skinned inhabitants. However, even then this racist premise was often understood to refer to sub-Saharan Africa, not Egypt and the northern Arab territories.

There were in fact quite a few Egyptians in Paris in Napoleon's day -- they were Mamelukes, a caucasian ethnic group, originally abducted to Egypt as slaves, but who had become its rulers. Many of them, male citizens of the Ottoman Empire, made their way to France with the returning French army, and subsequently formed a divsion in Napoleon's army, featuring prominently in military parades, their exotic uniforms creating a fashion craze. Girodet, a leading painter of the time, was fascinated by the Orient and had several of them living in his house -- he did a series of portraits of them, and used his guests to populate his large painting "The Revolt of Cairo". So in France at least, the Egyptian phenomenon was all about the exotic novelty of the Orient. And French fashions quickly crossed the Channel to London.

So I'm sticking with the theory that while there may be several contributing factors to the Egyptian name, really it's just something that was trendy at the time, taken up by type founders because it looks cool in print (to typophiles) -- the only word with three different consecutive letters with lower-case descenders. Eventually, it settled on the slab-serif genre.

Bear in mind that, as Alastair Johnston explained in "Alphabets to Order", the people responsible for 19th century specimen books were dada poets.

bieler's picture

"Bear in mind that, as Alastair Johnston explained in “Alphabets to Order”, the people responsible for 19th century specimen books were dada poets."

For God's sakes. Well, at least you inadvertently pointed to where you stole the image from.

By the way, printers' ink balls.

Gerald

missgiggles's picture

'Now I have a Wikipedia entry to fix…' I bet there are lots of them to fix and then i get told off on here for asking silly questions. Huh :(

timd's picture

The trouble with Wikipedia is that it is not, and maybe never will be, a definitive encyclopedia and it is always worth finding another source to confirm it, being aware that one will often find that it is copied in several other sites, normally obvious because it is almost word for word. I would always take anything you find on the internet with a pinch of salt until you can confirm it from an alternative source.
On the other hand you have sparked some interesting discussion and investigation and have made an early New Year's resolution so hopefully you will be more welcome on the forums.
Tim

Grot Esqué's picture

James, you’ve been quite a type nerd the last couple of days. You think it’s contagious?

Nick, Nymph and Grot, huh?

Eventually, it settled on the slab-serif genre.

I think slab serif is the english name (yes, Watson). In finnish they’re known as ‘egyptienne’. What I mean is, slab serif and egyptian are synonyms, or what were you trying to say, Nick?

Nick Shinn's picture

For God’s sakes. Well, at least you inadvertently pointed to where you stole the image from.

Actually, I first came across it in another book, "London, A Great City" published by the Folio Society. Is scanning an image from a book and posting it on a web forum considered theft? I suppose I should have asked the Alfred Dunhill Museum for permission to reproduce their painting, but in reproducing low-res scans to illustrate a point in an online thread, I don't think people usually go to that length, so I'm just following general practice. Or do you think one should do better?

By the way, printers’ ink balls.

Gosh.

Speaking of Mr Johnston's book, I came across this quote in it, from Richard Austin's "Address to Printers", 1819, concerning the problems with the ultra fine details of modern type, "Besides this, in the drawing of the letters, the true shape and beauty are lost; and instead of consisting of circles, and arcs of circles, so agreeable to the eye, some of them have more the appearance of Egyptian characters than good roman letter."

Where did type founders of Austin's day get their knowledge of what an Egyptian character looked like? I would guess from Edmund Fry's "Pantographia", published in 1799 if I recall correctly, which attempted to show all the alphabets used by all languages around the world. So I wonder what the page(s) on Egyptian type look like in Fry's book?

slab serif and egyptian are synonyms,

That's always beeen my understanding. I named my slab-serif take on Bodoni "Egyptian" partly for that reason, as well as others, but most logically because the serifs don't look at all like slabs in the Light and Thin weights.

But for encompassing a variety of typefaces, rather than weights, "Slab" is more practical, which is no doubt why the FontBook uses it as a category, to include many hefty-serifed faces (eg for news text) that are not at all "Egyptian".

blank's picture

James, you’ve been quite a type nerd the last couple of days. You think it’s contagious?

I've been a nerd a lot longer than the last couple of days. It's just that lately I've gone from other sorts of nerdness to being a type nerd. Unfortunately my nerdiness today has been limited to reading Leslie Cabarga's book, as I arrived at the Library of Congress only to find that the reading rooms are closed on weekends!

Anyway, Mr. Heller suggested that I contact Matthew Carter; if someone has Mr. Carter's email address would you please message it to me?

blank's picture

Matthew Carter has responded. According to James Mosley in The Nymph and the Grot (Available from St. Bride) the term Egyptian was originally used for sans-serif faces; I think that this pretty much kills the theory that it resulted from use in Napoleonic texts as no typesetter would have used sans type for a serious book (if any book) at that time.

Unfortunately the closest copy of The Nymph and the Grot is in Baltimore, so I'll just order copy and wait for it to arrive.

missgiggles's picture

Thanks Tim, I sure hope so! :)

blank's picture

Missgiggles, if you really want to make friends with us, head to St. Bride in London over the holidays and see what The Nymph and the Grot has to say on this subject :)

Miss Tiffany's picture

I've just received an e-mail from James Mosley and he is going to join us. What a treat. He said the information found within 'Nymph & the Grot' itself needs updating.

James Mosley's picture

I’m not sure I can follow that without blushing. In any case I have been reading Typophile Forum to learn, rather than to offer my opinions. (I do enough of that in my job.) But it’s true that having seen a recommendation that people should go out and get hold of The Nymph and the Grot (1999) I thought, first of all, that the book may not be so easy to get hold of (but don’t let me put anyone off buying it – sales help the St Bride Library). Secondly, that some interesting things about early sanserifs (or Egyptians) and slab-serifs were found after it was published – many of them by Justin Howes. If he had not died so shockingly suddenly a couple of years ago he might have contributed to this thread. Should have, for sure.

So I thought of doing so myself, and signed up – but then my piece got far too long to post, so I put it under the heading ‘The Nymph and the Grot, an update’ on the Typefoundry blog (http://typefoundry.blogspot.com/). That is where to find it, along with some other miscellaneous things. It won’t be the last word on the topic (I hope), but may answer some questions.

William Berkson's picture

Welcome James! Delighted that you are willing to share some of your deep knowledge of type history here.

Let me add that as well as your scholarship, I also find your opinions on type--such as your mention of the 'rather plain' character of Univers in your blog--quite interesting.

To me educated tastes, borne of long study, are very interesting, in spite of the fact that they will still differ greatly from one person to another.

wolfgang_homola's picture

Wow – I think we can feel really privileged to have you on this thread, James! Thanks a lot for the link to your blog.

I am very happy to hear that Justin Howe’s research did not get lost with his untimely death. He was supposed to give a talk at the St Bride conference in 2004 about his research, but he was ill that day. A few weeks before his death, when he was still curator at the Type Museum in London, I visited the Type Museum. In the generous manner that was typical of him, he gave me a short presentation about the talk he wanted to give at St Bride – essentially the same information that you published now on your blog. Of course, in my stupidity, I didn’t write anything down, and when he died, I already thought this information was lost forever. Justin had also prepared some new illustrations for his talk which he showed me on his power book. I hope, one day you can publish these illustrations as well, in memory of Justin…

Here are some pictures of the type specimen and the matrices of Caslon Egyptian, taken by Justin. The type specimen and the matrices are at the Type Museum. If we compare the printed letters with the matrices, the newly added characters (described in the article on James Mosley’s blog) can be seen clearly.

Nick Shinn's picture

Thanks for the update, James.

Caslon's "Egyptian", it must be assumed, is not then an experiment that merely chops the serifs off a slab-serif style -- which seems to be the consensus in the general type histories -- it is a mature design, derived from many decades of development by architects, sign painters, cartographers and stone masons. Tombstones are another, clearly dated, source of 18th century sans lettering.

James Mosley's picture

"Caslon’s “Egyptian”, it must be assumed, is not then an experiment that merely chops the serifs off a slab-serif style"

No – that was the bright idea of the type historian A. F. Johnson, who dated the Figgins slab-serif 1815 (which is on the title page of the specimen) and the Caslon sanserif 1816. Therefore... But it helps to get outside the typefoundry and to look around a bit.

One of my favourite images is this one (which I put in the original Nymph & Grot), published in 1808, a project for a vast pyramid outside Portsmouth, the Royal Navy base, to commemorate Nelson at Trafalgar and Stuart at Maida (no, I had never heard of him either – but there is Maida Vale in London as well as Trafalgar Square). The pyramid makes an Egyptian connection, but the lettering was described as 'the earliest form of Roman character'.

I'm sorry this one never got built – but there are plenty of other examples of sanserifs before 1816, ususally conveying some idea of an early and 'primitive' form. Not unrelated to Tschichold's idea of the Grotesk as pure and basic, in some ways.

James Mosley's picture

I'm sorry about that image, which shows a hazy grasp of technology. Will this be any better, I wonder?

William Berkson's picture

James, if you resize your pictures in Photoshop to 600 pixels wide, keeping the proportions, then they will fit into the Typophile column.

poms's picture

What a wonderful typophile-thread! Thank you all.

Thomas

PS
James, you can download a 600px wide pict in png-Format –here–, if you want to update your posting.

Miss Tiffany's picture

James, I've resaved it for you.

Nick Shinn's picture


Also in Norfolk, Felbrigg Hall, with a Jacobean sans serif in the balustrade.
GLORIA DEO IN EXCELSIS
(Photo ©Rupert Truman, NTPL)

Functionalism trumps allusion.

James Mosley's picture

Thank you, all of you, for getting me out of the technological hole I had dug myself into.

That splendid architectural example from Felbrigg is a nice reminder that sanserifs come and go at all times in all kinds of media.

James Clough's picture

Paradoxically, We really do get an idea of the size of the pyramid that was never constructed! James M's technical error turns out to be beneficial. I'm new to this game but it looks like fun! And you all seem to be so informed and learned.

missgiggles's picture

I am happy to have sparked up the Egyptian slab serif, thanks to my massive essay i did on serifs! *rolling eyes*. But it's nice to know you are learning new things everyday because a professional is never a professional as they learn someting new themselves everyday :D

James Mosley's picture

>But it’s nice to know you are learning new things everyday

Quite right -- That's why I signed up to Typophile Forum. I'm learning all the time. And shedding some cherished prejudices.

Maxim Zhukov's picture
  • there are plenty of other examples of sanserifs before 1816, ususally conveying some idea of an early and ‘primitive’ form.

Here is one curious example, dated 1799, from a monument to Field-Marshal Rumyantsev-Zadunaisky in St. Petersburg. I don't think its style conveys an idea of an early and primitive form. Of course, this is not a real sans-serif, but it is not a serif either. And look at that super-tight letterspacing.

James Mosley's picture

That's a fine inscription, Maxim. My knowledge of Russian letterforms is minimal, but is it possible that these dense, narrow and hardly-seriffed letters are a slight echo of the old pre-Peter letters? In other words, a bit of national sentiment? (Or they might just relate to the narrow German roman caps that were often used.)

Maxim Zhukov's picture

Triangular terminals in the Ц, Б, Yat', Д, and the Ъ certainly feel archaic (see a sample of the ustav style below), but the M with is raised vertex, and, of course, the showy У look very much [post-]Petrine.

Nick Shinn's picture

That plaque doesn't look right. Surely its architect would have done a better job of configuring the plaque to accomodate the general's name.

Perhaps the monument was originally created for someone with a shorter name. (The fortunes of war...)

Another reason that the plaque looks like a revision is the naive quality of the lettering (note the "flipped" stress of De and A), compared to the sophistication of the other metalwork.

However, even if the plaque is later than the monument, it would be difficult to date without some form of historical documentation (such as a photo or engraving of the monument which showed the plaque).

At least it's not Trajan or Bembo.

James Clough's picture

When I first read this excellent discussion on Egyptian types I seem to remember an image of a lottery bill (or similar item) with wood engraved Egyptian letters which seems to have disappeared. Was this the first printed appearance of Egyptians? Was the date 1810? And what has happened to this rather important image? Perhaps it was in another discussion area... Can anyone help?

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