Your recommended books on the economics and culture of early typography and printing?

finnb's picture

Hello - my name's Finn; I'm working on a series of projects about the mechanization of the human hand - exploring things like buttons, motion studies, histories of handwriting, proto-ergonomics. An issue of major interest to me has to do with the standardization and interchangeability of early typefaces - how good were the knockoffs? If you bought up the type from a defunct house that was cut from the same plan as a font family you already owned, what were the chances that you could swap out letters? I'm interested in the economics, in the cultures and habitus of early designers and cutters, the personal and the universal (universal in the sense that interchangeable parts for the Model T or the Wood reaper were universal) in letterforms.

So of course I'm doing a ton of archival research, but I thought I'd ask here: Which books in this range would you particularly recommend? Extra thanks for any books that reproduce primary sources in early printing culture - wills, letters, auction records, inventories . . . And, since I'm just digging into this, it's possible somebody's done it well already - please deliver the smackdown and I'll move on.

Many thanks for your time. If you want to reach me off the thread, email f at mavo dot nu, or IM rundfunkantiqua.

Blue's picture

Finn, I'm not exactly on expert on this topic but I can give you a few starting points. First is that there was no standardization of type measurements until the late 1700s. See Wikipedia's entry for Typographic Unit for a not-bad general overview.

Since before that time there was no pressure for different typefaces to correlate dimensionally, each cutter was free to create various sizes of his typefaces as he wished (the various sizes were then named, not numbered). However, there is evidence that there were some early in-house dimensional norms. Here is a quote from Peter Burnhill in his book, Type spaces:

"...histories of printing technology had left the impression that printers – working before the divorce of typefounding from the printing trade, to become a separate industry – had contrived to put types and spaces together without reference to a system of measurement.
Later, it became clear [to the author] that Aldus [Manutius] must have commanded a very refined system of dimensional control long before manufacturers of types and spaces for sale to the printing trade sought to regularize type body sizes..."

This book – Type spaces: in-house norms in the typography of Aldus Manutius – contains an exhaustive examiniation through original sources of the dimensions of Aldus's types and usage. Seems it would be one excellent starting point. It contains a bibliography of 35 books.

I'll let you draw your own conclusions on the interchangability of early type, but my guess is that it would have been quite rare. Given the easy interchangability of digital typefaces today it's still quite rare (and usually bad practice) to swap glyphs except in the case of some symbols or punctuation.

Nick Shinn's picture

A good place to look is publisher Oak Knoll, e.g.

finnb's picture

Just wanted to thank the Typophile gang for your help - here and in a number of emails. You know you're dealing with a sharp community when the problems people have answering your questions describe not their ignorance but the way your question is poorly phrased and formed. I've got a lot more reading and thinking to do now. Molto grazie.

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