Century Oldstyle and similar fonts

Addison Hall's picture

I've been enjoying my copy of The Pentagram Papers designed by Kit Hinrichs, in which he uses some of his old standards -- BT Century Oldstyle along with BT Franklin Gothic and BT News Gothic (the man likes Bitstream). I'd like to hear some opinions on Century Oldstyle as a text font, and I suppose display as well. Just curious, really.

I'm also curious about Red Rooster's Century New Style as a possible better revival, and Mark Simonson's Kandal as a more modern alternative.

I realize this is random, but I've read all I can get my hands on about Century Oldstyle (including some info on Miller and Richard) and I want more...


Dan Gayle's picture

It's about as staid a font as you can ask for, really. Not flashy, Modern and classy but not too sophisticated as to be unusable, kinda rough around the edges. A real workhorse.

The person you want to be talking to is Nick Shinn. His Worldwide typeface is a nice revival of the Century typefaces, and is used by the St. Paul, Mn, Pioneer Press newspaper.

charles ellertson's picture

"staid" says it all for me. It strikes me like the corset -- probably useful one time, but no more (just theory for me, since I'm a guy).

I confess I don't much like it. We set the journal American Literature which was redesigned in the late 1980s to use Century Oldstyle, so I've seen it a fair bit.

Just an opinion, if we all have the same tastes, there wouldn't be many typefaces.

Addison Hall's picture

"Workhorse" is what I would call it, too -- it's certainly useful in certain occasions. I honestly never really cared for it either, Charles, until lately, but it tends to give an 80s or 90s look to things (I blame the Nature Company -- and Kit Hinrichs, again). Nevertheless, I can't help but love it now.

I've also been interested in the Century types, and Scotch Romans, and Nick Shinn's site is sporting a new Scotch Roman (thanks, Dan). Now I can't wait for Spring! Not to get off topic, part of what attracts me is that these fonts were so widely adopted and used -- sort of types of the people -- not only for books, but advertising, too. I have several old bibles that all feature Century or Scotch types.

Century Oldstyle has Scottish roots, too, right?

Dan Gayle's picture

80s or 90s
Dude, newspapers and schoolbooks have been using Century for, well, a century.

Here's a recent discussion about the line between Modern and Scotch where Nick discusses Century.

One thing that I would say about the Century types as body text is that they match well with some of the finer display types, like Didot. The strict vertical stress matches up nicely.

The designer who succeeded me at my school's newspaper set his new design with all Bodoni headlines and Caslon as body. Didn't jive too well, and I told him. He quoted the oftern said but often wrong "When in doubt, use Caslon." It told him he was still wrong.

Then, about 5 issues into his new design, I was reading the paper, and thought, "Something's different..." Sure enough, Caslon had been ditched for Century Expanded, and the type had become more transparent in his design.

Mark Simonson's picture

I was assistant art director at a magazine in the early Eighties where Century Oldstyle was one of our main typefaces, along with Franklin Gothic (not ITC). The choice of COS was influenced by Robert Priest's redesign of Esquire magazine, in which he used it almost exclusively (not to mention brilliantly). I think its popularity in the Eighties was in large part due to Esquire. It was also popular in advertising.

One thing that's missing today is the display cut, which was considerably more refined than the text cut that all the digital versions are based upon.

I don't have anything to back it up at hand, but my impression is that COS was a modern update to the "antique" style from the nineteenth century, which evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view) from Caslon.

Dan Gayle's picture

It's amazing how type trends can cycle around into making something "feel" like a totally different era than what existed when the original typeface was conceived.

Addison Hall's picture

Dan, I know the Century types have been widely used since the early 1900s, but I honestly haven't seen many older materials that use Century "Oldstyle" which is a different design (although I know they're out there). The 80s and 90s reference merely comes from my fondness for the Nature Company materials -- that's all. Thanks for the Modern and Scotch link...

I think I had read that Century Oldstyle was inspired by Miller and Richard's old style romans -- possibly in Anatomy of a Typeface. So, yeah, Caslon. And that was the beginning of the old styles like Bruce old style or Old Style no. 7?

You brought up an interesting point (to me), Mark. I had wondered what size Bitstream had used to make their version, or even what Red Rooster had used. Where many "older" digital revivals were drawn from larger sizes, Century Oldstyle holds up as text.

It’s amazing how type trends can cycle around into making something “feel” like a totally different era than what existed when the original typeface was conceived.


Nick Shinn's picture

There's a magnificent page of 24pt Old Style No. 7, set solid, in the 1923 Linotype manual, which dwarfs all the other typefaces shown at the same size. The x-height is so large, and the fit so tight, it forms an impenetrably dense tangle of text that would have had old Bill Morris nodding his head. It's that density which suits faces like Century Oldstyle to the classic Pentagram layouts with their close-cropped images tightly hugged by wrap-around ragged text. The density of the text blocks emphasizes their silhouette shape as a contrast element to the image, both shapes sitting on the plane of the page--rather than the usual effect of type as parallel lines separated by leading. Mind you, Century Expanded worked just as well, having pretty similar proportions.

At least, that's the way I remember it.

Solid setting has become something of a novelty now, whereas it was once the norm.
The reason is that solid was the default for metal (for reasons of efficiency), but +20% is the default for word processing programs and "auto leading" in Quark and InDesign (for reasons of "readability").

All those big x-height faces of the 1970s were COS wannabes.

Addison Hall's picture

Yes! I remember looking through the older Communication Arts ad annuals and being smitten by the huge headlines that dominated most of the layouts -- I loved them. I still love that effect now, but I can never pull it off. It seems like some current magazines (including Esquire) now incorporate negative leading on display type, so much so that the ascenders and descenders run together. Will we look back in twenty years and call it novelty?

I have the 1923 ATF book -- I need to get my hands on that Linotype book.

William Berkson's picture

The the 19th to early twentieth century types named 'old style' are regularized Caslons, with shorter ascenders and descenders, and somewhat more vertical stress. The good thing about them is that they are very readable. The bad thing about them is that short ascenders, as Tracy notes, tend to make a typeface dull. And you see that reflected in the comments here, which I have to agree with. There is a fashion now again for short ascenders, but they tend to be compensated for in other ways to give liveliness.

The "Caslons" of the early 20th century had longer ascenders, similar to the original, though they generally chopped the descenders.

Hopefully, you'll very soon have a modern version with the merits of the original, but more suitable for modern printing :)

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