Two of the oldest pixel fonts ever

nina's picture

Time and again the question about the "oldest pixel font" crops up.
I went digging a bit.

Pixelated lettering sure is old. You get mosaics in ancient cultures. But what about fonts? I'm going to go out on a limb here and propose that embroidery alphabets published as specimens for embroiderers should be considered fonts rather than lettering. The grid-bound specimens effectively constitute patterns of rules and instructions to be executed (albeit by humans).

Given this definition (which is probably debatable), below are the oldest "pixel fonts" that I've been able to find so far. These two cross stitch alphabets were published in 1533. 476 years ago! Machiavelli's "Prince" had just been posthumously published, Luther's Bible was about to follow, Da Vinci had recently passed away, Michelangelo was alive and working, movable type was still a young technology, and the New York area had just been discovered by the Europeans.

These two alphabets were included in Livre nouveau dict Patrons de lingerie, edited by Pierre de Sainte-Lucie, published between 1530 and 1533. The alphabet of roman capitals (of which, unfortunately, I only have a cropped image) was apparently previously published, in a slightly differing form, in a book by a certain Schönsperger in 1524. The author of the book I got this from (Catherine Pouchelon, Abécédaires Brodés) maintains that that was the first cross stitch alphabet ever to be published.


Bonobo's picture

Very cool article, thank you!

Cheers, Tom

phil_doughty's picture

cool - thanks

ebensorkin's picture

Nice post!

Jack B. Nimblest Jr.'s picture

Gridded or woven perhaps, but pixelated?


nina's picture

"Gridded" isn't bad.

"Pixelated" (and I put that in quotation marks because it's only accurate in a sort of synecdocheal way), in terms of conforming to the same design limitations, structurally/morphologically, that pixelated screen type is bound to. (That was the short version.)

I did a somewhat thorough analysis of the various structural types of what I have called "Gefügte Zeichen" in German, a couple of years ago*; in English I'm still missing a term for those, maybe "composed/assembled signs", basically meaning graphical signs that are built-up from individual smaller units (as opposed to the other methods of making signs as defined by Andreas Stötzner, namely writing/drawing/etching; deforming material; or printing/punching/stamping).

From what I know, cross stitch specimens show the oldest forms of thusly "composed" signs (at least with regard to lettershapes) that are also bound to a compulsory, rectilinear/orthogonal grid divided into roughly square units, *and* are not rasterized automatically, but designed for that grid. They share that with bitmap screen fonts, and that makes them especially interesting to compare to the latter. Of course variables such as absolute size, historical context, purpose, and of course the nature of the light-emitting screen vs. cloth, et al., impose practical limits on the transferability of designs. Nevertheless, especially at small sizes the morphological parallelisms can be stunning.

And I'm incapable of not digressing wildly when dealing with this overall subject. :-}


Simon Robertson's picture

awesome. thanks!

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Nice post and images! I agree that using the term "pixel" here is a bit iffy... According to this document, the term was first used in 1965.

But the concept is clear: letterforms that fit into a grid. Grids have existed for a long time, so perhaps the term "gridded" is best.

nina's picture

Yeah, I admit my use of "pixel" up top was mainly populist. :->

Actually, I'm not sure I'm happy with "gridded" as a term. That's probably because I have my German nomenclature in mind… I'd like to keep viewing these as a sub-form of all "assembled" characters (like in mosaics; lettering composed of wall, roof, or floor tiles; LEDs; dot matrix printers; pebbles on the beach; rhinestone ornaments on girly shirts; lettering out of coffee cups photographed from above [Sagmeister]; etc., you know, the whole story). So they can be gridded assembled characters, but not just gridded. Does that make sense?
(Because, say, a glyph that's been automatically rasterized for on screen display is also gridded, but it's not consciously designed for that grid, so it wouldn't conform to my definition of an assembled character.)
BTW, does this "assembled" work? Or is "composed" better?

Paul, thanks for the link! I'll have to get that book. I like the fact that they seem to have ordered the alphabets by cap height. But note that their samples "only" go back to the 18th century.

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

"Assembled" reminds me of "constructed"... Could be.

nina's picture

Isn't "constructed type" more reminiscent of ruler-and-compass stuff though,
rather than what I described above? (Your link actually seems to prove this.)
Or am I misreading you?

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Yeah, you're correct. Scratch what I said... Sorry. :-(

Jack B. Nimblest Jr.'s picture

>defined by Andreas Stötzner, namely writing/drawing/etching; deforming material; or printing/punching/stamping).

I'm thinking that all the acts of marking can happen in either constrained and unconstrained fields with constructed or unconstructed marks, before one even gets to classifying how the marks and fields are addressed by the mark maker, or whether the resulting material is lettering or a font. But generally, unless this needlepoint type can be reused, I'd think of it as lettering.

Thanks for the ideas and Cheers!

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