Type foundry digitally preserves vintage stationer’s lettering styles

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[Guest editor: Tamye Riggs]

The Sweet collection is composed of typefaces based on the engraver’s lettering styles that came into fashion at the beginning of the twentieth century. The collection is anchored by Sweet Sans, Mark van Bronkhorst’s interpretation of the engraver’s sans serif (kin to the drafting alphabets popularized in the early 1900s).

A type designer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Van Bronkhorst had long been a fan of these historic faces, many of which had all but disappeared from use. A few cuts of the engraver’s sans style existed in digital form, including Sacker’s Gothic (Monotype Imaging) and Engraver’s Gothic (Bitstream), but these interpretations were somewhat limited in their scope.

Van Bronkhorst sought to study the original forms in depth. As a graphic designer, he had worked with an engraving house in the past, and was aware that stationers and engravers used “masterplates” as lettering patterns, tracing letterforms with a pantograph device to manually transfer the forms to what would become the printing plate. He began hunting for masterplates, but found that most had been destroyed as engraving shops converted to digital typography. The majority of these shops had abandoned the tedious masterplate-tracing process in favor of more expedient photographic processes where “pretty much any digital font would do,” Van Bronkhorst says. He decided it would be a good idea to preserve the masterplate lettering styles—some good, some bad, some ugly—as they seemed otherwise destined to disappear unless interpreted as digital fonts.

After doing some digging, Van Bronkhorst discovered a stash of antique masterplates. With Linnea Lundquist, he commenced work on the first typeface in the Sweet range—Sweet Upright Script—likely the first digital version of this vintage social engraving design.

Van Bronkhorst then turned his attention to the engraver’s sans. Sweet Sans hearkens back to the same or similar masterplates as Sacker’s Gothic. Upon close inspection, various masterplates of what would seem the same letterforms varied considerably. The process of interpreting the design was one of selecting various forms and characteristics while leaving others out. The engraver’s sans was typically a cap-to-small-cap combination, yet a lowercase model did exist. Van Bronkhorst decided that Sweet’s interpretation would be broad, including lowercase and small caps, and in weights from Hairline to Heavy, with true italics. The result is a nine-weight sans family that pays homage to the charm and dignity of its model.

Encouraged by the positive response to the first releases, Van Bronkhorst is expanding the Sweet Sans family with a slightly modernized version, and plans to continue to gradually introduce more vintage stationer’s lettering styles in digital form. His goal is to carefully build a collection that accurately represents the genre while offering type users a variety of styles to suit their needs.

The Sweet collection of fonts is available at http://mvbfonts.com.

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