Typographic topics for a history paper

1996type's picture

Dear typophiles,

I have to write a history paper for school, on any subject I like. I was thinking to do something typography related, since I think my teacher wil like this, I'm personally interested, and I think it is an underestimated indicator of culture and technology. The paper needs to be very close to the level that is expected at university (footnotes with sources, detailed info, etc.), so I need to pick a topic that has enough available information, in books or on the web. I would like to know what you think of the topics underneath, regarding availability of info and interest. I have to have a focus question eventually, so if anything particular jumps into mind, feel free to share :-)

- The transition from blackletter to humanist typography.
- The connection between blackletter typography and germany.
- The transition (at least partial) from serif to sans-serif.
- Nazi typography
- The differences betweem Italian, French, Dutch and English typography during the Renaissance.
- Any other suggestions?

I'm not asking you to do my work. I'm merely interested to see if you find any topic particularly suitable for my project. I will also try to publish it on a typography blog, once it's finished.

Many thanks in advance,
Jasper de Waard

Queneau's picture

'Nazi Typography' is an interesting, if very slippery subject. The highly speculative, and often plain crazy ideas about the choice of letterform might be an interesting subject, although I don't know if there are any proper sources.

I think an interesting theme might be the social movement of modernism in the period between the wars, combined with the ideas behind the new typography (as proposed by Tschichold), Bauhaus ideals, Futura. This is also interesting as the Netherlands played quite an important part in this, with De Stijl amongst others. I think quite a lot of books are published around this theme.

1996type's picture

Thanks! I'll have a closer look at modernism, although it's a style I'm personally less interested in than, say, blackletter. Nazi typography sounds really interesting, especially since it might be related to the ever present love for blackletter typoraphy in germany, but, like you said, I doubt wether there's enough info on the topic. Perhaps, if I'm really lucky, Hitler wrote something about typography in 'Mein kampf', although it seems unlikely to me.

hrant's picture

Blackletter's ongoing and international roller-coaster ride would be a superb topic.

hhp

1996type's picture

Thank you Hrant. Do you happen to know some good sources?

hrant's picture

There's a ton of stuff on Typophile. The central book on
the topic remains Bain & Shaw's "Blackletter: type and
national identity". There are also some highly visual
works like Paoli's "Mexican Blackletter" and Schalansky's
"Fraktur Mon Amour" which show blackletter's revival,
nicely overcoming its dark past. See also minor things like:
http://themicrofoundry.com/ss_fraktur1.html

hhp

Frode Bo Helland's picture

Jasper: “The differences between Italian, French, Dutch and English typography during the Renaissance.” sounds like something you could blabber on about forever, and you already have a bit of insight into your own national heritage.

The birth of the humanist antiqua—a philosophical construction based on a mistake (= the Carolingian minuscle; read more in F. Smeijers Counterpunch)—sounds equally interesting.

1996type's picture

Hi frode. The problem I have with 'the differences between..." is that it seems very design specific to me. Not very much history involved in analyzing letershapes, and therefore probably not suitable for a history paper, even though the lettershapes are historically relevant.

"The birth of..." in that sense is more appropriate and I've been wanting to read 'counterpunch' for a long while now. Fred Smeijers, being one of my Dutch design heroes. This can probably be linked more easily to historical periods and technological advances, all of which I hope are included in 'counterpunch', right?

1996type's picture

From the reviews I just read it seems that 'counterpunch' does not discuss blackletter at all. It seems to focus on roman type completely, which is not really what I need :-(
Am I correct, or does 'counterpunch', in fact also discuss the transition from blackletter to roman type?

Té Rowan's picture

“The differences between …” looks like a book to me.
“Nazi typography” would, I suspect, require you to dig through ideology to find practicality or personal preference.

Queneau's picture

Warren Chappell's "A Short History of the Printed Word" is also a good place to start.

Queneau's picture

On "blackletter": this is a very generic name, which is easily misunderstood. There are many different forms, like Schwabacher, Rotunda, Textura. They have different origins, and historically also different uses.

It was used in Germany longer than anywhere else, but this predates Nazis or Hitler, though of course they also adopted it (being a conservative movement based on germanness). It has more to do with the wave of nationalism that originated in the 19th century. Only here the idea of Blackletter as related to german identity was developed. This culminated in the Nazi period of course, but it isn't something they invented. Hence the term Nazi-Typography is very simplified.

That Blackletter is now associated with Nazism, as well as hooliganism is to a certain extent true, but this does not mean that Blackletter = Nazi Type. Hitler probably said something on Blackletter (I believe the nazis switched to Antiqua at some time, as the idea came that the blackletter forms might come from the Hebrew letter... So even here the story is not so simple).

It might still be an interesting topic, but try to be subtle rather than sensational!

hrant's picture

As you hint, the Nazis actually disowned blackletter in the end.
And the reason people don't talk about that much is related to the
great advice you give at the end: it's hard to be sensationalist about
people changing their minds. :-/

hhp

Arthus's picture

Nazi typography is still quite interesting, especially seeing the conflicts in aesthetics while the Nazi government was in power. Modern art and sans-serifs were branded un-German, while Hitler disliked blackletter because it didn't fit into his new age.

However, sans-serifs were not accepted, but still used, especially in the earlier days of the Nazi party. Blackletters were also broadly used until they were called of Jewish origin and banned. Although less research into letterforms, this is an interesting research subject on the use of type in an early visual language. (Which the Nazi's mastered to the extreme by stealing iconic images)

It also requires less aesthetic knowledge, making the research more accessible for your school (I think at least)

I believe in Christopher Burke's book about Paul Renner are some nice bits about these issues.

1996type's picture

Thanks Arthus! I'll have a look at that book. Anyone else know some sources?

hrant's picture

Here's a gold-mine, by a fellow Typophiler:
http://www.typeoff.de/blackletter-resources/

hhp

hrant's picture

BTW, you might like to feature Kaas*: the fact that it has a Hebrew
component speaks volumes concerning the revitalization of blackletter.

* http://www.vllg.com/Incubator/Kaas#panel=usage-poster

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

“The transition from blackletter to humanist typography” would make the best subject, as there is plenty of reference material about the Incunabula, and you could also determine when the Scandinavian countries, not just Germany, moved from blacklettter to “antiqua”.

Certain early 19th century Germans, such as Goethe and Grimm (the linguist) favored the antiqua, as well as the Dane Kierkegaard (I discovered this at the ATypI conference in København in 2001). So during the early industrial/revolutionary era in the 19th century there was a progressive trend in “blackletter” Europe—international, intellectual, scientific—that adopted the antiqua.

You would be able to come to a conclusion with manageable material (and timelines), which I doubt you would with the “Nazi type” meme, which wouldn’t really lead anywhere—the topic of nationalist typography never does, as the conclusion will always be some form of qualified “yes, but…” —in other wordds, you will discover that types have no inherent nationalistic, political, or ideological qualities, these are only acquired by use and association, which is likely to be incidental and caused by non-ideological factors.

It’s a disappointment to conspiracy theorists and those who believe that biology is destiny, but there is no fascist gene in blackletter.

hrant's picture

It doesn't have to be inherent to nonetheless have
fundamental nationalistic, political and ideological
relevance - which is a disappointment to hippies.

hhp

1996type's picture

Thanks a lot Nick! Ever since I've joined typophile, I've enjoyed your ever so accurate typographic essays here. "The transition from blackletter to roman type" was the first on my list for a reason, and you just confirmed my gut feeling. You're completely right on the nazi/nationality thing. I found that it's much harder to come up with a clear (and answerable) focus question for those topics, so that only confirms what you said.

Even though I instantly believe you when you say there's a lot of info on the incunabula, a quick google search does not really give me what I'm looking for. Let me try to explain:

Whenever there's a change in typography, I expect a gradual (or sudden with clear cause) change in culture, technology, and/or ideology to be the cause (or effect) of that. Different tools, the getting to know of a new culture, or a mindshift like we saw in the renaissance, for example. These are the things that would make it an interesting topic, not just for me, but for non-typo historians as well. Most webpages simply show a picture of blackletter type, a picture of roman type, a discription of the differences, and the date people started using roman type, without suggesting possible causes/effects, an intermediate style (if there was one?), or more nuanced information on how this new typography spread. I expect to do some of the connecting between typographic info and general historic (culture, technology, etc.) info myself, but it would be really hard without some book, person or work to guide me.

In other words, do you know a source that describes the TRANSITION (sorry for that) of blackletter to roman typography in a broad way? If a source is simply your memory and historic insight, that would also be great! :-)

Many thanks! jasper

ohh btw. I have to confirm with my teacher before I can actually start the project, so don't put too much time in helping me. It might be wasted :-(

Joshua Langman's picture

Nick: I appreciate your use of the word "meme" in reference to "Nazi type." Right you are.

Nick Shinn's picture

Jasper, here is my take on the emergence of the humanist type style:

“The Italian humanist scholars of the Renaissance cherished the old manuscripts that preserved the classics of ancient Greece and Rome. The grace and legibility of the 9th century Carolingian miniscule hand were especially evident to them, appearing superior to the angular, condensed blackletter that had been, in various forms (quadratus, rotunda, bâtarde), prevalent throughout Europe for several centuries. The scholar-scribes imitated the Carolingian lettera antica in their own writing, calling it the lettera umanistica. The humanist script of Poggio, developed in the early 1400s, was seminal, and a large part of the style that Nicolas Jenson immortalized in his definitive type of 1470.

“The northern quadratus was the model for the first fifteen years of typography, in Mainz, but it did not survive the trip across the Alps. In Italy, types based on both the rotunda and umanistica were cut, the latter style prevailing under the name “Roman”.
Although the blackletter had been employed by all Europe, not just in the Germanic north, it came to be known as Gothic because its use continued there long after the rest of Europe had adopted the Roman style.”

Look at the types of Sweynheym and Pannartz, the “Montane” romans, as these were the first attempts by the new-tech guys from Germany to make type for Italians, a transitional stepping-stone as it were, between Rotunda and Roman.

Check out the Ratdolt specimen to see examples of the Rotunda style of blackletter.

flooce's picture

How about typography and lettering in combination with advertising poster design reflecting social conditions and technological development of different times in history. Is a bit of an art history perspective actually.

Some appetizers:

1996type's picture

Thanks again Nick! That's great!

@flooce: Thanks for the effort, but as you say, it's more of an art history topic, than a general history topic.

dan_reynolds's picture

Jasper, Harry Carter's A View of Early Typography Up To About 1600 should be a good start if you are looking for information about the transition from blackletter to serif type styles, especially in 16th century France. Hyphen Press released a new edition in 2002, and it is quite easy to get.

Since your writing an academic paper, it would also be good to go back and look at what D.B. Updike had to say in Printing Types. While the book can be polemic in many places, it can still be seen as a "foundational text" about the history of of typography. So it should still be consulted, even if certain facts put forward in it have been refuted by later authors and their research.

I'd put Stanley Morison's writing about blackletter into a similar category. Carter may even reference Morison in his book; I do not have a copy nearby at the moment. But Cambridge has published a two-volume set of most of Morison's writing, so it should not take long to glance through that and see where blackletter comes up. These books are probably available in several Dutch libraries, and you should be able to get them via interlibrary loan.

Of course, you should also look at what Dutch writers have to say about the matter, too. Noordzij has written about Fraktur in English, in both the Stroke and LetterLetter; I'd assume he's written even more about the matter in the Dutch language. You should also look at the writings of Carter, Morison and Updike's Dutch contemporaries, which include Jan van Krimpen, among many others.

Getting into a nearby research or University library that has all of the back issues of Quarendo should also be of a big help to you – http://www.brill.nl/quaerendo

As a Dutch pupil, I hope that you can use all of these resources for free, even if the Uni libraries might not let you check books out for use outside of their libraries. Good luck!

Arthus's picture

Some help for you 1996type, checking where you live and knowing most of the collections of academic libraries in the Netherlands: The easiest way to get Quærendo is the KB in the Hague, since they don't have it in the collection of the Erasmus. They have all writings from Carter, Updike and Morison as well (for Morison about blackletters you should check out his essay collection)

It isn't for free though and requires a membership, and many of the works are in the protected collection which of course can't be checked out. The membership fee however is extremely low for what is offered, you can pull some long nights there.

Still, if you want to do research into type, a membership of the KB is mandatory, since they have copies of almost everything (and a lovely reproduction section!)

But of course that all depends on how much time you can spend on it. The research into the history of printing types can be pretty abstract for those grading a non-academic paper. So a good starting point is probably writing down what you want to research and reflect it to something more graspable (as you said, cultural changes e.g.)

Good luck!

Andreas Stötzner's picture

- The transition from blackletter to humanist typography.
- The connection between blackletter typography and germany.
- The transition (at least partial) from serif to sans-serif.
- Nazi typography
- The differences betweem Italian, French, Dutch and English typography during the Renaissance.

Since you are so uncertain about which pie to pick I beg you to take off hands from every single of those subjects. You are most likely to just compile phrases and biases from anywhere, junk them together and deliver an unconcious bunch of second-hand data. You’ll do nobody a favour by this.

Choose instead a matter which relates to *you*. Something you know about things others don’t know. “The hidden calligraphic treasures in the shopfront lettering of XYtown” …

Queneau's picture

Good idea Andreas! Picking a personal and very specific subject certainly guarantees a more interesting research. Although a lot of scientific writing is exactly that which you say, compiling phrases and sources and second-hand data. One might also ask which (interesting) research question is possible for the themes proposed.

hrant's picture

> You are most likely to just compile phrases and biases from anywhere,
> junk them together and deliver an unconcious bunch of second-hand data.

Or it could be a learning process (which is what school is for).
That said, of course picking something personally interesting
helps a great deal. But sometimes you have to force yourself
to get into something, especially when you're young.

hhp

1996type's picture

@Dan: Thanks a lot! That's a lot of sources :-) I'll have to check with my teacher before I spent too much time on all of this. I'm 16, so 'academic' should be taken with a grain of salt.

@Arthus: Thanks again! I'm not sure how serious everybody is taking this, but I'm planning to spend about 5-10 hours on th subject. Most of my classmates will spend about 3 hours on it, so 5-10 is already quite a lot. We're talking 16 year olds here, so 'academic' should be taken with a grain of salt.

@Andreas: It's a history paper, not a typographic one. I know more about typography than most hostorians, so it does make sense. It seems that nobody so far has really linked the transition from blackletter to humanist typography with cultural or technological developments at the time, so that's something I can add to.

My focus question would could be:
- What were the main cultural and technological causes and effects of the transition from blackletter to humanist typography?

I might trim the question down a bit once I get started and find out more about the topic.

Cheers! jasper

Nick Shinn's picture

Jasper, your focus sounds a bit abstract.
I’m imagining historical maps of Europe showing style usage.
Infographics, man!

1996type's picture

Oooh that's a great idea! I've always wanted to do some cool infographics. Gonna be hard to find such detailed information though...

A bit absract indeed, but I've been told it's better to make your focus question too broad than too narrow. I can always narrow it down later.

Andreas Stötzner's picture

… the transition from blackletter to humanist typography

1st: Is there such a thing as “the transition from blackletter to humanist typography”? The phrase pretends to be a question, but is in fact an unprooved claim. Your work will go downhill from that point, certainly.

2nd: The “humanist” scribes of 15th century Italy did no typography. They did writing.

3rd: As I guessed: this is just junking together phrases from anywhere without a grain of understanding of the matter in question. In my humble opinion this is a very bad starting point for scholarly exercise, on whatever level.

It is at first hand, admittedly, important to ask the right questions, before presenting answers.

1996type's picture

1. Yes there is. First Blackletter ruled most of Europe, then humanist gained popularity, then Blackletter reconquered Europe due to it's economical width, then humanist ruled most of Europe for a reason I'm yet to find out. That's a transition, right?
2. You get the point, and so does everybody else. They might have been scribes at some point, but they certainly became typography at some point as well. No needlesss discussions please.
3. I haven't even started yet.
4. So what questions should I be asking?

Queneau's picture

My experience is the opposite: if the focus is too broad I'm completely lost in the woods and it's impossible to see the wood for the trees. Rather I'd pitch my tent in one nice spot, and start exploring from there. I hope you catch my metophoric drift :P

Nick Shinn's picture

Is there such a thing as “the transition from blackletter to humanist typography”? The phrase pretends to be a question, but is in fact an unprooved claim.

It’s a well-known fact.

Typography in many countries began with blackletter, then changed to roman. Some did it early on in printing history (e.g. England), others later, most notably Germany. For instance, mass-market publications in Germany before WWII generally had fraktur (blackletter) body text. Now they have roman (humanist). Surely you’re not disputing that?

Queneau's picture

Perhaps what Andreas is trying to say is that the research question includes an assumption (the transition) rather than a hard fact. A better question might be: "What was the influence of the cultural and technological changes upon typography from ... to ..."

A transition over such a huge timespan is a very vague notion. Why not try to be more specific, perhaps by narrowing your focus to a specific region (like Germany or northern Italy) or a narrower timeframe. To make a clean sweep across the whole typographic history seems to invite generalisation, whilst missing the interesting details. Perhaps in your early research you will find such a focus point which interests you in particular.

Nick Shinn's picture

And I’m saying the transition is a hard fact.

Queneau's picture

OK, let's not get in each other's hairs now... :) I was trying to clarify the point made before. There certainly has been a change, one thing has appeared, while another seems to have gradually fazed out. Speaking of transition, though, it lends an air of inevitability and co-ordination to it. To me, it seems it was rather more messy affair: in the same way we use Garamonds, Jensons, Caslons, Bodonis next to eachother, several styles coexisted rather than in sequence.

I don't know, I just don't like generalising on broad historical movements, be it socialism or typestyles. But maybe it's just me...

Té Rowan's picture

Projekt Runeberg contains viewable page images of (mostly Swedish) books, so may be of help to those wanting to trace the transition from blackletter to antikva. An intriguing aside: At least one book there has an u/c Ö and l/c o^e (o with e overhead), and on the same page, at that, IIRC.

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