What are Block Letters?

jacobsievers's picture

There does seem to be a common understanding of what "block letters" are, but no common, explicit, definition. Lowercase? Serifs?

Does anyone know roughly how long the term has been in use? I am curious how the term has evolved in the US.

Si_Daniels's picture

I think "Block Capitals" is a more common term, and it's been around for as long as there have been "forms", so they would likely originate around 3000 BC in south west Mesopotamia.

jacobsievers's picture

Perhaps there has been a conflation, and often what is meant by "Block Letters" is, in fact, "Block Capitals." I just wish that when the State of Massachusetts mandates them, I knew what they were talking about.

Nick Shinn's picture

Why bother at all about Blockheads?
Why should you care what they do?
’Coz after all is said and done
You’re all Blockheads too!

jacobsievers's picture

Best damn response I've had all year. cheers.

Jackson's picture

Block Letters is also a style of lettering (pen & brush) that just means a plain sans serif letter (unburdened by the grot/human/geo classifications of type).

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

We get requests for block fonts in our designs at work all the time. I usually end up giving them something like Rockwell extra bold, a slab serif, and yes, always in all capital letters. The customers seem happy.

I thought the term "block" derived from the slabs themselves actually, i.e., block fonts = slab serif fonts, though I could be quite wrong.

jacobsievers's picture

Perhaps, but a cursory browsing through Google books seems to show that after the 1840s the term "wood-block letters" becomes shortened to "block letters," and is distinct from "gothic letters;" the block type usually having angles restricted to the octagonal, and the gothic being fully realized sans-serif. There doesn't seem to be any consistent restriction of block letters to capitals until shortly after the turn of the century, and primarily in technical drawing alphabets. And by then the distinction between the block and the gothic is becoming blurred.

jacobsievers's picture

Ryan - it seems that the term "block" originally derived directly from the wood they were carved from, though by the end of the 19th century the name is ascribed to the method of composing the letter forms from grids made of "blocks."

jacobsievers's picture

At the risk of beating horses already passed, a little more digging has found that as of the 1830s the term is applied to letter forms that have been produced in some form of relief, whether in iron, marble or cut from a wooden block. The term "block" seems to have, therefore, derived from the letters having an actual three-dimensional form.

makes sense.

The Athenaeum, Issues 375-426, 1835

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

All images below from "A Textbook On Lettering" published out of Scranton, PA, 1902.

PabloImpallari's picture

Those have been digitized by Letterhead fonts

HVB's picture

And then there are these block letters ...

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