There are a few things that I have managed to hang on to over the years that were handed down to me from earlier days. My living arrangements in the past used to include a great deal of space, but since moving into the city, (owning land in the ‘burbs equates to only a small(!) condo in the city) my collection of ‘cool junk’ has been pared down by necessity. A few things, however, were not leaving no matter how little space I was able to live in. One example is a modest collection of type specimen books.

Type foundries distributed type specimen books back in the days of cast metal type. Every printing company would have to buy all their fonts from a distributor, and keep them on hand for all the print jobs. Much as we purchase fonts today, the printing company was responsible for purchasing enough fonts with a variety and depth such that that they could produce all kinds of different layouts.  These specimen books were essentially a catalogue of all the fonts available for purchase. And, just like a designer today has a particular style or ‘voice’ associated with their work, the printers did too, often dictated by the types and variety of typestyles they owned.

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Type specimen books

In this picture, the larger book on the right is a complete catalogue from the American Type Founders Company, 1923. The book on the left is thinner, and would have been distributed to showcase selected faces.

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A sample spread from one catalogue

The samples visually show the fonts available. Note the typestyle name at the top of the page, and samples of a number of available point sizes. Of course, with metal type, the printer would have to purchase every type size separately.

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Decorative material

Ornaments, borders, and decorative material were also available as raised type. These consisted of metal slugs with the images cast into the surface such that they could be combined or turned in the chase to create borders and other visual accents.  Some of these also had openings or empty spaces in the middle that type could be placed into.

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Page showing type cases for sale

Also in the catalogue were other things that the printer may need to purchase. Since type was large, heavy, and consisted of many different characters, there needed to be a place to store them. The type case was a drawer that was divided into enough sections to hold it all. Each drawer held a single ‘font’; one typestyle at a single specified point size. Imagine how much space would be needed to store Garamond at 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16 points or more. Now multiply that by every typestyle one would want at their disposal.

Today, there is still a technical difference between the word ‘font’ and ‘typeface’. They are often misused, as the naming convention comes from this earlier era. ‘Font’ only refers to the physical object. In modern terms, the font is the actual file on your computer that contains the instructions for recreating the type on screen (and later, in print). A ‘typeface’ refers to the look of the type itself.  Adobe Garamond Pro is a typeface.  The file on your computer called “AGaramondPro-Regular.otf” is the font.  So next time you are out drinking with your friends, after you finish inspecting the menu to see how it was printed, you can comment on what an interesting choice of ‘typeface’ they used in the design.

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