Good old Caslon


Pic: Spitalfields Life/Bishopsgate Institute

One of the loveliest things on the modern interwebnet is the anonymous Gentle Author’s Spitalfields Life, who writes every day about things he comes across in his small corner on the fringe of the City of London. (It’s interesting that he lives just a mile or two from the home of another anonymous blogger also dedicated to the daily long-form art, Diamond Geezer. How do these two wonders keep things going for so long?)

Last Saturday, the Gentle Author wrote a piece about another distinguished Londoner, William Caslon, which contained a lot of local information which I wish I’d known when I lived nearby. He is surely right when he describes Caslon, nearly three centuries after his death, as still:

“the pre-eminent letter founder this country has produced. Before Caslon, there was little letter founding in Britain and most type was imported – even Shakespeare’s First Folio was printed with French type. But Caslon’s achievement was to realise designs and produce type which have been widely used ever since.”

And it all happened around the eastern fringes of the City of London. “The Caslon family tomb stands alone today in front of St Luke’s Old St, just yards from where William Caslon started his first letter foundry in Helmet Row in 1727 and, with pleasing consistency, it is lettered in Caslon type.”

“It was in the creation of his distinctly English version of Roman letters and italics, derived from the Dutch typefaces that were most commonly used in London at that time, which was the decisive factor in the establishment of Caslon’s reputation.

Caslon’s first type Specimen of 1734 exemplifies a confidence and clarity of design which has become so familiar that it is difficult to appreciate in retrospect. The Specimen offered a range of styles and sizes of type with an unprecedented authority and a distinctive personality which is immediately recognisable. As a consequence of the legibility and grace of Caslon’s work, his became the default choice of typeface for books and all kinds of publications in the English-speaking world for the next two centuries.”

The Caslon type crossed the Atlantic and became very influential in the just-about-to-be born United States of America when John Dunlap of Philadelphia set the type for the first printing of 200 copies of the Declaration of Independence, working into the night of 4 July 1776. It’s a source of pleasure to those of us of a typographic bent that one of the Committee of Five final drafting committee was Benjamin Franklin, statesman, polymath and printer, later to have a typeface named after him. Whether Franklin instructed Dunlap to use Caslon’s typeface is not known.

Caslon’s type has remained extraordinarily popular in the USA, probably more so than in the country of its birth. It is still used by the New Yorker, both for the paper copies and in the online version. There are those, however, who dislike it: one such being the American type historian Bruce Rogers, who thought it overused in England, which he described in the early 20th century as a “Caslon-ridden country”. This may well have been a reaction to the insistence of George Bernard Shaw that all his books be printed in it.

Caslon himself died in 1767 and is buried in St Luke’s church in Old Street, London. This is now deconsecrated and used for rehearsals and performances by the London Symphony Orchestra. One hopes that, as they pluck and blow through their latest repertoire, the musicians think occasionally of the important history of the man in the tomb outside.


Pic: Wikimedia Commons


‘The’ shortest word ever hyphenated (possibly)

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The Economist, 18 December 2021.

Richard Hollick started working for Cambridge University Press in 1965 and remained there in various capacities for 29 years in London, Cambridge, and finally New York. He then switched sides, and worked for Oxford University Press in New York, retiring in 2013. His daily blog Making Books is full of great stuff, especially for people from his generation, like me.

He recently spotted possibly the most egregious example of automatic hyphenation, in a copy of The Economist, no less, and shown above. As he says in the accompanying post, with a sigh, all the established editorial authorities don’t actually forbid you to take over a single letter — because nobody would dream of doing such a thing. But automatic H&J programs which don’t have minimum character numbers specified may well resort to this.

Once again, old crusties like me mutter into our metaphorical beards and say it wasn’t like that in our day. This is principally because the human element has been taken out of the make-up of typeset text. A long time ago, I came across a description of how a traditionally trained Linotype compositor worked:

[He] knew, remembered and observed a set of rules for splitting words. He had to be ready to decide who to ‘turn the line over’, how to deal with word breaks, how much white space was tolerable between words. This decision-making influenced his setting from the first character of the line till the last. (Cynthia Cockburn, Brothers: Male Dominance and Technological Change, 2nd edition, Pluto Press, 1991.)

A fine explanation of exactly what is now missing.

Sign of no Butey

Pic: The Herald

The ongoing court case involving sometime Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has led to the use of a number of external shots of Bute House, his official Edinburgh residence when he held the post.

Am I the only one (© “Angry of Tunbridge Wells”) to notice the appalling line break on the big brass sign fixed to its railings?

Official Residence of The
First Minister

There would have been a stern red correction mark on the proof if, in the 1970s, I had ever sent a page in this style to my old Folio Society boss Tim Wilkinson. He would also have tightened the leading.

Reithian values: a new typeface for the BBC

The BBC’s newish corporate typeface Reith is being slowly bedded in across the corporation’s many platforms. Designed by the foundry Dalton Maag with wide user consultation inside the BBC, it made its first appearance during 2018. The early spring of 2019 saw the typeface’s arrival on online sports pages and in the summer it began to be used for on-screen graphics (see above; go to this article for several more screenshots). The serif and sans serif blend very nicely in the examples shown.

The ten minute film on the first link above serves as an excellent introduction to the importance of typography in presenting a huge corporation’s image to the world, as well as some delightful detail. I particularly liked the description of how the letter Q was designed. Altering the descender so that it stayed level with the baseline has made it much easier to use in all-caps settings. There is a lovely little piece of animation in the film at about 5.57 mins showing this:

Getting back to real life use, the Reith Sans cap Q can be seen at work in this screenshot from BBC Sport:

Contrast this with the Helvetica Q still being used on the news site:

What is slightly odd is that the news screenshot shows that in fact the descender on a Helvetica cap Q doesn’t extend below the baseline. The same is true in Arial, although it does in other sans serifs such as Gill Sans and Verdana:

So it’s probably a good idea to build a descender-free set of caps to future-proof against some other sans serif turning up in a CSS sub-menu.

As an afterthought I must say that, as a fully paid-up member of the Matthew Carter fan club, I still quite like Verdana. I’m not sure exactly when the BBC stopped using it, but I found this rather charming example on a page created in 2005.

Close, touching

Pic: Nick Shinn on Typedrawers

A great post on the Typedrawers forum reminded me of what typesetting sometimes looked like in the 1970s. Throughout much of this time I worked for the Folio Society as a publicity and production assistant. Part of my job was to design and create the artwork for publicity material – including prospectuses, forms and flyers – and press ads. Most of the typesetting for these items was still done in hot metal from various specialist Monotype houses: I still have the specimen book from the one we used most, Watkins Repro Services. After proofing, the final ‘report quality’ pulls were done on a special press on baryta paper, which gave a lovely crisp finish to the typesetting.

Less often, we used output from the various phototypesetting companies: I remember that we had a big set of ringbinders which contained the Conways catalogue, and there were others as well. I would use this for headlines if we needed a particular typeface which wasn’t available in Monotype. It was while first ordering this kind of typesetting that I came across the need for specifying letterspacing and, most of the time, I would use the instruction ‘Close, not touching’. However, at the time there was a vogue for much tighter letterspacing, as can be seen in any edition of the Sunday newspaper colour magazines of the time.

Nick Shinn’s post above brought in comments from a bunch of other big names from the type design community besides Shinn himself – Mark Simonson, Ray Larabie, Stephen Coles amongst them – as well as discussion as to whether the output had actually been generated by a phototypositor or by hand, using Letraset. August company indeed, but they don’t seem to have come up with a definitive answer.

I googled around on the subject and came up with a page which shows pictures of 1970s phototypositors, which are presumably similar to those in use in the London bureaus at the time. As all the pics say ‘Rights Reserved’ I haven’t nicked one, but you can see them at this link.

Medial caps get camelised

Pic: The Wandering Nerd

A question on last week’s University Challenge made me think for a second. I don’t have an exact transcript but it went something along the lines of “In typography, what is the term for an uppercase letter in the middle of lowercase letters, particularly in proprietary or commercial names?” I was casting about in my own mind for the definition when in buzzed one of the contestants with the answer “camel font”. Jeremy Paxman agreed that this was good enough, but supplied the words which must have been written on his card, “camel case”.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the correct typographical definition. The one I was mentally searching for (and I confess that I had to find it after the show by going to the Wikipedia page on camel case) was in fact “medial caps”. These have been around for decades (think CinemaScope, AstroTurf, InterCity) but became much more common in the 1980s (think WordPerfect, PageMaker and, later, iPod and its ilk). Camelcase  is a definition of the same practice, but comes from computer programming rather than typography.

Writing about this, however, gives me a great opportunity to use the illustration above which I found on the Wandering Nerd blog when I Googled “WordPerfect”. This shows the little crib sheet supplied by the manufacturer which you were supposed to place above the function keys on your keyboard to remind you of the shortcuts needed for various operations: F6 for Bold, F8 for Underline, etc. I wrote the whole of my book Editing Design and Book Production for Small Publishers in WordPerfect. By the time it was published in 1993 it was already going out of date, with the arrival of DeskTop Publishing (more medial caps). But that’s another story.

By the way, Emmanuel College Cambridge beat St Peter’s Oxford in the University Challenge match. I think they may go far in this year’s series.