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The History Of Typography

Updated on November 20, 2009

Before the advent of the computer, type was originally a rectangular block of metal or wood on one surface of which there is a raised letter, numeral, or other symbol that forms a printing surface. Types are arranged, or set, to form words and lines of type for printing, and the printed image is also referred to as type. In most quantity printing the metal type is used only to print proofs, or trial copies, and to serve as a model from which a one-piece printing plate is prepared, either by molding or by photographic processes.

A font of type is a complete type assortment in one size; it consists of capitals, small capitals, lower-case letters, italic capitals and italic lower-case letters. Together with figures, various punctuaition and reference marks and accented and special letters. A font comprises more than 230 different characters.

The various type sizes were formerly called by different names such as pica, long primer, nonpareil, and so forth, but today the size of type is invariably specified in points.

The American point system was adopted in 1886 and is a modification of the French system.

For hundreds of years only foundry type, or individual types cast in a foundry, was used. Such type is set by hand and is used again and again. Most modern type is cast by typesetting machines, such as the linotype and monotype. These machines cast type in the same order as characters appear in the copy to be printed and arrange the type they cast in the same order. The monotype machine casts individual types for each character, while the linotype machine casts entire lines of type as a unit, called a slug. Type cast and set by these machines is not reused but is melted down and recast.

A typesetting machine that is coming into increasing use is the phototypesetter, which dispenses with metal type altogether. Instead, the machine is stocked with images of letters in various type styles and can reproduce these photographically in any size and set in the proper order. Phototypesetters produce negatives that can be used directly to produce printing plates.

Type Nomenclature

A standard nomenclature is used in printing to identify the parts, styles, varieties, and sizes of type. A complete set of types of one size, style, and variety is termed a font. In addition to 26 letters and 10 numerals, a font contains types with combinations of letters, such as fi, called ligatures.

The main mass of a piece of type is called the body. The base of the body is called the foot, and its top surface outside the area of the raised letter is called the shoulder. When enclosed by the raised letter, the top surface is called the counter. The top of the letter, or printing surface, is called the face, and the side of the letter is known as the beard. All letters are raised .09186 inch above the body, a standard height known as type-high. There are grooves called nicks, in the side of the body to identify the font to which it belongs.

Sizes of type are indicated in points, a system of measurement introduced in France in the 18th century. A point is 1/72 of an inch; that is, the body of a 72-point type is 1 inch high in the direction that the letter lies. The letter itself is always smaller than the body, the exact height varying with the style of type. Standard type sizes are 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 18, 24, 30, 36, 42, 48, 60, and 72 points. Not every size is available in or suitable to every style of type.

There are literally hundreds of different styles of type available. These styles have developed over the more than 400 years of printing history, and new type designs are continually coming into use. The styles fall into several important classes, the chief ones being roman and italic. Roman type, used for most text material in books, newspapers, and magazines, is characterized by a vertical emphasis and a variety of line widths within letters. Roman type also has serifs, or decorative hairlines at the tops or bottoms of vertical lines. Italic type in many cases is a variant of an equivalent roman style, but it is slanted to the right, instead of being vertical. It also is serifed. A third class of type is sans-serif. Sans-serif type has no serifs, may be vertical or inclined, and usually has lines of equal weight throughout. Other classes are black letter script, which imitates calligraphic writing, and specialty types. All these types are used for advertising or other special purposes.

Within the large classes there are important families of type. Outstanding are Bodonis, Caslons, Centurys, and Garamonds, with both roman and italic variations. In sans-serif types, Gothic and Univers are outstanding.

Setting Type by Hand

Typesetting by hand, or hand composition, is a craft requiring great skill. It is used for setting uncommon type styles, for setting many different styles of type on one page, and in the production of fine books. Hand-setting and hand printing are also popular hobbies.

Hand composition is done with foundry types manufactured with great precision. The type is cast in dies, or matrices, that have been struck to the proper depth by carefully formed steel punches. The metal used in casting is type metal, an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony. All type must be perfectly rectangular so that when the type is set into a printing form, the printing surface will be flat, and all copies of the same letter must be perfectly identical.

In hand-setting, the type is picked from a job case, a shallow wood tray divided into compartments. Most frequently used is the California job case, which has separate compartments for each capital, small letter, and symbol, and for such letter combinations as fi and fl. The compartments for the most frequently used letters are larger than the others. Each type style and size is kept in its own tray.

The compositor gathers the type in a composing stick, a precision tool of metal. He sets the guide of the stick to the width, or measure, of line desired. Holding the stick in his left hand, he reads the copy to be set and selects the proper types from the case with his right hand without looking at them. The nicks in the type body enable him to place the type correctly. The type is placed from left to right, but it is also placed upside down and in mirror form. Compositors soon learn to read that way with normal speed. When the compositor has nearly filled the measure, he must justify the line, bringing it even with the right-hand margin. To do this, he might add more space between words or letters or he might reduce the space so that he can set an extra syllable or word to fill the line. Justifying, which is important in typesetting, requires judgment and skill from the compositor to make each line pleasing to the eye and easy to read.

After the line is justified, a lead, or thin strip of type metal less than type-high, is inserted before the next line is set. The process continues until there are several inches of type on the stick, when the type is transferred to a galley, a three-sided tray. While still in galley, the type goes to a proof press, where a first proof is pulled, or printed, so that corrections can be made. Eventually, type is slid out of the open end of the galley and assembled, together with engravings for artwork, in a steel frame called a chase. The complete form is then placed on the printing press, or used to make a printing plate.


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    • Anjo Bacarisas II profile image

      Anjo Bacarisas II 

      7 years ago from Cagayan de Oro, Philippines

      nice hub, awesome! voted up, it was very noteworthy page. thanks for sharing!

    • Anjo Bacarisas II profile image

      Anjo Bacarisas II 

      7 years ago from Cagayan de Oro, Philippines

      wew. that was tough, thanks for keeping the history of this. I had fun reading this hub and taking myself back to history :)

    • profile image

      Martha Weddell 

      8 years ago from Indianapolis, Indiana

      I watched a show on PBS about letterpress type. I found out that "upper case" and "lower case" got their names from where the type was stored, in the upper or lower case, or drawer. I have one of the old drawers, otherwise known as a "printer's box," that I bought at an antique store. I have worked in the printing business for 31 years, and the first company I worked for still had a working Linotype that was still being used, but was phased out while I was there. There were large lead ingots that were melted down in a vat on the side of the machine that the letters were cast from.

    • dsmythe profile image


      8 years ago

      I love typography! I remember taking a type class when I went to The Art Institute.


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