I Love Typography

The library of the Gutenberg Museum

the DECK

I. Introduction

Large or small, letters seem to inhabit their own universe. Re-arrangeable in any combination, they can spell out all conceivable messages, be they poetic, bureaucratic, or anything in between. But sometimes a text is just about its letters themselves, not an object to be read, but one to be looked at. Type specimens have taken various forms over the centuries, from posters to postcards and from primers to pamphlets. In fact, this web ‘page’ that you are reading now is also a type specimen, at least of some sort. In our digital age, creating type specimens has become easier than ever before. But what did our predecessors do 100 years ago, or even 500 years ago?

II. Mainz

Figure 1: Oversize type specimen from Johann Erasmus Luther’s typefoundry, the Luther’sche Schriftgießerei. Printed in Frankfurt, Germany, 1678. Original size: 43 cm by 28.5 cm. See figure three below for larger detail.

For hundreds of years, this small German city along the Rhine has been known for Johannes Gutenberg and his invention — printing with movable metal type. Almost any graphic designer who has passed through Mainz has stopped at the Gutenberg Museum. Next to the city’s landmark Romanesque cathedral, the Gutenberg Museum presents the history of Western (and some Eastern) printing. Several incunabula books are on display — including three Gutenberg Bibles — as well as printing presses and bits of city paraphernalia.

Figure 2: 1785–1786 specimen from William Caslon’s foundry in Great Britain (dimensions not recorded by the author). In addition to their famous serif typefaces, the Caslons cut seminal a blackletter type called Caslon Black. This forms a large part of the base of what we refer to as “Old English”-style fonts today. Click image for larger view.Caslon specimen

Lesser known is the museum’s small library, which is open to the public. Aside from trade and academic titles on printing and typographic history, the library has a large collection of type specimens from the 17th through 20th centuries. These were largely collected by Gustav Mori (1872–1950) during the first half of the 20th century, especially the large, one-sheet specimen from German type foundries.

III. Type Specimen

Mori may be most known for his work collecting type specimen from Frankfurt am Main. Just 40 kilometers east of Mainz, Frankfurt has played an important role in the book trade for almost 500 years. Over several decades, Mori was an employee at the D. Stempel AG type foundry, one of several large type foundries in Frankfurt at the time. Frankfurt’s University Library also includes a Mori collection of type specimen. [1] Mori published several works during his lifetime, but one of his most significant volumes was published posthumously in 1955: a folio book reproducing his collection of type specimen from Frankfurt-based founders from the 16th through 18th centuries. [2]

Today, type foundries tend to design and produce folded or bound catalogs to show off their typefaces. Increasingly, they post their designs online thus minimizing print advertising costs. Centuries earlier, many type specimens tended to take another form: large, over-sized single sheets, on which a type founder would display paragraph settings of each of his types at their various sizes — almost like a poster. The Gutenberg Museum library’s oldest specimens all take this form.

Figure 3: Detail from Johann Erasmus Luther’s 1678 specimen. (see fig. 1 above).

The Gutenberg Museum library’s specimen collection is broad, drawing on holdings from all over Europe. Traditional serif typefaces (called Antiqua type in German) are to be found in abundance, as are Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, and of course, blackletter typefaces. The first type sorts cast in lead — that were, in all likelihood, cast in Mainz — were blackletter designs. Blackletter remained immensely popular in Germany through the 20th century; even as late as 1900, perhaps half of all printed items there were still set in it. Only since the beginning of the post-war era has blackletter disappeared from the German mainstream media environment.

Blackletter classification

IV. Blackletter Classification

Figure 4: The basic blackletter styles—Textura, Rotunda, Bastarda, Fraktur, and “Experimental.” While many contemporary designs fall under the lattermost category, classical revivals are still being undertaken across the blackletter spectrum. Understanding classification schemes can be the key to choosing the right typeface. For example, a German Fraktur would be a poor choice for an English Pub, while almost any style could look right on a certificate, depending on its overall design. Old English, & Gotisch designs are further evolutions of the Textura idea. Gotisch (gothic) alone has several styles… from the Romanticist Fette Gotisch (pictured) to the so-called “jackboot grotesques” of the 1930s (not pictured). Schwabacher is a style of Bastarda that has been traditionally used in Germany. Indeed, Fraktur itself could even be classified as another Bastarda, but I have given it its own category, because it became the most-widely used blackletter text style in German typography. Evolving out of late medieval and early renaissance handwriting, the various blackletter styles also influenced each other over time. Another Bastarda gené, Civilité, was common in late 16th century printing in France & the Low Countries—not areas one would call “German.”

What styles of blackletter (“broken types,” or gebrochene Schriften, in German) types can one find in this specimen collection? Mostly Fraktur and Schwabacher typefaces. Although the first books produced in Mainz were set in Textura types, Schwabacher (c. 1480) and Fraktur styles (c. 1517) would come to dominate the German trade during the 16th century. The best Textura specimen in the Gutenberg Museum Library’s collection comes not from Germany, but from Great Britain: an Old English face in an 18th century catalog from William Caslon’s foundry (see figure two above). [3]

Rotunda types — the second oldest blackletter style — never really caught on as a book type in German-speaking lands, although 20th century calligraphers, as well as arts and crafts designers, have used it quite well for display purposes. However, these rounder styles were popular during the Renaissance in Italy, Southern France, and Spain.

Figure 5: An 1840 specimen of a Fette Fraktur display weight from the J.B. Metzler’schen Schrift-Schneiderei of Stuttgart, Germany. The digital “Fette Fraktur” is one of today’s best selling blackletter fonts. As can be seen here, it was a mainstay of 19th century German foundries too (book dimensions not recorded by the author).

V. Digital Blackletter Fonts

Most remarkable is that many of the typefaces used in these blackletter specimens are available again to designers and publishers in digital format. For instance, Caslon’s above-mentioned blackletter design is sold today under the name Old English. Type from famous 17th century Frankfurt type founder, Johann Erasmus Luther, served as the basis for Linotype Luthersche Fraktur. Wittenberger Fraktur is based on Frakturs used in Wittenberg during the 17th and 18th centuries. Fette Gotisch and Fette Fraktur are both direct interpretations of big display types that were popular all over Germany during the 19th century.

Figure 6: Specimen of a Fette Gotisch weight from J.B. Metzler’schen Schrift-Schneiderei, Stuttgart, Germany, 1840 (book dimensions not recorded by the author).


Figure 7: Fette Gotisch

What use are these old specimens to contemporary designers? The first lesson that old specimens can teach us doesn’t apply to blackletter designers alone: historically, punchcutters and typeface designers designed type in optical sizes. Before the age of scalable photo- and digital-typesetting, type could only be set in a range of sizes that were available as cast lead (or carved wooden) letters. Founders would produce each size individually. A six-point letter looked very different from a 24-point one. These days, designers tend to use one font for every size — from caption to headline. The result? Headlines that are often too heavy and too loosely spaced, and fine print that is too light and too tight.

Secondly, old specimens are beautiful pieces of history, and can act as springboards for the design of new blackletter types. For over two decades, blackletter has undergone a huge revival among designers — particularly in North America. Other than may be the case in Central Europe, one might even argue that its popularity in North America never really subsided. The digital revolution made blackletter democratic: now everyone can use new blackletter fonts, or even design their own.

VI. How is blackletter used today?


Figure 8: The New York Times Building

Mostly for display text. Fonts like Fette Fraktur are used for old-fashioned headlines and beer advertising. Wilhelm Klingspor Gotisch adorns many a wine label. Linotext and Old English are popular choices for certificates. Any of the above can be found the world over in tattoos. Pop culture is more enthralled with blackletter than ever before, examples range from newspaper mastheads (like The New York Times) to heavy metal band logos (à la Motörhead) and sneaker advertising (look no further than Reebok’s ca. 2006 global “I am” campaign).

VII. About the Gutenberg Museum

Figure 9: Image from Reebok’s 2006 global ‘I am what I am’ campaign.

Centrally located in Mainz’s historic inner-city, the Gutenberg Museum is a must see for any type, book, or printing fan. The museum was founded in 1900 to coincide with a city-wide celebration of the 500th anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s birth, and is dedicated both to him and to his invention. The museum is open daily, closed only on Mondays and holidays.

Besides rotating exhibitions, some of which are very typographic in nature, the museum displays an enviable permanent collection. Books, typesetting machines, and printing presses can be seen side by side. A working print shop, called the Druckladen, is even on hand too. Inside, visitors may still set type and letterpress print by hand, a favorite for school children and book artists alike. The museum also has an excellent bookstore, which sells reproductions of pages from the Gutenberg Bible, plus the latest typographic titles from German design publishers.

footenote divider

Notes
1. Here, I am referring to the Mori Collection in the rare book department of the Universitätsbibliothek Johann Christian Senckenberg, Frankfurt am Main. One of the most significant items in this collection is the so-called “Engellhoff-Berner specimen,” an oversized sheet of types brought to Frankfurt from France by Jacques Sabon. This includes samples of cut by Claude Garamond and Robert Granjon. A full-sized facsimile of this specimen is published in the book mentioned in note number 2.

2. Diel, Robert & Mori, Gustav, Frankfurter Schriftproben aus dem 16. bis 18. Jahrhundert: eine Entwicklung in ausgewählten Beispielen. Gesammelt on Gustav Mori mit eider Einleitung on Dr. Robert Diel. Frankfurt am Main: Schriftgießerei D. Stempel AG (1955).

3. In 2008, Max Bollwage wrote a short history of Blackletter types for another issue for Linotype. See Bollwage, Max, “Where do Old English typefaces come from?” Linotype Matrix, volume 4, number 3 (Winter 2008). Pages 2–5.

About this article
An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Linotype Matrix, volume 4, number 2 (Spring 2006). Pages 16–23. I am grateful to Prof. Indra Kupferschmid, for her assistance in the revision of the classification scheme shown in Figure 4.

About the author
Dan Reynolds was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Before moving to Europe, he received a BFA in graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Reynolds studied at the HfG Offenbach for a few years before receiving an MA in typeface design from the University of Read- ing (U.K.). Today, he lives in Berlin, Germany, where he works for Linotype GmbH and teaches typeface design at the Hochschule Darmstadt. His most recent typeface, Malabar, received a Certificate of Excellence in Type Design from the New York Type Directors Club, a silver medal at the ED-Awards 2009, and a gold medal from the 2010 Design Award of the Federal Republic of Germany competition. Dan blogs from time to time at www.typeoff.de.



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  1. Wow these are really inspirational. Haven’t seen ILT in a while, but some great content here thanks for sharing.

  2. Very nice post, and interesting info on the blackletter fonts.

    There are some wonderful recent blackletter designs out there. Jonathan Barnbrook’s “Bastard” is one of them. It would be fun to do a future feature on them…

  3. Esben Thomsen

    What might be of interest is, the use of blackletter is still used in the tourist industry in some parts of Scandinavia and Germanic speaking countries.

    I wouldn’t call it a general use or revival; just that is how it always have been, in regards to the usage.

    Thanks for your article Dan, highly interesting and I should take a trip to Mainz, since it’s only a couple of hours away.

  4. Waho…
    Very interesting article !
    I didn’t realized that blackletter were so used over the world nowdays.
    ps : you’ve done a great css layout for this page.

  5. What a wonderful article — thanks!

  6. elcerezo

    If you are interest in blackletter type classifications, you can find more information at

    “The Classification of Gothic Types” (1929) Johnson, Alfred Forbes, Selected Essays on Books and Printing, Ámsterdam, Van Gendt & Co. , 1970

    And in the Gerrit Noordzij’s article “Broken Scripts and the Classification of Typefaces”.
    Anyone knows the name of the book? I have this article only.

  7. guiie

    amazing post
    i love this kind of posts
    i learn so much!

  8. typojo

    @elcerezo: Gerrit Noordzij’s article on ‘Broken scripts and the classification of typefaces’ was published in The Journal of Typographic Research, volume IV, number 3, Summer 1970: 213–240

  9. Thanks for a very interesting article. Gothic scripts have long been my least favourite family of typefaces, so it surprised me to see that the bastarda called Civilité, which is one of a large family of French upright scripts, does belong to the Blackletter family. The strong vertical axis, the contrast, the fact some French upright scripts were used as italics for Didots make me wonder whether there is any link between Blackletters & Didones.

    Probably not - but what do other people think?

  10. what an amazing article!
    I love this character since I was recognized typography world tens years ago. Thanks.

  11. I was born near Mainz, lived there for 10+ years and studied at Mainz University for 4 years, but never visited the Gutenberg museum. So thanks for your article which finally exposed me to some of its exhibits! ;-)

  12. @Mathias

    I lived in Wiesbaden for about three and a half years, and found Mainz—with its real student-town atmosphere—much more interesting. I spent most of my free time on the better side of the river ;-)

    I still go to the Gutenberg Museum often. The permanent collection has a number of fabulous incunabula and 16th century books on display, not to mention the books printed by Gutenberg himself. It is a great place to bring type-loving guests.

    @davidikus
    “Broken” letter-writing styles, as I guess they are called in German and Dutch, were the norm all over Europe for hundreds of years. Often, what we think of as Blackletter types are just 18th to 20th century German frakturs, which is just one small sub-genre of the bag. Not liking blackletter at all would be akin to not liking anything about medieval Europe, which I guess is something one could do, since there were so many terrible things that happen in history. But there is also beauty and fun…

    @Esben Thomsen
    Yes, the tourist industry in Germany (and surely other countries) still uses blackletter types quite a lot, although primarily for big display things. Many small-town »Heimatmuseen« have their signs painted in some sort of blackletter. It perfectly fits the theme, I think.

    Anything having to do with tradition in Germany is a popular venue for this sort of style. Sports are another instance… the VfB Stuttgart professional football team’s logo is made with black letters. Then there are also newspaper nameplates like the FAZ or the Hamburger Abendblatt. Neither last nor least are the breweries! Schöfferhofer, Rothaus, so many Kölsches… the list surely goes into the hundreds.

  13. Great post. I learn a lot, thanks!

  14. Great work putting this together Dan!

  15. Chris, the credit really goes to John… he did all of the work! As is mentioned in the notes, this article has already been published in print. I edited my earlier version a bit for 2010 and for this format, but really, John put this together.

  16. Excellent article. In Nazi Germany Black letter was banned for a while because it reminded the regime of Hebrew calligraphy. That until Jews were “blamed” for modernism and its typography, then they brought Black Face types back

  17. elcerezo

    Typojo: Thanks!
    davidikus: I knew that Johann Friedich Unger first orderer Fournier for a fraktur design similar in weigh and color to didones types, but finally was Unger itself who design the Unger Fraktur. link

  18. Yes, Adrienne, the story of blackletter during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s in Germany is very complicated. It certainly warrants an article of its own, ideally by a type historian who is more specialized in that period than I am. I won’t try to summarize anything more about that era here… it would most definitely make my comment far to long.

  19. I’ll add the following titles to the little blackletter bibliography being sketched out here:

    Judith Schalansky, Fraktur, mon amour (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008).

    Peter Bain, Blackletter: Type and National Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998).

  20. Victor Zuniga

    Blackletter rules… Coming from a Mexican background, I’ve seen so much blackletter in the streets of Mexico City, that you can see their application into almost every kind of business, from a taco stance to the corona logo.

  21. Thank you for your article.
    Years ago in a used bookshop I bought several issues of the magazine “Das Plakat” from the early twenties with articles about Rudolf Koch and Otto Hupp in them. So now I am in a process of digitizing two of the typefaces - Deutsche Schrift or Kochschrift as it was called in the magazine by Koch and Liturgische Schrift by Hupp. There are ttf files you can find on the internet but they are just traces without any metrics and kerning and definitely without any open type features.

    Does anyone know any languages where Fraktur was used printing books and newspapers besides German and Latvian? I am very interested in specific diacritical marks and ligatures like slashed S and slashed long s in Latvian so the font could really be used to recreate historical texts.

    link1 | link2

  22. I think it’s fascinating that blackletter, which 20 years ago (in the US, at least) only communicated ‘medieval Europe’, now has strong ties with urban culture.

    As Victor pointed out, it’s particularly popular with urban Hispanic communities.

    Where did this connection get its start?

  23. Victor Zuniga

    @jake

    I prefer the term latina/o communities if you don’t mind, hispanic=hispania=Old Spain, it has the connotation of still being colonized…

    But anyway, I think the connection of the blackletter comes from that colonization of Spain in Mexico and Latin America. When they brought their culture and religion, we became familiar with it and incorporated it into our lives.

  24. fantastic, fantastic post. i can look and stare at text all day long without ever reading a word.

  25. Victor Zuniga

    Hey, there’s actually a book called Mexican Blackletter…

  26. Dan & John, this was a brilliant post with great depth and visuals. I was happy to see the Schwabacher listed as an extension of the Bastarda.
    However, I have one point that I’m happy to be corrected on, I never really considered Civilité as a gebrochene Schriften variation. It’s too fluid for the pen to leave the page. I’ve always thought of it as a French variation on the Italian chancery of the 16th cent., albeit pointier.
    The o is the key in all off the gebrochene Schriften.
    In the Textura it’s hexagonal, in the Rotunda it’s round, in the Bastarda it’s lemon shaped (pointy at each end) and in the Fraktur it’s flat on the left and curved on the right.
    Each is a two stroke character with a 45 degree angled broad nibbed pen.
    The Civilité has the right pen form, but is much more cursive in style than the gebrochene Schriften.
    And it’s o doesn’t follow suit.
    It’s a 16th cent. letterform, not a 10th-15th.
    From there it evolved independently of the English roundhand or copperplate scripts into the Gando or French Ronde styles of the 17th cent. like Typo-Upright.
    It’s the only question I have about an otherwise brilliant piece. I keep planning on doing something like this (writing something useful) though time rarely permits. So please don’t take this as a criticism and if I am wrong I would love to be corrected.
    Cheers guys! Great work!

  27. Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Brian! I’ll try to explain my reasoning:

    First, I wouldn’t say that I subscribe to any single specific method of typeface classification. I think that reporting what kind of style a typeface takes requires more than just the date of when it was used, and more than certain formal characteristics. For instance, you write the Civilité is a 16th century letterform. But Fraktur is also a 16th century letterform, its birth being commonly attributed to the Emperor Maximilian’s court in Nuremberg, around 1517 (although Gerrit Noordzij argues for even earlier, Burgundian conception). But for me, Fraktur is not just a 16th century script. Fraktur evloved and changed over time. I’d argue even that Fraktur is also a 20th century script. Fraktur continued to develop and see massive use long after Civilité fell out of fashion. Sure Civilité saw 20th and 21st century revivals, but nothing on the scale of the use of Blackletter in Germany during the first half of the 20th century (e.g., if Rudolf Koch didn’t reinvent Fraktur is the first years of the 20th century, he certainly reinvigorated it).

    I think that classification is bigger than a single letter… i.e., the lowercase o. I have seen some sources that list Civilité as an extension of the Notula or notary hand branch of letters. For me, the earlier notary hands are definitely broken scripts. Their letters are dark, their strokes end pointedly, and many of their curves are broken. The same is true, in my eye, for Civilité’s letters.

  28. Some posts I read for information, knowledge, stimulation. Yours I read for a visual meditation. So beautiful are these fonts and the typography. So many various kinds. Such variety at our fingertips!

  29. @Dan: you have a point, I may have been a bit strong in my wording. There is much I dislike about the middle-ages but not all.

    @Elcerezo: thanks for the link, I shall make sure to look at it carefully.

    @Brian Maloney: I hear what you say about Typo-Upright but Civilité has some distinctive features or am I wrong? (NB. You can still see a lot of handwritten Civilité/Typo-Upright/Linus/French Script in Paris, on windows of Cafés.

    Thanks everyone for their answer to my questions.

  30. Very interesting and informative post, I don’t really know anything about fonts, being a web designer with my head firmly buried in my mac the only fonts I know about are web friendly ones. But I’ve always enjoyed typography and posts like this increases my type knowledge, finding out the history is fascinating and to think these are hundreds of years old, incredible!
    Great post

  31. jchao

    ar~~great web site

  32. Thanks for this post - I love those old type faces. It’s amazing to think of the impact that Gutenberg’s invention made on the world.

  33. You should visit the city of Mainz too when you are there. It’s really beautiful…

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