History of Roman Typography up to the 20th Century

Without type, this text could not be written. And I love type so much because it combines two things I like: shapes and history. It is essential to know where typography came from to use it appropriately.
The first writing was found in Mesopotamia about 5000 years ago using a Cuneiform, wedge-shapes pictographs in pressed in clay tablets. They were used to write down prices or laws of commerce.
The next great civilization that used writing were the Egyptians. The greek coined the term: “Hieroglyphs,” meaning “sacred carving” and believed they were exotic supernatural symbols. They were unable to decipher them until Napoleon’s army while building a fort near Rosetta uncovered a stone. It was a decree from Pharaoh Ptolemy V. This trilingual stela presented the same text in hieroglyphics, demotic and Greek, and providing the first clues to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphic script.

Pictograms were used before the alphabet. They can become very large and therefore difficult to learn. The Phoenicians (around 1200 BC) came up with a sound-based alphabet that they used i.e. for trade ledgers. The letter A sounds like the Phoenician word “aleph” for Ox. The shape was initially rotated. The same for the sound B, for “beth”, the Phoenician word for house.

The Greeks adopted the alphabet and changed “aleph” to “alpha”, and “beth” to “beta”. Besides a great tool to record sales, they also started to record knowledge. The Romans further extended the alphabet. Eventually, small letters (minuscules) were added to the capital letters (majuscules) to make economical lines of text. There weren’t any rules of punctuation or word spaces, or grammar before the advent of printing.


Before printed type, there was lettering, which is hand-drawn. Illuminated manuscripts are handwritten books with some illustrated decorations (illuminated) with gold, silver, or brilliant colors.

Movable Type

The type itself is a machine reproduction, weather by wood or metal type blocks or a screen. Lettering evolved over 100’s of years in the Middle East, around where Irak is now, and the movable type was used in China around 1000s’. Movable type means a system where letterforms, like a printing block, can be re-used to produce multiple prints.

There had been woodcut printing before but Gutenberg’s most important innovation was the development of hand-molded metal printing matrices, thus producing a movable type–based printing press system. In 1439 Johannes Gutenberg built the first printing press in Wittenberg, Germany It took him ten years and many failed financial adventures to build it. The Gutenberg Bible is the first substantial book printed in the West with moveable metal type. The type used by Gutenberg resembles a formal kind of contemporary handwriting known as “Textura” because its clear vertical and horizontal lines give the impression of the texture of a woven pattern across the page.

in 1517 Luther nailed what is called the ninety-Five Theses onto the door of the church in Wittenberg. This is considered the beginning of the Reformation in Europe. If it had not been for the efficiency of movable type printing for duplicating the document, his reforming work and influence on other reformers would have developed differently. However, only 5% of rural, and 30% of the urban population knew how to read. in 1530 he printed a bible that was translated into German.

The first typefaces resembled the handwritten manuscripts known as Fraktur. The Gutenberg bible had 42 lines and two columns per page. Notice, the hyphenation is outside the column—beautiful.
Punchcutters, the unsung heroes of their time, played a crucial role in the production of typography. They adapted the character shapes of a typeface design to be as legible and structurally sound as possible at each point size they cut—skillfully, painstakingly, and one letter at a time.


From 1450 to about 1700 this type is known as Old type, or Black letter, but it was soon joined by a rival: the Roman type.


the French typographer Nicholas Jensen was inspired by Gutenberg (may have worked with him), but also saw the humanist writers of the Italian Rennaissance. The typefaces he designed were based on Greek letter shapes and very geometric. Unlike Guttenberg, he was much more successful financially and ran 12 presses and produced 150 books about the history of medicine.


became the new center for typographers who use the Venetian Style:

Popular Venetian typefaces include ITC Berkeley Oldstyle, Brioso Pro, Centaur, (Adobe) Jenson, Hightower, Kennerly, Schneidler, Nicolas Jenson SG, Phinney Jenson, Stempel Schneidler, Verona, Abrams Venetian, Lutetia, Jersey, Lynton, Spira.

It is easy to recognize Venetian types, not just from the uniform thickness and semi-calligraphic look, but also by the small x-height, small counters, tall ascenders, overly broad HMN, sloped cross-bar on the “e,” negative axis on the “o,” and two roof serifs on the M.

Aldus Manutius took over Jenson’ typefaces in 1494 and started printing smaller, more portable books, because it had become fashionable for Venetians to walk around with paperback books, sometimes with poems. These pocketbooks were set in “italics”. They were designed space-saving as a distinct condensed type for simple, compact volumes. The punches for these types were cut by Francesco da Bologna who is also known as Francesco Griffo. Not until later were Romand and Italic used together. Then, until today, Italics were used for emphasis.
The French weren’t far behind, and Claude Garamond designed typefaces for the King. The establishment knew about the power of the printed word and only books with the King’s official typeface were allowed. Even after this law was changed, the style stayed the same. Garamond’s assistant was Robert Granjon. In 1621, sixty years after Garamond’s death, the French printer Jean Jannon issued a specimen of a typeface that had some characteristics similar to Garamond’s typefaces. Today’s “Garamond” is probably based on his designs.

Garamond has:
– Relatively small x-height and very long ascenders.
– Medium contrast between thick and thin strokes.
– Weight distribution according to an oblique axis—not quite as severe as in the Venetian type.
– A horizontal crossbar on the lowercase ‘e’.
– Wedge-shaped serifs


In this period, called the Garalde style, typefaces had higher contrast, more thick and thin than in the Venetian style. The “e” crossbar is now always straight, and they have a slightly tilted axis and often tear-shaped (lachrymal) terminals:


17th Century, the Grand Siècle in Versaille

The 17th century marked the early modern period in Europe. The Baroque culture still characterized it. The French Grand Siècle consolidated their powers in Versaille dominated by Louis XIV, but also a scientific revolution. Germany was in the 30-year war. At the end of the 17th century, Louis XIV commissioned a royal typeface with a much more modern grid, a style that was later copied by Fournier or John Baskerville. Baskerville’s typefaces had little influence in his own country. However, in 1758, Baskerville met Benjamin Franklin, who returned to the US with Baskerville’s types; he popularized the typefaces by employing them in federal government publishing. Franklin was a huge fan of Baskerville’s work, and in a letter to Baskerville (1760) he defends Baskerville’s types, recounting a discussion he had with an English gentleman who claimed that Baskerville’s ‘ultra-thin’ serifs and narrow strokes would “blind its readers”.

At the same time in England, Century Schoolbook, GeorgiaHarrietMiller and Scotch Modern. were cut and the humanist look changes to a more minimal, mechanical look and attitude:


Modern typefaces after 1700 had more geometry and higher contrasts, and sometimes skinny stems. The Didone style also had an emphasis on the vertical stems and a 90% vertical axis and thin, unbracketed hairline serifs. This style was possible through better printing presses and better paper. At the 2nd half of the 17th century, the French revolution changed the social and political structure of France. It put an end to the French monarchy, feudalism, and took political power from the Catholic church.

18th century

Baskerville’s typefaces inspired Firmin Didot in France and Giambattista Bodoni in Italie. The x-height has grown. The vertical strokes have become so strong that they get what typographers call a “picket fence” effect. It just looks so French and so “Fashion.”
In continental Europe, philosophers dreamed of a brighter age. Bach and Händel composed music, abut Haydn and Mozart coming soon. Because of the wars, and the rise of the Prussian, Russian, and Austrian Empires, many people migrated to the Americas. Large sailboats and armadas control the world. Great Britain is a world power, and the industrial revolution is around the corner.
Here is some more that happened at the end of the 1700’s: Baskerville, Bodoni, the American Revolution, Bach:

19th century

Until the nineteenth century, printers completed each step of printing by hand, just as they did in Gutenberg’s printshop. As technology evolved, inventors adapted these new technologies to revolutionize printing. Steam engines and, later, electrical motors were incorporated into the design of printing presses.
With the invention of the rotary press, large newspapers could print 8000 copies per hour.
The 1800s are the time when Thomas Paine, English, and American political activist wrote “the Age of Reason.” He argues that there is no one true faith and that miracles cannot suspend natural laws. The British were very afraid that such radical thinking could plunge them into chaos, just like Robespierre in France and banned the book.
The industrial revolution asked for strong, robust typefaces which are easy to produce for advertising and posters. Right at the seaports, many printing shops tended to their clients that shipped goods around the world.
The slab serif was also called Egyptian, which is a name given due to the craze for Egyptian artifacts in Europe and North America in the early nineteenth century. Similar reason why we call a “Turkey”: Simply because many exotic birds came from Turkey as pretty birds in the royal gardens.
A popular style of the early slab-serifs in Clarendon:
– A large x-height and short ascenders and descenders.
– There is some contrast between thick and thin strokes.
– The serifs are bracketed, meaning there is a bit of a curve between the serif and the stem.
– Classical proportions, often with a long, curly spur and a teardrop bowl on the ‘a.’
– The Clarendon style often features teardrop terminals.

While Clarendon still has curved slab-serifs, the Neo-grotesque style is the most minimal. In a more extreme fashion, the Italienne/Tuscan style is like the typefaces you see on a Wild West Texas Saloon.
In the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution created a growing advertising industry. With the need to stand out in a myriad of mass-produced new products, and the latest technology of steam-powered printing presses, a style called “Victorian” changed the look of the cities.
Serifs are not used as clean ends but as stylistic ornaments. Drop shadows and outlines, and all kinds of decorations become a small kid in a candy store.


Big change: Although the sans serif type can be found in Latin, Etruscan and Greek it hasn’t made an appearance until the 19th century again. They are called sans-serif, grotesque, Antique and Gothic.

20th century

After the war, every convention could be re-thought and re-invented, and the post-modern design and typography are still all around us.

Minimalistic and Geometric typefaces

At the beginning of the 20th-century movements like Bauhaus and DeStijl produced many geometric typefaces.

Humanist typefaces

– Medium x-height.
– Weight distribution according to an oblique axis.
– Humanist proportions, meaning the eye of the ‘e’ and bowl of ‘a’ are often small and rounded letters tend to be relatively wide.
– Calligraphic features such as extra weight in the curves.
– Sometimes features soft terminals rather than a straight cut.
-Usually has a rather elegant double-story ‘g’ reminiscent of serif typefaces.

– Medium x-height.
– Weight distribution according to an oblique axis.
– Humanist proportions, meaning the eye of the ‘e’ and bowl of ‘a’ are often small and rounded letters tend to be relatively wide.
– Calligraphic features such as extra weight in the curves.
– Sometimes features soft terminals rather than a straight cut.
– Usually has a rather elegant double story ‘g’ reminiscent of serif typefaces.


Mechanical Composition

Until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all type was set and composed by hand, as in Gutenberg’s workshop. Monotype and Linotype machines changed the printing process because they used mechanical means of setting type, which was much more efficient than hand composition.
In a Linotype machine, an operator would type on a keyboard similar to a typewriter, which produced a perforated band of paper. The band was then decoded by a mechanism that cast type from hot metal. These machines cast a whole row of type at a time, so if an operator made an error, it meant the entire line would have to be retyped and recast.
Invented in 1889, the Monotype machine worked much like the Linotype machine. A monotype operator would similarly type out a text. Each keystroke produced a perforated tape. The operator then tore off the tape and ran it through a separate casting machine, which created a mold containing matrices for each character. Monotype had the advantage of being easier to correct because it was possible to remove a single letter of type, rather than having to recast a whole row of type. Monotype also produced a more delicate quality type, so it was frequently used in the book trade, while linotype was often used at newspaper presses because of its speed and economy.
These days it became most economical for small runs to print digitally because it doesn’t require any films and plates to be exposed.

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