The origins of a workhorse type in display fonts gone sideways
In the 19th century, an archaic piece of printing technology made a surprising comeback. For all the rapid technological and design advances of the Industrial Revolution, and despite the explosion of printing capacity and printed materials, printers went back to carving wooden blocks into the shapes of letters and pressing them to paper.
Like most lettering methods featured in Letters, woodblock printing hadn’t really gone away. Since the Gutenberg Bible, works printed with movable type had reserved blank spaces on the page for images. In fancy works, such as some copies of the Gutenberg Bible, this meant hand illumination. In less fancy works, such as other copies of the Gutenberg Bible, it meant woodblock printed illumination. As good as cast-metal type was, in the 19th century it was still far easier to carve pictures into wood than to cast them in metal. Movable type allowed printers to deconstruct words into their constituent elements—letters—and reconstruct them. But even by the 19th century, there was no way to deconstruct an image into regular, reusable elements.
During the industrial revolution, woodblock found similar favour in display printing. Bold Fat Face types had opened all kinds of new real-estate in each letter for type designers to play with. Moreover, display was not text—a brand name only called for a handful of letters; it wasn’t necessary to create or rearrange the entire alphabet. Type designers, therefore, put woodblock printing to good use, creating one-off Fat Faces with dizzying detail and intricacy, like those of Louis John Pouchée.
But that was all a continuation of early-branding trends. Woodblock made its real comeback in the world of printing as a new workhorse font: the Slab Serif.
Every new font in the 19th century developed based on accepted typographical norms. That meant modern type—Didone type. Letter forms featured an upright orientation, high contrast between vertical and horizontal strokes with a heavier vertical stroke, hairline serifs, and rationalized size. The Didone conventions contributed to every choice designers made, whether they followed them or deliberately broke them. The Slab Serif, therefore, was an offspring of that pedigree—finding its sire, however, is not so simple.
19th century founders engaged in branding as well as everyone else with something to sell. They gave their fonts names that suggested their place at the height of sophistication, with both an ancient lineage and novel roots. Given some historical background, it’s usually not hard to pick apart the story behind a font’s name. Egyptian, for Caslon IV’s groundbreaking Sans Serif makes sense. Unfortunately, his contemporaries were painfully unoriginal: smitten with the same handful of trendy names representing alternative parts of antiquity, they applied them in different combinations to the same handful of trendy types.
Following the success of the Egyptian Sans Serif, in 1821 the Caslon foundry released a font they called Italian. By then, other foundries had followed Caslon’s lead in design but not naming, and made Italian a popular name for Sans Serifs. Already having a Sans Serif, Caslon’s Italian was a Didone with inverted stresses. Fat Face fonts had already blown up Didone’s stresses to aerostatic proportions; Caslon’s Italian turned everything thick thin, and vice versa. The upshot: the hairline serifs characteristic of Didone fonts grew thick and luxurious.
The result was a striking and charismatic font that was, of course, widely reviled by type purists. Caslon's Italian was something like a Slab Serif, but it wasn’t nearly—it was too weird—and it wasn't the first. In 1817, Vincent Figgins founded a font with low line contrast and heavy serifs. Presumably, in contrast to Didone fonts, it reminded Figgins of French founded, intermediate Roman fonts, so he called it Antique. French founders, meanwhile, called Sans Serifs Antique, but created fonts with heavy, slab-like serifs that they called Egyptian. Soon after, American type founders combined the instincts of Caslon’s Italian with the nominal Frenchness of Figgins’ Antique. Naturally, they named this font with heavy horizontal stress and serifs, Italienne.
It’s good that ultimate responsibility for creating the Slab Serif lies with none of these high-minded type founders, but with the printer of a London lottery ticket. He probably called his creation the best he could do with a chunk of wood and a knife. And therein lies the woodblock comeback.
Woodblock’s superiority for printing pictures aside, when printing letters it held a crucial advantage over metal type: it was cheap. In places where metal type was too expensive or otherwise unavailable, woodblock was there. The Industrial Revolution brought about an explosion in demand for printing that extended far beyond industrial centres. Outside of the cities, monasteries of monks were no longer available to scribe every word the industrialized printing apparatus couldn’t print.
The same economic truth that made woodblock useful to London’s entrepreneurial working class made it a winner deep in the North American continent. Colonization of the western United States took settlers further from the industrial centres on the east coast. Like the Romans, the American settlers wished to enforce their laws in an expanding empire. Like the Romans, they used letters to encode, present, and brand their law. Like the Romans, they didn’t have access to movable type.
Unlike the Romans, they didn’t carve letters into columns; they printed using woodblock. The letters they used, however, were arguably just as iconic and emblematic of United States law as Square Capitals were of Roman. They used a Slab Serif that was a lot like the American-made Italienne font. One word was all it took: WANTED.
Italienne, in all its loud, mixed-up bombast was the perfect type for 1860s America. The Civil War pressed previously artisanal industries into heavy duty, while the construction of the transcontinental railway opened up new frontiers for European settlers. Back on the Mississippi, Mark Twain submitted his manuscript for Life on the Mississippi, the first book written with a new machine that was set to change the world of letters again, and put Slab Serifs all over the page.