April 13

Oswald Cooper

“It is an easy thing to talk about the book—but difficult to find words that will give a true picture of the man. His was a character at once so simple that anyone could come to him, yet of such a nature that he evoked a feeling almost of reverence.”

This, the opening paragraph in a volume of reminiscences, strives to put into words what all his associates felt about Oswald Bruce Cooper, born this day in 1879 in Mount Gilead, Ohio. Known to everyone as Oz, he nonetheless was generally addressed as Mr. Cooper, indicating the respect in which he was held by his contemporaries.

The Book of Oz Cooper was first mentioned at a meeting of the Society of Typographic Arts in Chicago in 1937, two years before Cooper’s death. But it was not until 1949 that it was published. The volume represents a labor of love for its editor, the fine calligrapher, Raymond DaBoll, and its compositor, Edwin B. Gillespie, in addition to such well-known friends of Cooper as Fred Goudy, Bill Dwiggins, Richard McArthur, etc. It had been decided that the book should be set in 14-point Cooper Oldstyle, the first size of that type to be cast by the typefounder, Barnhart Brothers & Spindler. The fitting of many of the letters of this size was less than desirable. Cooper had planned to correct this, but had never completed the task. Gillespie, a compositor who had worked with Cooper for over twenty years, shaved and fitted every letter and proceeded to set the book, spending all his spare time on the task for a period of eleven years.

Cooper himself fitted his early years into a single succinct paragraph: “Born in Ohio, brought up in Coffeyville, Kansas, on the border of Indian Territory and on the edge of the Wild West. At fifteen began as printer’s apprentice, during long school vacation (five months). Returned next summer to same job with enthusiasm. No pay; second summer one dollar a week. (Supplemental reading: Mark Twain on Pay for Apprentices.) Quit school at seventeen, making raspberry noise, having flunked algebra, geometry, history, Latin, physics. Still consider mathematics as subject for mathematicians, same as music for musicians. Returned again to print shop to stay until twenty, when swept into Chicago by urge to become great illustrator.”

Cooper ended with a sentence saying that it was his loafing at Frank Holmes School of Illustration with Goudy and Dwiggins which gave him the most inspiration for his job in life. This autobiographical note was recovered by Mrs. Cooper from the wastebasket. It was therefore left for his friends to prepare a more adequate record.

It was in the design of letterforms that Cooper excelled. Without question he was one of the best that this country has yet produced. Naturally such skills were utilized by the typefounders, the Cooper series of types being in the main the result of his association with that art. Out of Cooper Oldstyle emerged one of the most distinctive of all American display types, Cooper Black, which was responsible for a trend when it was introduced in 1921, although its designer said of it, “For far-sighted printers with near-sighted customers.”

Leave a Reply