August 4

The United States Patent Office granted this day in 1845 to Thomas W. Starr of Philadelphia a patent upon “an improved formation of the matrix for casting the face of type, borders, and cuts therein, by means of a type, or cut, and a metallic plate, with an opening in the matrix with slanting sides. Thus prepared, it is placed in a solution of copper, and connected with the pole of a galvanic battery, in the same manner as practiced in electrotyping, and after receiving a sufficient deposit of copper is fitted up for use.”

Starr’s patent was directed to the New York typefoundry of James Conner, one-time stereotyper and Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall. Until the development of the electrolysis in matrix manufacture, it had been necessary to cut each type character in a steel punch which drives the matrix. This entailed laborious work requiring great skill. The basic idea behind Stair’s invention was to cut a character in soft type metal and then use the electrotype shell of this letter as a matrix with which to cast type duplicates.

It didn’t take the two dozen existing American typefounders very long to realize that it would be just as simple to duplicate each other’s types, particularly those which were in popular demand. Very quickly “similar” types began to appear in the various specimen books. And of course the European typefounders were fair game. As the 19th century witnessed the birth and development of the book and job printer, the founders had not been slow in meeting the demand for an ever widening variety of type styles. The period is looked back upon today as being one of excess in the development of new letter forms. Starr’s patent simplified the printing of designs and significantly stifled individual contributions to purer letter forms.

Prior to 1870 the European type designers set the pattern. Such types as the sans serif of William Caslon IV, first shown in 1816, and the slab serifed faces which were called Clarendons and Egyptians, were extremely popular and widely copied in the United States. During the last thirty years of the last century the American type designers came into their own, producing types of kaleidoscopic variety.

During the 1960’s the display types of the previous century have received a revival in advertising typography. The metal types themselves have not been reintroduced but have been made available as film alphabets. Doubtless the revival will be simply a fad and the circus types will again become the property of the specialized collectors.

Leave a Reply