March 18

Young typographic designers are frequently cautioned to be careful about the size of the types which they specify in their design. They are told that if they must err, to do so in favor of using larger sizes for body composition of promotional copy, particularly if the message is addressed to a high-priced audience, which may have lost its youthful vision. In 1965 a new publishing venture experimented with the production of quarto editions of currently popular works set in 18-point type “for more comfortable reading.” Such a trend is a long way from the styles described by Theodore L. DeVinne in one of his numerous typographic lectures, delivered this day in 1886, in which he discoursed on microscopic types of the past.

The first printers, in their rather slavish imitation of the work of scribes, used types which by today’s standards would be described as large. Of course, so were the books, which during the incunabula period were generously proportioned. According to DeVinne, the earliest small type cast prior to 1500, was a black letter of nonpareil (6-point) size, cut by Johann Froben at Basle in 1490 and used in an octavo Latin Bible. He did not believe this to be a well-cut type, however, and described a roman type of 1498 used by Giovanni and Gregorio de Gregoriis in the printing office of the Roman Church as “a remarkably neat letter.” This was a considerable feat for the period when the punchcutter’s tools were not as precise as they later became, and casting procedures were inexact. In addition, typefounders had difficulty in obtaining the necessary quantities of tin and antimony with which to assure an ideal cast.

In spite of the prejudice of scholars against small books, the French printer Jean Jannon cut a size of type in 1625 which ran seventeen lines to the inch. This size later became known as diamond (4½ point), and was not uncommon during the 19th century. In fact, DeVinne himself used it, set solid, in a page of his Plain Printing Types. Just in case the reader thought he was in trouble, DeVinne followed up with a page of brilliant (4-point) also set solid. Since he used these pages to outline a history of American typefounding, he probably discouraged with one stroke at least several generations of typographical scholars. Jannon used his diamond type for seven books, the first of which was a Virgil in 32-mo.

In 1834 Antonio Farino, a Milanese, cut punches for a type which he named ochia di mosca, or flies’ eyes, but when the foundry attempted to cast the type it encountered so many difficulties that the project could not continue. Twenty years later, however, these types, about twenty lines to the inch, were successfully cast for an edition of the Divine Comedy.

Possibly the greatest feat of punchcutting, according to DeVinne, was the type cut by Henri Didot in 1827 when he was sixty-six years of age. The size was called by Didot demi-nonpareil (about 2½-point) and measured twenty-five lines to an inch. These types were used in a 64-mo edition of the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld. Didot found it necessary to invent a new mold for this letter. Called a polyamatype mold, it cast many type bodies in one operation.

The most perfect small type in DeVinne’s experience was that cast by the Scottish foundry of Miller & Richard in 1873 for a French-English dictionary. The type was cut by John Bellows of Gloucester, England, and measured twenty lines to the inch. The book contained 564 pages measuring 59 mm. square and was printed in two colors. This volume was splendidly printed, and to assure its perfection it required a period of eight years to complete.

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