October 8

At about nine o’clock in the evening of this day in 1871 a fire began which engulfed three and a half miles of the city of Chicago and destroyed 17,000 buildings.

Legend has it that printers in the United States owe to this disaster their present method of type measurement, the American Point System. The actual facts seem to prove that there was no relationship between the two events. Among the industrial concerns which were destroyed on October 8 was the typefoundry of Marder, Luse & Co., best known of all American foundries serving printers in the Mid-West and West.

Some accounts of the early maneuvering of founders prior to the establishment of a point system state that when Marder, Luse & Co. rebuilt their foundry following the fire, they standardized, but there exists documentary evidence to the contrary. Upon receiving a delegation of printers asking that the Chicago Type Foundry instigate a standardized procedure, the firm stated in January, 1872:

“After the wholesale destruction entailed by the Great Fire we would have gladly conformed to a new and absolutely correct standard, but it was not reasonable to expect that we could suspend our business for two or three years, or until that standard could be definitely agreed upon. We can assure our friends that unless they are willing to pay a large advance upon the cost of type for some years, in order to make up for the loss sustained in making necessary changes, it is not likely that the change will ever be made. The loss would amount in the aggregate (to the entire typefounding industry) to several millions of dollars and we doubt if there are many printers who would be willing to bear their proportion of it.”

Two years later Nelson Hawks, a former Milwaukee printer who had spent years attempting to interest founders in the changeover, became associated with Marder in the operation of a branch of the foundry in San Francisco. He took advantage of a visit John Marder made to him to sell him the idea. Apparently Hawks discussed the matter so eloquently that Marder was won over. In 1879 his firm formally announced that they were casting types to The American System of Interchangeable Type Bodies.

Following Hawks’ advice, the Chicago firm took as a standard the pica em as produced by the Philadelphia foundry, MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan. This foundry was selected as its types were the most generally used by the American Printers. The MacKellar pica em measured .166040ʺ which was divided in 12 parts, to be called points (here following the ideas of the French typefounder Pierre Founder who had introduced a system in 1737).

It needed only the agreement of all the typefounders to formalize this great step, accomplished in a meeting in 1886. In 1898 the British typefounders also standardized, using the American system.

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