Anatomy of a Typeface: The Ascent of Scotch Roman

In the present century, Scotch Roman appears to have been, like its fellow import, Scotch whiskey, and acquired taste. Certainly the evidence at hand indicates its fall from favor in the eyes of American typographers. It wasn’t always so.

While admittedly the type never achieved the full acceptance of the Centaur-Lutetia private press set, it nonetheless did manage to win the favor of such luminaries as Daniel Berkeley Updike, Bruce Rogers, Will Bradley, W.A. Dwiggins, and other notable printers now resident in some distant Valhalla populated by those typographers possessed of above average esthetic sensibilities.

Updike added Scotch to his Merrymount Press cases as early as 1897. Within the next six years he had used it in 61 books. Undoubtedly his successful use of the face–obtained, incidentally, from the Edinburgh foundry of Miller & Richard—prompted the American typefounder A.D. Farmer & Son to consider making it available in this country.

For many years, book typographers used the annual Fifty Books exhibitions of the American Institute of Graphic Arts as a significant index of type popularity. In the period1923–1973, Scotch Roman was selected for 73 books nominated for the show, thus placing the type a in popularity after Caslon (273), Baskerville (234), Janson (195), Garamond (148), Granjon (155), Caledonia (132), and Bodoni (125).

Updike discusses the choice of types in the second volume of his classic Printing Types. He designates five categories, the first of which he calls “types of obligation,” those that he considers to be “indisputably standard.” Caslon, of course, rates first place here, but he goes on to say, “Second in the first class of type stands the modern face known in America as “Scotch.” In this type the letters are more regular and design then in old style fonts.”

Scotch Roman

"Scotch is Scotch, and it doesn't stay Scotch if you sweat the fat off it . . ."

William Edwin Rudge, in the forefront of American fine printers of this century, thought highly of Scotch Roman for book printing. He employed Bruce Rogers as a staff designer for a number of years and the pair combined in Scotch-set book which was selected for the first (1923) AIGA show—Frank Altchul’s A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor.

Rogers was never partial to the modern faces, preferring old style forms, but he did specify Scotch for number of his books. In 1922, while with Rudge, he was prevailed upon to design an issue of Monotype, a house organ of Lanston Monotype Machine.

He induced the firm to add long descenders to its Scotch Roman series. This publication shows them to considerable effect, but few other typographers bothered to use the modification, preferring the stubby descenders common to the face.

It is surprising that Rogers didn’t insist on the redesign of the over-weighted caps, a feature of the American Scotch Roman designs noticeable in all the available versions, from American Type Founders, Monotype, Linotype and Intertype.

The ad typos also admired Scotch, none more than Ben Sherbow, whose Making Type Work (1916) was the manual for many years.

Also a great admirer of Scotch was William A. Dwiggins, one of the most renowned of American graphic designers, whose formative years were spent in advertising typography. In his book Layout in Advertising (1928), still a sound text on that subject, he mentions that there is a rough-and-ready rule for determining the legibility of type: “the assumption, namely, that types that have continued in use for a long term of years and then just liven up a few of his curves without changing the action and color of the face?” Legible. By this test you get a number that you can be sure of—Scotch modern, for example. . . .”

Dwiggins was later commissioned by Mergenthaler to update Scotch Roman for book composition, a task he performed with outstanding success, creating the design called Caledonia, after the ancient name of Scotland. Of that assignment, Dwiggins wrote: “The effort that matured into Caledonia started with a strong liking for the Scotch modern face.”

But he admitted that there was “a kind of wooden heaviness of some of the Wilson letters that didn’t seem to need being there.” He believed that the original had suffered too many recuttings because of which “the woodenness had become clumsier still—by reason of the 19th century designer’s obligation to strike all his curves with a compass and to get everything hard and symmetrical and shipshape from a mechanical draftsman’s point of view. Why couldn’t you go back to the feeling about printing types that inspired the Wilson punchcutter and then just lighten up a few of his curves without changing the action and color of the face?”

But this didn’t work. WAD attempted it but gave up, stating, “It appears that Scotch is Scotch, and it doesn’t stay Scotch if you sweat the fat off it.” He finally solved the problem to his satisfaction by “borrowing” additional ideas from the type which William Martin cut for the English printer William Bulmer about 1790.

In the last decades of the 18th century the classic old style types had nearly run their course. These styles, of which Caslon was the most widely used, had begun to give way because of a number of influences, not all of which were typographic. However, the swing away from tradition was begun at the mid-century when John Baskerville in England introduced several innovations in the Caslon design, noticeably by supplying greater contrast between thick and thin strokes, and refining serif structure.

Baskerville’s departure from precedent in the construction of roman letters was made possible partly by technical improvements in the mechanics of printing, some of which he introduced himself. He improved the platen of the wooden hand press, making it of brass for greater precision, and also experimented with the formulation of his ink. In a formidable departure from practice, he introduced wove paper which he had then calendared, thus providing an extremely smooth sheet receptive to finer lines in the printing process.

While not regarded with approbation at home, the Baskerville methods were greatly admired on the Continent. Within the next three decades to notable printers became established and carried his ideas still further. These were Giambattista Bodoni in Italy and Francois-Ambroise Didot in France. The Didot-Bodoni types carried Baskervilles moderate reforms almost as far as they could go. While Bodoni didn’t eliminate the fillet or bracket from his serifs, the Didot types were unbracketed. Both styles featured acute contrast of stroke. Aside from the esthetic appearance of these types, their technical achievement probably would have been impossible a century earlier.

The hand mold was still used for casting these types, but their manufacture was more precise than had heretofore been possible. In addition, progress in the chemistry of manufacturing type metal resulted in the production of harder and more weasr-resistant types.

All of these evolutionary changes had by 1800 definitely altered the appearance of the printed word. In England, where the Industrial Revolution was well underway, printers turned to the Continental models for the printing types by which the manufactured products of the new age could be vigorously promoted. The periodical press was on the verge of its most explosive period, and the number of printing shops devoted to commercial (or jobbing) printing was multiplying rapidly.

Naturally the typefounders enjoyed similar growth. The immediate result was a proliferation of the types based on the Didot-Bodoni model. Within the first quarter of the 19th century the demand for greater novelty and type styles also resulted in the production of the sans serif and the square serif faces. This in turn paved the way for the countless exotic types turned out after the mid-century.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the September 1983 issue of Printing Impressions.