The Uncertain Background of Type Cases


To mention type cases in this automated age is to indicate, at the very least, an interest in antiques. It becomes increasingly evident that the only thing to do with a case of type is to dump it in the hell box, clean it up, paint the boxes in the wildest possible colors, and hang the case on a wall as an objet d’art.

Mind you, compositors have for generations been careful to point out to aspiring apprentices that the lay of the case of the cap side of the job case paced J and U after Z. Such a quaint anachronism, it was stated with a learned shake of the head, was an indication of the lack of progressive thinking on the part of most printers. Hadn’t J and U been around for quite a while?

No less an authority than Joseph Moxon had established the pattern. In his Mechanical Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing, published in 1683, he had shown an engraving of the printer’s case with just that arrangement, so there it was!

Recently there have appeared in the public prints some rumblings concerning the origins of the now standard type case, the name of which is generally attributed to the State of California. Since I contributed an “off the cuff” observation on the subject and have subsequently—and rightly—been chided for it, I now take the opportunity to comment in more detail—before all the type cases are up on the walls or, in the current energy crisis, are warming living rooms via that other antique item, the open fireplace.

One of the theories about the California Job Case is that it came into being during the days when numerous itinerant typesetters traveled overland to the gold fields and hedged their bets by hauling along a few fonts of type. It has been suggested that the pair of cases for each font were unwieldy, and were therefore combined into a single drawer.

There seems to be very little documentation of this delightful idea, but neither has anyone come up with figures on how many lead characters ended up in the barrel of a long rifle pointed in the direction of a Cheyenne Indian. It might be interesting to learn which characters were first relegated to the bullet mold.

It is obvious that this idea could never have been a mass concept, but it is highly probable that a few of the more inventive comps could have worked out the principle.

Sadly enough, the printers of the 19th century never seemed to get around to explaining in any detail what they were up to in innovative techniques. Of course no generally circulated trade magazines appeared until late in the century. In their pages later printers could discourse upon their ideas. It is true that typefoundries produced “newsletters” from time to time, but these early sheets suffered the same fate as the equally ephemeral newspapers of the day, rarely being saved for posterity.

Even the authors of the printing manuals were reticent about recording technological developments as they occurred. Thomas MacKellar, the best-known and most widely quoted writer on practical printing of the post-bellum era, showed only the upper and lower cases in his text, The American Printer. And this volume went though some 18 editions between 1866 and 1891.

The great scholar printer Theodore Low DeVinne, who followed MacKellar in 1900-1904, with his widely disseminated The Practice of Typography, in four volumes, didn’t exactly clear the air on the origin of the single case. His illustrations, too, show the twin cases. DeVinne does, however, mention in a footnote that: “Printers of northern Europe, who use text types without small capitals, prefer a case in one piece, but in England and America the case in two parts has always had most favor.”

As late as 1906, Edmund G. Gress, a widely respected editor, published The American Handbook of Printing, in which he mentioned only the ubiquitous two cases. I have a copy of the third edition of this manual, dated 1913, and the old boy sticks to his guns even at that late date. This is a little like writing a book on typesetting today without mentioning photography.

The famous English writer, John Southward, is reputed to have discussed the single case in his Practical Printing series of articles which appeared in the periodical, Printers’ Register, in 1874. I have not seen these articles, but in the sixth edition of Practical Printing, published in 1911, those same two cases turn up again.

So, if the manuals of the craft fail to deal properly with the “invention” of the single case, it is easy to see why the subject remains so controversial. The matter can be fully resolved only by a thorough search of the typographical archives of some of the larger libraries.

Lewis A. Pryor, a California librarian, has begun such a task, first reporting his findings in the Journal of the Printing Historical Society in the issue, Vol.7, 1971. This, incidentally, is a most worthwhile periodical published annually in London.

Pryor has dug up much pertinent information. He presents it concisely and with evident relish, remarking that what little has been published has been “either incorrect or from the realm of legend, hearsay or speculation.” He hopes that his paper will serve to encourage further research.

Probably the most practical reason for the development of the single case was the early 19th century development known as jobbing, or commercial printing, as apart from the production of books and newspapers. The typefounders catered to this growing market with countless new types, man of which were available in caps only. The two-case arrangement for such fonts was wasteful of space, and hastened the development of the single case.

Pryor notes that about 1870 the very large British printing firm, McCorquodale and Company, had its own carpenters build a jobbing double case, with a layout which was very similar to that later known as Californian. Since this firm almost exclusively used types cast by the Edinburgh foundry Miller & Richard, Pryor feels that it is reasonable to assume that the foundry undertook to add the single case to its catalog of wares. It must be remembered that until fairly recently, typefounders were the principal suppliers of equipment.

California came into the picture almost by accident. An Australian printer named Ellis Read, after a sojourn in London, set up a printing supply house in San Francisco about 1874. Here he became an agent for the aforementioned Miller & Richard, and it is Pryor’s theses that Read was induced to offer the improved case to California printers. It is recorded that it tuned up in San Francisco shortly Read established his agency.

The only other individual whose name has been connected with the origin of the California Job Case is Octavius A. Dearing, a transplanted comp from faraway Maine, who survived the transcontinental crossing to become a salesman for the Read supply house.

Writing in the third issue (March 1967) of the Kemble Occasional, published by the California Historical Society, George Harding gives Dearing the credit for the development of the case. However, Pryor differs with Harding on the ground that the Dearing design was a two-third case and not a full-size California Job Case.

Thus, the problems are not fully resolved. It remains for a future historian with lots of time on his hands to lose himself in the stacks and come up with a few answers which he will unfortunately find most difficult to publish, such being the nature of the present-day printing industry, which is not really so much interested in its antecedents as in the appearance of technological progress.

This article first appeared in the May 1974 issue of Printing Impressions.

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