Recently a big box arrived in the mail from a reader in the Midwest. Inside was a pile of type specimen books from type foundries at the height of the letterpress era in the first half of the twentieth century.
These are beautiful artifacts if you love typography, otherwise they probably just look like old booklets and commercial junk.
I sent most of them on to e.m.ginger at 42-line, a longtime expert and enthusiast of letterpress printing, but I kept a couple in the office for a closer look.
Here’s one I picked out from New York’s Bauer Type Foundry. This is a 7-1/2″ x 10-1/2″ booklet of 16 pages printed in several colors on a very nice, soft but sturdy ivory-colored paper.
It gives a feeling of opulence, in fact, compared to most of the printed products we handle today. But it was nothing more than a “freebie” of the time, a handout to show off the typefaces that the foundry had for sale.
Weiss is an elegant typeface designed by Rudolph Weiss for Bauer, so it was their proprietary design. It’s based on classic models from the Renaissance, like many oldstyle typefaces, and the italic shows just how much it owes to calligraphy.
The vertical strokes in Weiss are slightly wider at the top, and that may be why it has an unusual beauty. Weiss is also available in weights that will work both for body copy and for display in headlines.
Have a look at some of the pages from the sample book:
The cover is elegant and symmetrical, with a red flourish.
Here the foundry shows how it will look at the sizes available. These are metal typefaces, so no resizing!
Notice how the display of characters is also an excuse to show how real words look in Weiss, too.
These type specimen books are also a chance for the foundry’s designers and compositors (the guys who made up the metal forms for printing) to show off their skills, like this artful type composition that really lets the Weiss titling fonts with their alternate characters shine.
A little bit like the templates we use now, you can see exactly how to make up your book pages and what they will look like. Handy.
For the 1930s, this sample advertisement for a Cunard cruise is avant garde and a good job on a challenging printing job.
The foundry put a lot of time and care into these sample booklets, which became the best salesmen for their typefaces by showing exactly how to use them to best advantage.
Throughout this specimen, Weiss is shown in book pages, advertisements, social announcements and in many sizes and styles. It’s hard for us to appreciate, with our hundreds or thousands of type fonts on our hard drives, just what a new typeface could mean to the printers who had the skill to use it.