Antique Gothic Grotesque: Deciphering the Typeface Name Game

The previous installment of this column opened the can of worms known as type classification. It’s the process of assigning names to various kinds of type. The question of whether a face should be called an italic or an oblique is just the tip of the iceberg.

For example, what label would you apply to the following face?

Most of you would probably say “gothic.” But that will get you into an argument with those who reserve that name for faces that look like this:

But in fact, that first sample, designed in 1932 by Morris Fuller Benton, is named American Text. To the 21st-century eye, it looks about as American as lederhosen, and it probably wouldn’t be your first choice for text, either.

Knowing how typefaces are named and categorized is a very practical matter. First, it makes communications clearer among designers, clients, typesetters, and editors. Second, which category a typeface belongs to determines how you set it. Which point sizes you use, which leading and measure you select, and which tracking you apply to your type varies according to whether the face is an old-style or a modern, a geometric of humanist sans serif. These are topics for future columns.

The Face of Darkness
Types resembling American Text were used by Gutenberg for his first movable type, and they copied popular contemporary writing styles. The Italians of the period called this style textura, which refers to its woven appearance and derives from the same Latin word that gave us the term text. Thus Mr. Benton’s reference.

That said, the most common name used in the United States for such types is blackletter, simply because they look so dark on the page. The once-common alternative blackface has been virtually abandoned. The term gothic, though, is still commonly used — particularly in Europe — as is fraktur, which when strictly applied refers to blackletter forms used in Germany. You’ll also see the names Old English and Gothic Antique used from time to time, just to add to the confusion.

Antique would seem to be a good name for a style with such deep historical roots, but that would be too simple. In the early 19th century, British type founder Vincent Figgins introduced a face that had a consistent stroke weight — sometimes called a monoline stroke — but with bulky, brick-like serifs. Figgins called it Antique, an odd choice for a face with no historical precedents.

Faces like the following now go by the common-sense name slab serif. When they were first introduced they were decried as “monstrosities.” Of these three, Rockwell most closely resembles Figgins’ original. P.T. Barnum was originally called French Clarendon.

As a name for this new species of types, the label didn’t last. It was replaced by the even screwier name Egyptian, which had been earlier introduced by William Caslon IV in 1816 as a name for the first sans serif typeface on record. (As a name for sans serif faces, this didn’t stick either.) Why Egyptian? Simply because Egypt was the flavor of the month in those days, what with Napoleon’s invasion and archaeological excavations and mummies and all.

When square serifs were added to designs based on traditional text faces, they were eventually called Clarendons, after the first design so executed, in the 1840s. Where that name came from is still anybody’s guess.

Although the serifs of different Clarendons vary in bulk, they share the squared-off shapes of the original.

A further distinction between slab serifs and Clarendons is that in the former, serifs meet character stems at a sharp angle. In Clarendons, they join with a curve and are called bracketed serifs. Those of slab serif faces go by the uncharacteristically sensible name of unbracketed.

In the Clarendon characters on the left, the serifs meet the stems with an arcing shape called a bracket, a feature shared with all old-style faces. The serifs on the Stymie sample on the right are unbracketed.

Caslon’s first sans serif type didn’t generate much interest, but by 1830 the look came into style in a big way. In Britain, William Thorowgood introduced a line of sans serif faces that he labeled Grotesque, a self-effacing name for what was at the time admittedly a weird-looking type. The name stuck for the genre.

Except, that is, in the U.S., where about that same time the Boston Type and Stereotype Foundry introduced a line of sans serif types it decided to call Gothics.

The French, in turn, started calling sans serif faces — ready? — Antiques.

This roundabout itinerary could go on and on, but let’s summarize what we’ve learned by means of another quiz. From the following typeface samples — all identified by their real names — what would you surmise is the meaning of the typographic term antique?

Yes, it’s a rare quiz in which all answers are correct, including, “This is nuts.”

Attempts at Consensus
Various individuals and standards bodies have tried to rationalize the many regional and historical naming trends. In the 21st century, it may still make sense to refer to types based on 15th-century precedents as old style, but is it logical to call types from the 17th century moderns?

Ultimately, the names that work best are the ones we all agree on. The Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI) has created a fairly compact, historically insightful taxonomy of types. It’s excellent, and it’s been adopted by Adobe Systems for its own type library. But it suffers in the U.S., at least, from using labels such as Réale and Manuaire, which work best if you’re a type historian who speaks French.

The German Deutsche Industrie Normen (DIN) standards association has created a system using nine categories and some 40 subcategories. Encyclopedic, but a bit unwieldy.

As good as these systems are, I’d like to offer a non-academic synthesis of what I’ve come to know over the years as familiar names for categories of faces that reflect both their appearance and their historical roots. In roughly their order of development they are:

Blackletter. I use the term because it refers to nothing else. The term gothic is unfortunately ambiguous, and fraktur in some contexts can have a very specific meaning.

Various “old English” faces also fall under the category blackletter.

Old-style. These are designs based on the types developed in late 15th-century Italy and upon which the bulk of our contemporary seriffed text faces are based.

The earliest of these are often called Venetian. They have a signature angled crossbar in the lowercase e. Jenson is a classic example, as shown below.

Dividing the main body of old-style faces becomes a quagmire. They’re sometimes distinguished by regional influences, such as French (often called Garaldes; think Garamond), English (e.g., Caslon), and Dutch (Times Roman has Dutch roots). But they are all marked by more contrast between the thick and thin parts of their strokes than the Venetians, and the bar of the e is horizontal. As with the Venetians, their stress is angled to the left. (Stress is the angle connecting the thinnest parts of the strokes of round letters, in imitation of a nibbed-pen stroke.) Their serifs are bracketed and meet the stems at an acute angle.

The most obvious change that occurred as old-style designs yielded to what we call transitional was the change in the stress of the characters from slanted to vertical, as the red lines here indicate. The type on the left is set in Bembo, on the right, the transitional Baskerville.

Transitional. This is a thinly populated group, but one with great historical importance. These faces resemble old-style faces, but the contrast between their thick and thin strokes is more pronounced, and their stress is vertical or nearly so. The transition in question is to the so-called modern faces that followed, which took these features to extremes.

Although the true transitionals appeared in the mid-18th century, designs based on them have persisted over time, particularly the so-called Scotch faces. Developed in Scotland in the 1830s, this style married the stroke weights of old style faces with the vertical stress and right-angle serifs of modern faces. They quickly became the standard for book printing and remained so well into the 20th century.

Although Baskerville is the classic transitional face, W.A. Dwiggins’s Caledonia, created in 1938 and based on Scotch precedents, has many of the same features.

Modern. These faces are marked by extreme contrast, with the thin strokes of characters reduced to hairlines. They’re based on idealized forms deriving from the work of Philippe Grandjean, who was assigned by Louis XIV to design a royal typeface of strictly rational design. They’re sometimes called Didones, after the Didot family, who helped develop the look. Today they look rather old-fashioned.

Bodoni has become the archetypal modern type, an Italian face built on French precedents. Aldo Novarese’s 1980 Fenice continues the tradition.

Slab serifs. When these are based on characters with a uniform stroke weight, they’re sometimes called Egyptians. It’s better just to call the slab-serifs. To distinguish slab-serif faces with modulated stroke weights, use the term Clarendon.

Slab-serif Memphis’s name evokes its “Egyptian” roots. Sharing its distinctive squared serifs, the entire Century family are considered Clarendons.

Sans serif. In practical everyday typesetting and design terms, it’s usually sufficient to distinguish between sans serifs such as Helvetica, which are derived from the old grotesques have some slight variation in stroke weight and some calligraphic influence, and those that are geometric in construction. Geometrics have uniform stroke weights and adhere to a certain mechanical purity, typically featuring perfectly circular forms for Os and for the bowls of characters such as b and p.

In the upper pair of samples shown here, the lineage leading from the 1900 Akzidenz Grotesk to the 1957 Helvetica is apparent. Likewise, the geometric Bauhaus classic Futura set the stage for ITC Avant Garde Gothic 40 years later.

Scripts. These are faces that rely mainly on calligraphy for their forms, including handwriting and brush lettering. Here are a few examples:

Not Enough Cubby Holes
The problem with any scheme for categorizing typefaces is that you end up feeling obliged to have a place to file every face that’s ever been made. That’s hard enough without today’s self-conscious trend to create faces that defy categorization. At some point, you just have to toss a lot of them in the “Others” basket.

That there’s been no Linnaeus to universalize type classification might not so terrible. There are worse things than having fanciful or imprecise names for creative works. The important thing is being able to communicate clearly about type, even though typeface names alone are often insufficient to get the message across.

With the next few columns, I’m going to start addressing some nuts-and-bolts typesetting issues, starting with kerning. If you’re impatient to see some specific aspect of typesetting discussed, just let me know by clicking the word Comments below.


Posted on: October 5, 2009

James Felici

James Felici has worked in the publishing industry—in both editorial and production—for more than 30 years. A veteran journalist and former managing editor of Publish magazine, he has set type by hand as well as on systems from IBM, Linotype, Compugraphic, CCI, and Magna. His books include The Complete Manual of Typography (Peachpit Press), The Desktop Style Guide (Bantam/ITC), How to Get Great Type Out of Your Computer (North Light), and contributions to The Macintosh Bible (Peachpit Press). He has written for numerous publications, including PC World, Macworld, and The Seybold Report, and has been a featured speaker at Seybold Seminars, Macworld Expo, and other events worldwide.

7 Comments on Antique Gothic Grotesque: Deciphering the Typeface Name Game

  1. I enjoyed this informative article that helps to simplify the typeface name game.

  2. Thanks for your articles, Mr. Felici. They are very interesting. I am looking forward to reading your upcoming articles on nuts-and-bolts typesetting issues.

    Let me raise a related topic: typesetting for preparation of business documents in Word and other word processing programs.

    A bit of my background because it will help you understand why I raise the issue. I am a retired lawyer who has long had an interest in typography. Now that I am retired, I am finally able to take a community college course in typography/InDesign. I am enjoying the course and I am learning typographical principles to which I was never exposed before. (I had never heard of old style figures and true small caps, for example, before beginning the course.)

    In around 1980, I became the first lawyer in my 600 lawyer law firm to start using Times New instead of Courier for letters and pleadings. That was in the days of WordPerfect 5.1 when there were no matching screen fonts and each line of Times New text would run off the edge of the screen. It was thus considerably more difficult than using Courier but the printed result was worth it.

    Now, some 30 years later, most law firms use Times New for correspondence, contracts, and pleadings. Other than that, though, business typography is still stuck in the days of typewriters. It is rare to see em-hyphens. Most commonly people use double hyphens. Similarly, paragraphs almost always begin with a half inch indentation, have blank lines between paragraphs, and leave two spaces at the end of every sentence, as was the custom developed when office documents were created using typewriters with fixed-width characters. Leading is almost always left to Word’s default settings except when doing pleadings in states with numbered paper, where the text is aligned to the line numbers set to 1/3″ leading to match a typewriter’s double spacing intervals.

    Now with the advent of OpenType faces and their inclusion with Windows and Office for the first time, old style numbers, true small caps, etc., are starting to become widely available to business office typists. Also, Word 2010 to be released early next year will include new features to access alternate glyph forms, such as OSF, true small caps, ligatures, etc., and to make tracking and manual kerning much easier.

    Unfortunately, I see almost nothing in the way of articles regarding typography in business-type documents. Guidelines for type-setting in books may not be appropriate for letters and contracts since the latter generally have more words per line than do books, and other documents commonly prepared by those with a background in design and traditional typography.

    I would love to see more attention given to applying typographical principles to business documents to facilitate ease of reading and, secondarily, overall attractiveness of appearance. Until now, there seems to have been a gulf between graphical designers/typographers, on the one hand, and those preparing business documents, on the other hand, with little attention given to improving typography in business documents, now that easy-to-use typographical tools are becoming more available in word processing programs.

  3. It is good to know of a great project to expect ‘next time’ in Creative Pro. Please do not infer there is a shortage of creative and helpful work in your site. Not at all. But type is in many ways the foundation of all we do out here in Graphics Land. So we can never know everything.

  4. Those of us who care about customer desires in design have found themselves thumbing through books of type faces or flipping through screens full of even more. Usually I can find that obscure face a client seeks but every now and then we settle for “close.”

    It would be a wonderful addition to Adobe’s Sweet CS4.5 if a whiff of the “Quick brown fox” could be sniffed by Intel and it’s name spit out with an offer to purchase it now that it is found.

    Not as much fun as that hundredth or so search through the font drawers but we could do that just for the heck of it.

  5. Thanks for this very helpful article. It is a mindfield but a very interesting one.

    As someone just starting out with their interest in typography, and a Scot, can I check that you mean Scotch faces and precedents rather than Scots?

    It may be a traditional term, which is why i’d like to query it, but can also be a common mistake which gets us Scots crying in our Scotch!

    Thanks again

  6. Sorry Stu, but the typefaces are indeed called “Scotch.” If it’s any comfort to you, we whose families hail from Italy aren’t usually called Italics, either.
    And HawaiiBill, check out, a service from Bitstream that will attempt to match type samples you send them to fonts you can buy, using a database of typeface designs. It’s new, and I haven’t used it myself, but it’s worth a try.
    As for typography for business documents, that’s a big topic and an excellent idea. Microsoft Word is becoming much more typographically adept, but most people working in offices don’t have the time to learn all of the new features that crowd their program menus, much less take the time to study typography. A large number of the keyboard ticklers out there learned their skills on a typewriter, and old habits die hard. I will indeed address the problem in a column soon.
    And by the way, the full name for the face you mention is Times New Roman, which was a new roman face designed for The Times of London by Stanley Morison back in 1932 and released by Monotype. (The Times doesn’t use it any more.) A Linotype version of the design is sold under the name Times Roman. Not many faces have “Roman” as part of their formal name, but this is one of them, giving us the odd-sounding complementary font, Times New Roman Italic.

  7. First off, my deepest appreciation for Mr. Felici’s efforts on this subject. A prof in art school instilled in me a love for typography and a deep interest in the history of type. Articles like these are right up my galley, so to speak… (pun intended).

    Secondly, I have used What the Font when looking for a particular font and have found their system worked well for me. I would suggest giving it a try, particularly if you’re like me and remember one font with another ones name…


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