Scanning Around With Gene: Typographic Treasure from the Bottom of the Box

My life is full of entirely too many poorly marked boxes full of who knows what. I spend a lot of time moving one box to get to another box to get to another box which leads to yet another box. Eventually I forget what I am looking for and, if I’m lucky, find myself lost in a box full of treasure.

One recent journey lead me to a Banker’s Box marked “1940s Stuff,” which lead me to a stack of 1946 American Printer magazines which begat today’s topic. From January through May of 1946, American Printer ran a much-promoted special five-part series of “papers” on the craft of typography. I discovered that a lot of the lessons from back then seem very much applicable today, although some are perhaps left best in the past. You’ll see what I mean. Click on any image for a larger version.

The series was written by master typographer Eugene M. Ettenberg who, among other things, was the editor of the AIGA newsletter and contributor to a number of publications. You can read his biography below. And brush up on your proofreader’s marks, too.

Ettenberg set out to produce a good overview of typography in the series, which was titled “Type for Books and Advertising.” It covered a variety of type topics from the practical to the artistic.

He begins with an overview of the tools of the typographer, which include basic layout supplies, a good type book library, and copy-fitting calculators.

Of course Ettenberg reviews the basics of the printer’s workshop, including this diagram of a standard “California” type case and a chart showing the frequency of each letter of the alphabet as they appear in the Declaration of Independence.

We learn how to recognize various type styles and the author laments that when you include all sizes, weights and styles, there are likely over 10,000 typefaces in the United States. If only he could have lived to see today’s type selection.

We also get a pretty decent type-history overview. Here is an example of the first italic type from Aldus Manutius, and samples of rustic letters from the fifth through seventh centuries.

Eventually Ettenberg gets to the “niceties” of type, and shows us how to set drop caps and covers other typographic traditions.

And finally, many examples of good and artistic typesetting.

We’ve certainly loosened up on the “rules” of good typesetting, and the tools have obviously changed for the better. But there are still a few good lessons to learn from 1946, and a little dose of type history is always a good thing.

Posted on: March 23, 2012

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

2 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: Typographic Treasure from the Bottom of the Box

  1. Thank you Gene, for an insightful article and remembrance of the halcyon days of letterpress printing. I had the good fortune in the mid 80s to try my hand (and feet!) at letterpress. I confess, I forgot name of press but do recall that besides much hand coordination with the moving platen, I had to keep pumping a foot pedal! Throw in a hot, June, summer day and copious sweat was teaming off my brow! It boggles the mind with the myriad of fonts, classic & new, streaming the globe in nanoseconds nowadays as type glitter! THis system would have a major meltdown if it were suddenly relegated to composing sticks, ink, galleys, REAL leading and a pedal pumped by our foot…OMG!

    Jerry (who is really feeling old age!)
    Downers Grove IL

  2. In the Pasadena City Schools in the mid–fifties, every boy had to take four “quarters” of shop. One of the four was Printing, and we learned (after a fashion) to use an old platen press. I believe it wasn’t inertia that kept this antiquated activity in the curriculum, but rather a sound judgment about what it would later mean to us to have been exposed to the old technology–and I’ve never forgotten those experiences.

    Clyde McConnell
    University of Calgary

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