Letters From the Hellbox
When he was a child, Martin McClellan would sneak out into the garage where his father kept a hobby print shop. He’d spin the flywheel on the 19th century Golding Pearl press, pumping his leg on the treadle (cast iron in the shape of an ornate capital G) to achieve a great momentum. He’d jump on the treadle and ride it up and down until the energy dissipated and the ride slowed to a stop. To this day looking at great typography gives him an equivalent thrill. He’s awkwardly utopian about design. He lives in Seattle.
If there was a formula for how fast information spreads it might read as: the speed of travel plus the speed of reproduction to the power of the number of copies. We can use Benjamin Franklin as an example. He wrote a funny letter to his friend John Baskerville in 1760. He probably used a quill pen at a writing desk, writing over the course of a half-hour or so. He placed it in an envelope, sealed it with wax and sent it by British Post from London, where Franklin kept a house on Craven Street and was living at the time, to Baskerville who lived in Birmingham. So a half-hour plus at least two days travel to the power of one copy. Not terribly swift information distribution by today’s standards.
But then the letter wasn’t all that important. Just an anecdote to his friend, which opened with the line “Let me give you a pleasant Instance of the Prejudice some have entertained against your Work.”
Baskerville was a printer, typographer and typefounder, which means he designed, cast and sold type. You could buy one “fount”, or font, of type from him which at a particular size (say, 14 point). One font consisted of upper and lowercase letters (with multiples of the more common letters), numbers, and punctuation. Ligatures, or certain letter combinations cast as one piece, were also included because with metal letters the tang on an f when next to another f or an i would overhang and the metal types would not sit next to each other. Once ordered, they probably came on a wood base wrapped in stiff paper. (I have a font of Futura made in the 1960s, wrapped in paper and cardboard. It’s a thing of beauty to hold, dense, weighty and satisfying.) A case of letters complete enough to print a pamphlet or broadside would likely take many fonts. Baskerville designed his primary roman typeface to be a refinement of the reigning champion of British typography, Caslon. That work is one of the reasons for the prejudice of which Franklin spoke.
Franklin was certainly well versed in both Caslon’s typeface, which stocked his own printshop, and Baskerville’s, which he regarded with some admiration. Back home in America, Caslon was used by most printers. In fact, it was so popular that even into the 20th century the adage in print shops was “When in doubt, use Caslon.” If you can imagine a piece of printing from revolutionary America (with the funny-to-our-eyes use of an f in the place of an s), you’re most likely looking at Caslon. If, in your mind’s eye, the letters appear rough around the edges, some say that’s because the sea air eroded the type somewhat on its trip from England. Wrapped, perhaps, in boards and paper, fonts stacked together in a crate that would break the back of the seaman who tried to lift it.
Because of its popularity, Caslon played an important role in revolutionary America. Like on that transcendent day, July 4, 1776, when the American Continental Congress had ratified their Declaration. They were faced with the problem of spreading the word of this up-to-then secret document. Somebody, likely Thomas Jefferson himself, secreted the text a few blocks to the print shop of Mr. John Dunlop, who spent the night setting the declaration into lead type. He printed 200 copies, now referred to as “The Dunlop Broadside,” the first reproduction of those famous words. With those copies in hand, they could get the text around the colonies, since there would have been no other way to distribute the information at the time. The aforementioned formula can be used here: Horseback, being the fastest speed of travel in those days, plus the speed of reproduction, say eight hours or so to set the type and another five or six to make ready (prepare the presses) and print, to the power of 200 copies.
Of course the travel variable is a matter of distance. One of those copies made its way to General Washington in New York who, on July 9th, stood before his troops and read the words aloud. One of those copies travelled by ship to England, where somebody was tasked with presenting it to King George III (the National Archives of Britain holds three copies of the broadside, and would gladly sell you a PDF of a photo of them for a few quid).
A second printing of the Declaration was commissioned by congress in January 1777. The Dunlop copy was printed before the famous calligraphic copy was signed on August 2nd, so it was missing the signatories. Mary Katherine Goddard, a publisher and the first American postmistress, printed this copy. “The Goddard Broadside” contains the list of all signers.
Both copies of the declaration were printed using Caslon. Think about it: the first two printed copies of the Declaration of Independence were printed using type from a British designer. Doesn’t that make the ideas just slightly more subversive?
William Caslon was important not because of the groundbreaking design of his types—he largely followed the Dutch and French designs of the day—but because of the quality of his punch-cutting and engraving. His letters were attractive and nicely made, echoing the aesthetics evidenced in his training as a gun-barrel engraver. He paid attention to the relationships between letters on the page with a detail and care not seen in Britain at the time. His contemporary, and critic, Edward Rowe Mores referred to Caslon as “Coryphaeus of modern letter-founders.”
Typefounding and printing had been in England since 1476 when William Caxton founded a print shop and printed an edition of The Canterbury Tales, and through this and subsequent works started the long tradition of standardizing and defining the English language. But printing and type in England had never risen to the quality seen in Italy, Germany, France and the Netherlands. Caslon changed that, and his accomplishments in refining printing in the English speaking world was met with certain reverence.
Caslon started his foundry at twenty-eight. Baskerville, however, started his in his fifties after making a fortune in the “japanning” business (Asian-inspired furniture lacquering, very chic in those days). Caslon was only born fourteen years before Baskerville, but had a significant head-start in the type business.
Baskerville was also interested in increasing the quality of printing in England, but had a different approach. European Magazine, in 1785, described it this way: “His paper was of a finer gloss, and his ink of a brighter black than ordinary; his type was thicker than usual in the thick strokes, and finer in the fine, and was sharpened at the angles in a novel manner.” Baskerville’s title pages had more leading between the lines, and the all-capital titles were letter-spaced generously, giving the page an open, elegant feel. The echoes of his designs are seen in nearly every high quality art book you’ve leafed through.
Baskerville—who supposedly was the namesake for the titular character in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles (in which, ironically, Holmes visits a hotel on Craven street near Franklin’s house—Craven street would also be a brief home a century later for a young American author named Melville trying to sell the British rights to an early novel)—added to the controversy over his designs with his lifestyle. He was an atheist. He married his housekeeper, Sarah Eaves. She was a mother-of-four that Baskerville took in when her husband deserted her. The cad turned up dead fourteen years later, in 1764, and Baskerville officially married her, although to that point she had been presented socially as his wife. She managed his typefoundry after his death, and some say played an important part in his work, a thought given memory by modern designer Zuzana Licko, who created a popular Baskerville revival titled Mrs. Eaves in 1996. An atheist living in a sinful situation who dares take on the typographic orthodoxy of the day? If Perez Hilton published broadsides in the mid-18th century, no doubt this scandal would make his sheet.
Anyway, so Franklin wrote Baskerville the letter with the prejudice line, and it made its way on the backs of horses or in a carriage overland to Birmingham. Maybe it’s a bit of a romantic notion of me, but I picture Sarah Eaves, still his “housekeeper” at this time, gathering the mail and delivering the letter to Baskerville in his workshop (surrounded by large drawings of letters that he would pass to his punch-cutter, finished type, maybe a small proofing press, and many, many fine bound volumes). I picture him reading the letter and laughing, and then maybe reading it out loud to her.
Franklin wrote about this man he had met, a published author, who had complained about Baskerville. Of his types, Franklin relayed, the man said “the Strokes of your Letters being too thin and narrow, hurt the eye, and he could never read a Line of them without Pain… they have not that natural and easy Proportion between the Height and Thickness of the Stroke, which makes the common printing so much more comfortable to the Eye.”
“You see,” Franklin wrote, “this Gentlemen was a Connoisseur.”
Showing keen observation into the nature of connoisseurs, Franklin asked the man to wait while he stole away into a closet and opened his copy of Caslon’s specimen book—the “common printing” of the day. He tore the top sheet out and presented it to the client and “mischievously bent to try his judgment,” he lied and told him that it was Baskerville’s specimen.
“He readily undertook it, and when over the several Founts, shewing me every-where what he thought Instances of that Disproportion; and declared, that he could not then read the Specimen without feeling very strongly the Pain he mentioned to me.”
So here my romantic imagination turns to Benjamin Franklin, fifty-four at this time, listening to the learned man pointing to Caslon’s letters, thinking they are Baskerville’s, and ignorantly complaining about how awful he thinks they are. Franklin’s eyebrow raised, nodding his head in appreciation of this man’s visual acuity. Maybe stifling a chuckle with a cough.
“These were the Types he had been reading all his life with so much Ease to his Eyes; The types his adored Newton is printed with, on which he has poured not a little; nay, the very Types his own book is printed with… and yet [he] never discovered this painful Disproportion in them till he thought that they were yours.”
It is to my great pleasure that such a fine example of 18th-century punking is related to typography. This story of Franklin and his letter has been well published in typographic circles over the last two hundred and fifty years. It is copied in many books about Franklin and Baskerville—the whole of their correspondence is rich, long and fascinating—and those books took X hours to write and were sent by horse or truck or train or plane to the power of Y copies. Thinking back on these fine people, what’s amazing to me is that the potential formula for the speed of distribution for this humble column on this lovely website outstrips all of those previous to a power of infinite potential. You can’t hold the font in your hand anymore—the lead has been replaced with instantly replicable binary code—but to our advantage the letter now spreads as quick as desire.
1. Two books: A History of the Old English Letter Foundries, by Talbot Baines Reed, on Google Books: http://bit.ly/3PdNoa, and, John Baskerville: Type-Founder and Printer, 1706-1775, by Josiah Henry Benton, also on Google Books: http://bit.ly/4CN68F
2. The Dunlap Broadside, in the Library of Congress: http://bit.ly/oCOwU
3. The Goddard Broadside, in the Library of Congress: http://bit.ly/lmwvn
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