What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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Type: The Secret
History of Letters

by Simon Loxley

Field-Tested by Jason Santa Maria

in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I have a deep affection for typefaces. I’ve read loads of books on typography, averaging more than a dozen a year. Some are on typeface design; but most are on proper type usage; typefaces you can’t live without; and even a couple about using Linotype machines, abandoned clockwork behemoths that I will very likely never even be in the same room with. There’s really only so much to be said about these topics, which means I often end up reading the same information over and over.

This repetition, and the stacks of type books, attempt to hide one solemn failing: I have a horrible memory for facts.


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You could ask me the year Univers was designed in, and though the answer is contained in over half of those books, and I have probably read this simple fact many times over, I wouldn’t be able to answer you correctly. You see, I don’t simply forget facts; no, that would be too easy. Instead, my mind rewrites facts and fools me into thinking I’ve remembered them with encyclopedic precision.

Over the years, I’ve learned that I can remember things best when they are told as stories, which is why Type: The Secret History of Letters might just be the best type book I’ve ever read. Rather than just writing about the typefaces, Loxely writes about why the typefaces were created by filling the text with anecdotes of the people behind their creation.

The book opens on Frederic Goudy standing outside of the burning shell of the Parker Building in midtown New York City, watching his business go up in flames against the sounds of two massive printing presses intermittently crashing through six floors of smoldering wood. At the time, Goudy was the owner of a successful print shop, but within ten years he would go on to become one of the first rock stars of type design, if ever there were such an honor, going on to design over 120 typefaces.

That’s the kind of emotion that makes typefaces dance across the printed page and mean something more than the the sum of their delicate curves. That’s also the kind of information that actually sticks in my head.

About halfway through the book, I read a passage that briefly mentions the Lanston type foundry in Center City, Philadelphia. Stunned, I read it again: “Philadelphia.” I’m in Philadelphia! Of course, the same town that saw Benjamin Franklin’s publishing and printing of The Pennsylvania Gazette, the most successful newspaper of its day, Philadelphia was practically built on print shops. Well, print shops and powdered wigs, but a foundry, too? Sitting there, decades after Lanston was sold and relocated, absurdity struck. I threw down my book and hopped on my bike immediately.

I swiftly pedaled to the corner of 13th and Callowhill as my mind filled with images of dusty printing presses and woodblock type, surely just waiting there to be found. My heart sank as I approached the nondescript brick building. The old Lanston type foundry had been turned into apartments, and the only tell of its past life was a small, painted sign above a doorway that read, “Lithoplate Company.” I slowly walked my bicycle away, sheepishly scanning the street the way I used to look for four leaf clovers when I was little, hoping that I might see an odd sort of metal type. Hey, you never know.

Jason Santa Maria is a graphic designer in Brooklyn, New York and can often be found drooling and wheezing at his website.

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