Often people will post to the various online forums devoted to metal type (LETPRESS, Briar Press) asking for help in identifying either an actual font of type they have or, sometimes, a typeface from a printed work. We, and they, are fortunate in that there are a several people who are extraordinarily knowledgable about type who often reply. I am not one of them; my knowledge of type is slight. But at some point I started to participate in these identifications, treating it as a kind of a fun game. It is, moreover, a game at which I always win more than the person who posed the question. They only get, at best, an identification of their type. I get the knowledge I've derived from the process. One learns by doing, and inevitably I learn more than they do. I recommend this game the most for those who, like myself, know the least about type.
At very least you need the first three of these (McGrew, Loy/Saxe/Johnston, Annenberg's Typographical Journey). If you have an interest in typographic ornaments, add the fourth (Rayher). If your interest extends to European types, add the fifth (J-B-J); if to wood types, add the sixth (Kelly). If your pocketbook is deep, add the seventh (Gray).
McGrew, Mac. American Metal Typefaces of the Twentieth Century New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll, 1993. Now back in print!
"McGrew" is the basic desk reference. While there may be a few mistakes or omissions in it, it is very, very good. If you are interested in metal type, you need it. Period. You can get it in paperback directly from the publishers, Oak Knoll Press (though you visit the Oak Knoll website at serious risk to your pocketbook - they're an outstanding bookseller devoted to works of typographical interest).
The edition of McGrew that everyone has and should have is called the "second, revised" edition. The first edition was a loose-leaf, informal publication distributed by McGrew to his friends in the community for the purpose of soliciting type showings. Unless your topic of interest is the history of 20th century third-party specimen compilations (as opposed to the type in them), you don't need the first edition.
McGrew's son has a nice website about his father, at: http://typematters.com/MFM/. Given the stunning quantity and depth of scholarship in American Metal Typefaces, it's nice to see the human side of it.
Loy, William E., Alastair M. Johnston (ed.), and Stephen O. Saxe (ed.) Nineteenth-Century American Designers and Engravers of Type. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll, 2009.
At the turn of the 20th century, William E. Loy wrote a series of articles in The Inland Printer giving biographical sketches of various punch and patrix engravers . Nominally, this book is a reprint of them - but it is much, much more. The original articles were without specimens of the types. In this edition, Stephen O. Saxe drew upon his extraordinary collection of 19th century type specimen books to provide short specimens (all very well printed) of most of the types attributable to these designers. It also includes extensive indexes of typefaces, design patents, and the like. While as yet there is no "McGrew" for 19th century American type, the Saxe/Johnston edition of Loy is so well produced and goes so far beyond its nominal purpose that it is the best reference available at this time.
Annenberg, Maurice. A Typographical Journey through the Inland Printer: 1883-1900 Baltimore, MD: Maran Press, 1977.
This is a reprint of all of the pages devoted to type specimens (and several relevant articles) from The Inland Printer in the 19th century. Because it is indexed and because it is a codex (physical book), even after this period of The Inland Printer is online, it will remain the quickest reference for any type advertised in this period. (The codex remains the most useful user interface technology ever devised; computer scientists today only dream of one day emulating it, but the technology isn't here yet.)
Rayher, Ed., ed. Ornadementia. Northfield, MA: Swamp Press, 2011.
You can purchase this book from John Barrett's Letterpress Things, www.LetterpressThings.com or directly from Ed Rayher's Swamp Press. This is a combined reprint of the ornament sections of the specimens of Lanston Monotype (US), Monotype (UK), Linotype, Intertype, and Ludlow, together with some more unusual ornaments currently unique to Swamp Press. I do not understand why this book is not better known. Even if you have the specimens of the major manufacturers in original editions, you will want this as a handy desk reference. Its only major omission when considered as a reference is ATF; that is because this book is published by a typefounder with an eye to type the matrices of which they either have or might obtain.
Jaspert, W. Pincus, W. Turner Berry, and A. F. Johnson. Encyclopaedia of Typefaces [various editions, publishers, and dates]
The first edition was published in 1953, the second in 1958, the third in 1962, the fourth in 1970 (with reprints in 1983, 1986, 1990, 1991, 1993, and 2001). The fifth and presently the current edition was published in 2008 or 2009. This edition is currently in print (inexpensively) as the "55th Anniversary Edition." Note that the name of the first author is "Jaspert" (not Jasper) and that of the third "Johnson" (not Johnston).
This volume is the closest thing there is to a McGrew for European 20th century metal types (it does not cover 19th century or earlier types, and its coverage of the very early 20th century is thin). It lacks, however, the detailed information in McGrew about the manufacturers' series numbers and ranges; this omission seems trivial at first, but becomes a great source of frustration later. McGrew's narratives of type histories are also much better. Still, this is a fine and (presently) inexpensive reference.
Kelly, Rob Roy. American Wood Type: 1828-1900. (1969) Saratoga, CA: Liber Apertus Press, 2010.
This is the standard reference work for wood type. Even if you don't do much with wood type (I don't), it is still handy to have. Note, though, that it is written as a study of type which happens to have many showings, not as a compendium of showings which happens to have good studies (which is what McGrew is). The original work dates from the 1960s and is long out of print, but the current paperback reprint by Liber Apertus Press is good.
Gray, Nicolete and Ray Nash. Nineteenth Century Ornamented Typefaces. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976.
The only reason that Gray doesn't appear higher up on this list is that the 1976 second edition is out of print and used copies are unreasonably expensive.
This work appeared in two editions.
The first edition was: Gray, Nicolette [note spelling of name]. XIXth Century Ornamented Types and Title Pages. (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1938). It is a significant work in the history of the understanding of type because it was the first work to argue for the aesthetic legitimacy of Victorian ornamented types. However, in 1938 these types were held in such low regard that she was not able to fund the photographic reproduction of specimens. The specimens in this edition were printed from blocks made from tracings done by Irene Hawkins; she did a splendid job, but this method cannot really suffice. This 1938 edition is still available on the secondhand market at reasonable cost, and despite its limitations it is worth having.
The second edition was the 1976 University of California one cited here. (Note that Gray had changed the spelling of her first name by this time.) This edition was greatly expanded, not only with additional text but also with a good selection of type specimens reproduced photographically. It omits the chapter on title pages. It should be on every type enthusiast's shelf, but given its cost it will not be.
Nineteenth-century specimen books, once available to dedicated enthusiasts, are now priced at a level that only the rich can afford. But most metal type actually encountered is 20th (or 21st!) century. The original specimens for these remain, for a while, available. It is good to have the following basic set.
American Type Founders Company. Specimen Book and Catalog. Jersey City, NJ: American Type Founders Company, 1923.
This was the last "big" specimen book published by ATF (and nearly the last comprehensive specimen book by any American type foundry). It remains the basic desk reference for ATF type, although of course it does not cover the many important typefaces they introduced after its publication. There is now a digital version freely available, but the serious type enthusiast will want a physical copy of the original. For information on later ATF specimens, see the Notebook on ATF.
Mergenthaler Linotype Company. Specimen Book of Linotype Faces Brooklyn, NY: Mergenthaler Linotype Company, circa 1939.
This is "Big Red," the last comprehensive specimen book Mergenthaler Linotype ever published. Over 1200 pages.
Intertype Corp. The Book of Intertype Faces Brooklyn, NY: Intertype Corporation, [n.d., various editions]
The Intertype volume corresponding, roughly, to Linotype's "Big Red" was never published in bound form. It was a looseleaf publication in a special binder. There is therefore no standard edition; for a reasonably complete copy the text should be about 1 1/2 inches thick.
Ludlow Typograph Company. Some Ludlow Typefaces. Chicago: Ludlow Typograph Company, [n.d., various editions].
Some confusion attends the bibliographic identification of most hot metal specimen books, but Ludlow seemed to specialize in making things difficult. There were a total of four large, hardbound Ludlow specimen books, now known as editions A through D (editions A, C, and D are attested, an edition B is presumed). These are lovely, and far too expensive even when they do come up. They all bear the title " Ludlow Typefaces." However, Ludlow also published many different abridged versions under the title " Some Ludlow Typefaces." These are paperback; sometimes properly bound, sometimes comb-bound. It's good to have one of the later of these at hand (the one I happen to use at present is green, comb-bound, contains pages through 171, and lists faces through 52-LIC). Confusingly, some of these also bear the title " Ludlow Typefaces" on the cover - look at the title page instead.
If you want to get an idea as to how complete a particular Ludlow specimen book is, look at the numerical index of typefaces in it and compare this to the list on pp. 373-374 of McGrew. The latest series listed in Edition D of Ludlow Typefaces is 47-H. The last series number listed in McGrew is 58-H. Of course, as abridged specimens each edition of Some Ludlow Typefaces will omit some series.
Lanston Monotype Machine Co. Monotype Type Faces (Philadelphia, PA: Lanston Monotype Machine Company, [n.d., various editions].
Like Intertype, Lanston Monotype issued its mid-20th century specimen books in looseleaf format in a binder. There is therefore no definitive edition. A good copy would be one from at least the late 1930s the text of which is about an inch and a half thick.
Ed Rayher has put together a paperback compendium of Lanston Monotype specimen pages under the title Tolbert Lanston's Type Bible (Northfield, MA: Swamp Press, 2013). It contains a more thorough collection of individual typeface showings than any particular copy of the Lanston loose-leaf specimen book, but it omits some sections on series of types (e.g., Greek, ruled form systems), matrix information and identification, and ornaments, rule, etc. You can purchase it directly from Ed Rayher's Swamp Press.
Outside of the US, an equivalent edition of the looseleaf specimen book of The Monotype Corporation Limited (Salfords and London) would be more useful. Note that (with exceptions) the matrix offerings of the American firm (Lanston Monotype Machine Company) and the English firm (The Monotype Corporation Ltd.) were different. Their matrix font numbering schemes were entirely different.
Beyond the references noted above, the field rapidly expands into many more works, each in some way more specialized or more particular to one aspect of type. To list them would be to do a comprehensive bibliography of metal type, and this is not the place for that. Just a few notes, then.
For researching 19th century type, it is handy to have one of the specimen books printed by any of the major 20th century collections which were a part of the revival of "antique" types (e.g., Phillips, Lyons, or Morgan).
The 1925 Barnhart Brothers and Spindler specimen book (their last, produced just before their amalgamation into ATF) is frequently useful.
In order to understand the context of 19th century typemaking, you need Maurice Annenberg's Type Foundries of America and their Catalogs (1977) (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Books, 1994). This is the 1994 revised edition, with material by Stephen O. Saxe and Elizabeth K. Lieberman
I find it convenient to have one or more of the specimens put out by any of the major 20th century independent typecasting operations, such as Baltotype or Los Angeles Type Founders. The bulk of their offerings were cast from Lanston Monotype matrices and thus duplicate the Lanston specimens, but they designed these specimens as handy volumes (often pocket volumes) and they remain handy today.
As far as digitized type specimen books go, here on CircuitousRoot I've attempted a complete list of all known type foundries (an impossible task, of course). Within each, I've tried to identify and, when legal, reprint locally every known digitized type specimen book from them. This list is current as of about 2012, which was the last time I did a comprehensive troll through the Internet for specimen books. See: Foundry Specimens & Typography. There are other lists of digitized specimen books online. See for example the one by Ralf Herrmann at: http://typography.guru/forums/topic/44-type-specimens-online/
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