Typefoundry Products

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1. Introduction

We are so far removed from real type in the 21st century that even letterpress printers sometimes no longer understand what the actual products shipped out the door at typefoundries really are (or were). I certainly did not, as I began to study typefounding.

The terminology here reflects American 20th century practice, generally.

2. Fonts of Type

A typeface is the consistent design of a particular type. "Cheltenham", for example, is a typeface. Most computer programs incorrectly call a typeface a "font." But a font is not a typeface, even in computer work. A font is a unit of purchase or acquisition, and is therefore limited to what you actually acquire. This is as true of the computer as it is of traditional metal type; all that differs is the nature of the limitations. Cheltenham the typeface may have have the paragraph symbol, or the old-style 'ct' and 'st' ligatures (it does), but the font of Cheltenham you acquired may or may not have them. Cheltenham the typeface may be beautiful (some would argue with me on this!) but if the poorly implemented font of Cheltenham you downloaded from the net is ugly, that's an issue with the font, not with Cheltenham the typeface.

In computer fonts, the limitations on the font are relatively broad. A computer font of Cheltenham is limited insofar as it is one particular implementation of the typeface Cheltenham (vs. another one drawn from a different digital typefoundry) and insofar as it implements only a particular set of characters and (possibly) ligatures. It is not, however, limited as to the quantity of each character that you can use. (I know of no digital fonts that say "whoops, you've used 10,000 lowercase 'e' characters, which is all that you bought; sorry" - though it would be perfectly possible to implement such a dreadful feature). Most digital fonts also come with a more or less comprehensive family of variations - not just the roman and italic, but also various weights (bold, light, etc.), widths (condensed, extended, etc.), and other variations (swash capitals, e.g.) Even here, though, there are limitations (only the finest digital font is going to include every variation anyone has ever thought of).

In metal type for hand setting, the limitations of a font are greater. As is the case with a digital font, a font of metal type is limited to a particular implementation of the typeface. Cheltenham cut by American Type Founders will differ slightly from Cheltenham cut by Lanston Monotype. A font of metal type is also limited to a particular set of characters, just as in digital type.

There are three further restrictions inherent in fonts of metal type:

One member of the family only: A font of of metal type is limited to one particular variation of the typeface. If you get the roman, that's all you get - not the italic, or the wide, or the italic wide extrabold.

(Sometimes, indeed, you get (or got) only uppercase, only lowercase, or only figures.)

One body size only: A font of metal type is also limited to one particular body size ("point size"). If you buy 12 point Cheltenham Bold, you get only 12 point type. If you want 10 point Cheltenham Bold as well, you need to buy a font of 10 point.

A finite number of pieces A font of metal type is finite. It contains only so many pieces of type, and no more. A particular foundry's standard font scheme for 12 point fonts might, for example, specify that a font have 14 capital 'A' pieces of type. If you buy that font and find that you need 15 of the capital 'A' sort in a single form of type, well, you're "out of sorts" and cannot set the piece until you acquire more type.

A font of type requires a "font scheme" to specify it. The font schemes used by one foundry might well differ from those used by another foundry. Even within the same foundry, the font schemes used would vary by the body size ("point size") of the type. Typically, for the small body sizes you got more pieces than you would for the larger sizes. A font scheme might specify 32 'a' characters for a 12 point font, but only 14 'a' characters for a 24 point font.

Many font schemes have been used and published, including:

Aside: You can also call a font such as this a "job font," as it is a relatively small purchase intended for general jobbing work.

Legros & Grant, Typographical Printing Surfaces (1916) pp. 128 - 143, give tables of Bills of Founts (that is, fonting schemes) for very large numbers of characters (e.g., 1,000,000 types) in various languages. These work out, in essence, to percentages.

3. Weight Fonts

A weight font is simply a font of type sold by overall weight rather than by character count. The distribution of sorts in it is still determined by a font scheme.

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Baltimore Type (for California Case)

The Baltimore Type and Composition Company ("Baltotype") did something interesting: they calculated standardized weight fonts "with a view to having [their] weight fonts in 12 to 36 point comfortably fill a full-size California job case." The table of weight fonts that they present is also interesting because for these sizes (12 to 36 point) this corresponds to something that might be thought of as a more-or-less "normal" weight for a California case. This page is extracted from their 1929 Catalogue of Type .

The image at left links to a PDF made out of a lossy JPEG conversion of the original scan. For the obsessive, here is the original scan: baltimore-type-catalogue-1929-0600rgb-014.png

4. Handy Packs

A "Handy Package" (or Handy Pack, or Handy Box Font, or whatever) is just that - a small, handy, package of type to fill a particular need. The "slash" fractions, especially, were often sold as handy packs, as were commercial symbols such as '%' and '@'. These were commonly available only in certain typefaces or in relatively generic forms which would work with many of the more common faces. If you really, really needed commercial symbols to go with a more exotic typeface, well, you would have just picked the handy pack containing one that best matched your typeface in size, style, and weight.

In their 1929 Catalog (see link below), the Baltimore Type and Composition Company claimed that while still under the name Trade Monotypers they originated both the concept and packaging of the "handy font box."

For specimen books with particularly good selections of "handy packages", see:

5. Foundry Lines

The order in which a typecaster casts type on a machine is by no means the same order that the type appears in the packaged font. For many machines, the most sensible procedure is to cast in order of decreasing set widths. The process of fonting type is done after this, and is of necessity a laborious manual task.

If the customer is willing to accept type has not been fonted but simply packaged into lines as it comes off the machine (but of course which may still correspond to a fonting scheme in terms of its distribution of sorts), the foundry saves the labor of fonting and may offer the product at a lower price.

Foundry lines may be an especially appropriate way to order ornaments, which don't have a natural fonting scheme.

Foundry lines differ from sorts services (q.v.) in that the foundry lines are packaged by the line, (e.g., some whole number of 36 pica lines) whereas sorts service products are packaged by character counts (e.g., 22 'A' characters). In sorts service, a part of the fonting process (counting out those 22 pieces of type) must at some stage have been done.

6. Sorts Service

It would be moderately crazy to order a single piece of type from a foundry in any but the most exceptional circumstances (though typefounders have a long tradition of entertaining the eccentricities of their customers). Foundries did, however offer Sorts Services in which they would sell you some number of pieces of a particular sort (usually a multiple of the number of types of that sort in a font). For example, if all you needed was a capital 'A', Baltotype's Sort Service would supply you with some multiple of 22 types (as their standard font scheme had 22 'A's).

If the foundry supplied foundry lines (q.v.) , the customer might achieve much the same result by ordering foundry lines of the sort, instead. This would be especially true if the foundry had to do a special casting to supply the sort (a circumstance more likely today than in the 20th century).

Especially for unusual characters (such as the commercial "at" sign, '@', the customer's needs might be served better by an appropriate handy pack (q.v.).

7. Line Service

In "line service," the foundry would set one or more lines of type for the customer and sell to the customer only those lines of type (not a complete font). The product the customer received would be a certain number of composed lines of physical metal type. However, these lines might not include spacing material as this could easily be supplied by the customer (the Catalog [brown cover] of Typefounders of Chicago, p. 33: is quite explicit about this).

Sometimes this service was called "display line" service (as of course display lines would be the kind most often needed). See the Missouri-Central Type Foundry catalog, 1964-1965.

This was advantageous to the customer if the customer required only a small amount of composition in a particular typeface (e.g., a headline) and did not wish to acquire and maintain it in their stock.

For specimens which mention Line Service specifically, see:

Line Service is closely related to the making by a typefoundry of Reproduction Proofs (q.v.).

8. Other Typographical Products

Foundries typically might also sell:

Emblems (the symbols of fraternal lodges, for example) and other more or less complicated decorative material by the piece.

Advertising or other decorative cuts. Sometimes these were cast as type; sometimes these were produced as electrotypes or stereotypes.

Rule and sometimes decorative borders. Also so-called corner quads for bracing mitered borders. Also, sometimes, specialized rule for setting columns.

Non-printing cast items such as leads, slugs, and sometimes base material (for underlaying cuts).

Spacing and quads.

Often foundries would sell non-cast typographical products as well, such as brass rule, steel cutting rule, wooden reglet, and wood or metal furniture.

9. Reproduction Proofs

A "Reproduction Proof" is a very high quality proof print of composed type. It is printed on a high-quality proof press on "repro paper" (a high-quality clay-coated or enamel paper). The reproduction proof is then used in layout (paste-up) and photographed with a process camera for further use.


Karch, R. Randolph. Basic Graphic Arts Procedures. Fourth Edition. Chicago: American Technical Society, 1970. p. 261.

Demoney, Jerry and Susan E. Meyer. Pasteups & Mechanicals: A Step-By-Step Guide to Preparing Art for Reproduction . NY: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1982. pp. 13, 83.

Reproduction proofs are relevant in any situation where the printer plans to print not from type (or stereotypes or electrotypes of type) but rather from some process which involves the photographic reproduction of type. Historically, the most common use of this was for phototypesetting and paste-up for the production either of offset plates or flexographic/rubber/photopolymer plates. In some cases, it has been used in conjunction with digital scanning for the production of photopolymer plates (set type, photograph it, scan it, touch up digitally, then make photopolymer plates from digital).

In general, reproduction proofs could be composed and made by printers themselves or purchased from typesetting firms. When a typefoundry offers Reproduction Proofs, they are basically acting as a typesetting firm. The presumed advantage that a foundry would have is that it would have access to a greater variety of type. I am also told - and this has been emphasized more than once, that typfoundries took very good care of the type they used for reproduction proofs.

So in reproduction proof service, the foundry would set some amount of type for the customer (as in line service (q.v.), but presumably including all spacing) and sell to the customer not the type itself but rather a high-quality proof. The product received by the customer was a piece of paper.

For typefoundry specimens indicating Reproduction Proof services specifically, see:

(My thanks to several correspondents who responded to a query I posted on the LETPRESS list for clarifying these services for me.)

10. Nontypographical Products

Some foundries were essentially also general-purpose printing supply houses. This was especially true of American Type Founders. So in addition to selling type and other stuff which prints, they sold anything you'd need to make it print: presses, composing room equipment, etc. The catalogs of these typefoundries are excellent resources for researching the history of printing equipment generally.

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