Reading Type Specimens:

From Cicero to Spoonie Highdiddel Ladies’ Cicerone With Paul Shaw

Date: Tuesday 11 June 2024
Location: St Bride Foundation and Online via Zoom

In-person times (BST):
Doors/bar: 6.15pm
Talk starts: 7pm
Talk ends: 8.30pm
In-person tickets: £8.50, £11, £13

Please note: In person on the day tickets ARE available and charged at a rate of £16.00 per person (discounted rates do not apply).

Online time (BST): 7.00–8.30pm
Online tickets: £5, £7
Please note: You will be emailed the Zoom link for the talk at 6pm GMT on the day of the talk.

Buy tickets HERE

Most designers—and before them, printers—have looked at type specimen books. They have looked at typefaces to see how beautiful (or ugly) their letters are. And they have looked at typefaces set in a mass to see how legible they are. But they have not read type specimen books. They have not read the words, phrases, and paragraphs. This talk will closely examine the texts that typefounders used to display and promote their typefaces. Those texts have varied greatly, both over time and from typefounder to typefounder. Eighteenth-century typefounders, following the examples of William Caslon, relied on Cicero's First Speech against Catiline to show off their text types. Even when Fat Faces, Egyptians, and Grotesques emerged as display types in the early 1800s, they continued to use "Quousque tandem abutere". But as the nineteenth century wore on, typefounders began to include quotations from literary and historical works, proverbs and maxims, patriotic references, verbal hijinks and humorous wordplay, and just plain random combinations of words.

Investigating these texts can help to accurately date specimens and typefaces, identify connections among foundries, reveal the political sympathies of typefounders, and shed light on the social and economic circumstances of the times. There are other texts in type specimens beyond the texts that showcase the typefaces: introductions, price lists, advertisements for ink makers and others, and the typographic apparatus of headers, titles, captions, and credits.

Paul Shaw is a designer and design historian. He has taught calligraphy, typography, the history of graphic design, and the history of type in various New York area universities and art schools since 1980. He is the author of ‘Helvetica and the New York City Subway System and Revival Type’; the co-author of ‘Blackletter: Type and National Identity’; and the editor of ‘The Eternal Letter: Two Millennia of the Classical Roman Capital’. For the last three years he has been researching type specimens both online and at collections in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.

Paula Shaw's website