A directory of type foundry catalogs available online.
Type specimens are time capsules of typographic history. There is no substitute for seeing them in person, but you can now use a web browser to track the evolution of type design through the pages of over three hundred manufacturer catalogs from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries. For years, I accessed these books via an unwieldy pile of bookmarks, downloads, and repetitive searches. As far as I know, there is no central register of digitized type specimens. This database attempts to fill that gap.
Until recently, books like these were accessible only in rare book rooms and private collections, but we can thank a variety of individual collectors, universities, libraries, museums, and other institutions for making their copies available for digitization and online viewing. Many are hosted at the Internet Archive, which provides reasonably good captures for web browsing or download. I often turn to these sources for research, writing, and consulting, and also for identifying and cataloging type at Fonts In Use.
The collection below began with a PDF compiled by Hans Reichardt of the Klingspor-Museum and expanded from there, drawing from my own research and from lists at Open Library, Typography.Guru, Jacques André’s Bibliothèque virtuelle de typographie, and Circuitous Root (whose founder, David M. MacMillan, contributed many of the specimen books available on the Internet Archive).
Although it will evolve as more books are found or published online, this list does not seek to be perfectly comprehensive. Nor does it include foundry ephemera, such as individual typeface specimens and promotions (you can find many of these by browsing typeface pages on Fonts In Use). The goal is to facilitate research by gathering in one place the major catalogs that show a range of a manufacturer’s offerings.
This first view of the database is a simple list arranged by foundry name and then chronological order (or a best guess if there is no official publication date). But there is much more metadata under the hood, and future editions of this page will offer sorting by other categories, such as year, or browsing by cover or title page.
Of course, no matter how hi-fi the digital capture, there is no substitute for thumbing through physical specimen books at actual size. Many libraries, research centers, and universities have typographic collections the public can visit, and they offer lots of titles that aren’t available online. Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Butler Library, Kemble Collection, Letterform Archive, Lubalin Center, New York Public Library, Plantin-Moretus Museum, San Francisco Public Library, Silver Buckle Press Collection, St Bride Library, and Wing Collection at the Newberry Library — to name just a few — are valuable resources that deserve our support. Go out into your community and do some digging. What you find may surprise you. — Stephen Coles
Talks About Type Specimens
Pre-digital Type Specimens - Stephen Coles - ATypI 2017
Aggregation, Examination, and Dissemination Typeface specimens have become highly sought-after ephemera, not only among type and graphic designers, but all kinds of researchers and collectors of culture. Letterform Archive in San Francisco is building one of the largest and most accessible collections of type specimens in the world. In 2015 the Archive acquired the collection of the late Dutch publisher Jan Tholenaar, dramatically increasing its holdings of foundry publications, both bound catalogs and ephemera. The Archive’s mission is to aggregate these rarities and make its unique collection available through public tours, research opportunities, online media, and printed publications. What makes type specimens so appealing? What do they tell us about the history of type marketing and production? How did they reshape graphic design and inform the use of specific typefaces? What are the challenges of digitizing specimens and sharing them with the world? How are contemporary designers using and learning from them? This talk will touch on these topics, present some of the most striking and rare examples from the Archive collection, and announce a new publication focused on specimens of the 1920s–60s, the height of type foundry ephemera publishing.
Mad, Bad (and Good to Know) with Paul Shaw
This talk took place on February 13, 2023 as part of Type@Cooper’s Lubalin Lecture Series. The video archive of this event is made possible with the generous support of TypeCulture. Type specimens are an important resource for both the study of the history of type and the study of type design. Prior to the 21st century they were not widely accessible as with a few exceptions, they were widely scattered among various public, private and university libraries, printing museums, and individual collections. Many specimens exist in only a few copies, even many that were printed in editions consisting of tens of thousands of copies. Multiple copies of specimens often differ in collation and many are incomplete or mutilated. Despite the spate of type specimen facsimiles published in the 1960s and 1970s, the study of type specimens was difficult. All of this has changed dramatically in the digital era as not only have specimens been digitized, but a rapidly increasing number have been posted online. The great majority of these are freely accessible and many are also downloadable. Thus, type designers, type historians, and other researchers can now easily examine specimens in far away locations; compare multiple copies; and trace type designs from foundry to foundry and country to country. This talk will outline the different kinds of type specimens that have emerged over five centuries, summarize their features and contents, and then survey the type specimens that have been digitized and uploaded to the Internet. The survey will include assessments of the quality and utility of the various digitizing efforts and display approaches. Paul Shaw is a letter designer and graphic design historian. He is the sole proprietor of Paul Shaw / Letter Design, a studio specializing for thirty years in calligraphy, lettering and typography. Among his clients have been Clairol, Origins, Lord & Taylor, Campbell’s Soup, Cinzano, Vignelli Associates, and Pentagram. Paul was formerly a partner in LetterPerfect, a digital type foundry based in Seattle. Since 1980 he has taught calligraphy, lettering, typography and graphic design history at a variety of New York area design schools. Currently he is at both Parsons School of Design and the School of Visual Arts. He writes on letter-related subjects for Print, Eye, Baseline, Letter Arts Review, and AIGA's Voice. His book Helvetica and the New York City Subway sold out in two months, with a trade edition planned to be published by MIT Press. In 2002 Paul was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome. Finally, Paul is the reigning authority on W.A. Dwiggins, having spent 30 years researching his life and work.
Other Lists of Online Specimens
@June 11, 2022 — Enabled alternate views! Now you can see books sorted by year published, by country, by digital host, or by date added to the database (which means we won’t need to include individual catalog additions to these release notes anymore — though you can join as a Patron if you want updates emailed to you every few months).
You can also narrow the list to books that feature wood type. Other sorts and filters will be added soon.
There is also a new beta view revealing all the properties in the database! This isn’t yet optimized for the public website, but you can peek at selected images, notes, page counts, tags, and other data.
@May 29, 2022 — Added 1958 Intertype and c.1951 Western Typesetting from Ohio State University (via HathiTrust).
@May 28, 2022 — Added 1856 Dickinson and c.1886 State Gazette from RIT.
@May 20, 2022 — Added 1898 Tsukiji (Thanks, Paul Shaw!) Our first Japanese catalog is dedicated to borders and ornaments, with several from MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan, including the Combination Chinese and Combination Japanese Border Series, Western pastiches of Asian decoration by journeyman punchcutter William W. Jackson.
@May 5, 2022 — Added c.1858 White, along with more info about this foundry that absorbed into Farmer.
@February 26, 2022 — Added five catalogs hosted by Art. Lebedev’s Bibliotekus, including three Cyrillic catalogs, 1912 Schelter & Giesecke, and a 1894 edition of Petzendorfer’s Schriften Atlas.
@February 14, 2022 — Added 1909 Générale/Beaudoire. (Thanks, Carine Vadet-Perrot!)
@February 5, 2022 — Added 1773 Enschedé. (Thanks, Matthijs Sluiter!)
@January 31, 2022 — Added Deberny & Peignot wood type specimen. (Thanks, Ampersand Press Lab!)
@January 7, 2022 — Added 15 catalogs of wood type from Zvi Bregman, Hamilton, Line-O-Scribe, Morgans & Wilcox, Morgan Sign Machine, Wm. H. Page, and Showcard Machine. (Thanks to David Shields, who added these himself! If you would like to have editing permissions so you can contribute directly to the database, please get in touch.)
@December 31, 2021 — Added 5 catalogs from the State Library of Berlin, which is in the midst of a major type specimen digitization program along with the Deutsches Technikmuseum. (Thank you, Dan Reynolds!)
@November 9, 2021 — Added 2 catalogs from Plantin, 1567 and c.1585, now the earliest in the database. (Thank you, Matthijs Sluiter!)
@October 17, 2021 — Added UTMMC’s Universal Type Caster faces, c.1914
@October 17, 2021 — Added 4 catalogs from the Cary Collection at RIT. More from RIT to come.
@October 16, 2021 — Added 6 catalogs (all incomplete digitizations, but hi-fi) from Letterform Archive.
- More catalogs from sources such as the Armorium, Bibliotekus (Art. Lebedev), Paris City Library, National Library of France, British Library, Jacques André’s Bibliothèque virtuelle de typographie, RIT Cary Collection, Paul Shaw, Plantin-Moretus, State Library of Berlin, Deutsches Technikmuseum, and Wood Type Research (David Shields)
- See more data, including: country, page count, image quality rating, historical notes, and images of covers, title pages, and selected interior pages
- Alternate views, including table and gallery (by cover or title page)
- More sorting and filtering options
- Comment on individual records
- Mobile optimization
Years are often estimates. Type catalogs seldom included dates, and some bound together specimen pages printed over various years.
A few of the catalogs are published by printers or type distributors, not foundries. A future update will label these notable exceptions.
This database lists major catalogs showing a broad range of a foundry’s offerings. For specimens of individual typefaces, see Fonts In Use.
Header image: Letterform Archive
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