If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it. I saw it at TypeCon in Seattle this last August in an auditorium packed with fellow type geeks. Hard to beat that.
A week ago, my family and I paid a visit to the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. We spent about an hour or so there with Norb Brylski as our guide. Norb was one of the last people to be employed making wood type at Hamilton. He’s retired now, but volunteers at the museum and still makes new wood type for commissions brought to the museum, such as the recent wood typeface designed by Matthew Carter.
Hamilton was one of the largest wood type foundries in the U.S. and had a virtual monopoly by about 1900. It stopped making wood type in the 1980s. The museum opened in 1999 and houses the largest collection of wood type in the world, with 1.5 million pieces. They also have all the equipment to make the stuff (it all still works) and a small print shop which visiting artists (for example) can use.
Anyway, it was pretty cool, especially if you like type.
December 8, 2020 Update: Back in 2005 when I first posted this entry, I posted a little Flash-based slide show. Flash is obsolete now, so I unpacked all the photos and captions it contained and have presented them below.
A lot has happened with the museum since 2005. The original building no longer exists, having been demolished in 2015. The museum moved a few blocks away to another former factory building, in many ways a better home for it. Also, sadly, Norb Brylski, long-time and beloved museum volunteer seen in several of the photos below, passed away in 2018.
I'd also like to point out that when I posted this in 2005, it had been my first visit to the museum. I've been back quite a few times since then. Every November since 2009, they've held what they call The Hamilton Wayzgoose, and I've attended all of them (virtually this year, due to COVID). I've also helped support the museum financially since 2012 and am a member of its artistic board.
I highly recommend visiting The Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum if you ever get a chance. Other than the building and Norb, everything you see in these photos and more is still there.
Without further ado, step back in time with me to 2005...
The main sign for Hamilton Manufacturing in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The company is still one of the largest employers in the area, although it ceased making wood type in the 1980s. Nowadays, it makes cabinets for dentists and other professions.
About a half a block down from the big blue sign is the entrance to the Hamilton Wood Type Museum. The sign is made to look like the handle on a drawer of type. The drawer motif continued to the right and left with faux wood like the front of a large wooden drawer, but I guess they decided it was better not to cover the windows.
Our tour guide was Norb Brylski, a retired Hamilton employee who volunteers at the musem. Norb was one of the last people to be employed making wood type. He and a few others are still doing some commissioned work at the museum.
Half round slabs of rock maple like these are the raw material for what will become wood type. This is the way the wood arrived from the lumber company.
The wood needed to dry for several months before it could be used.
The slabs were planed smooth and to a precise thickness on this machine. After this, they were shellacked and polished to give the wood a smooth hard surface.
For each character, large patterns, many times larger than the final type, were cut out of thin wood on a jigsaw like this.
Some unfinished patterns after they have been cut out. These patterns happen to be for a wood typeface called Carter Latin designed recently by Matthew Carter for the museum.
To complete the process, the patterns are mounted on a block of wood using small nails. These are Hebrew characters from another recent commission.
The actual wood type is cut on a pantographic cutter. The cutting blade spins like a router saw. It's pneumatic and very loud.
Here is a patter for a capital R mounted on the pantographic cutter.
Here Norb is mounting a wood blank to be cut into a piece of type. (Unfortunately, my camera memory card ran out right after this and I missed getting a shot of the actual cutting. Sorry.)
A finished piece of wood type, about an inch tall. Eagle-eyed type nerds may wonder why it's not backwards. This is a special right-reading font for making souvenir nameplates and such. Also, this piece is not quite finished. Normally, they would go in with a finer cutting blade to make the inside corners sharper.
A beveled style.
Some very large (almost a foot tall) Gothic Condensed.
Modified Gothic Condensed.
Coronet (probably a much later addition to the library).
More Gothic Condensed.
Grecian XX Condensed
Some very large ornaments, about six inches tall.
These cut but unfinished pieces of wood type were off in a corner.
As I mentioned, the type cutter is very loud. Ear protection is recommended. Some more of Matthew Carter's font patterns visible here.
Some big beautiful patterns for a Hebrew font.
A few pieces of Carter Latin and some proofs.
A close up of a flong, a kind of flexible paper mold used in the stereotype process by newspapers to copy a full page of type in order to make curved plates for letterpress printing. (Now you know where the word "stereotype" comes from.)
Hamilton also made the first automatic clothes dryer in the 1950s.
Lying here and there in the museum were pieces of metal type.
Here is the word "CD-ROM" set up in wood type on a proofing press. I thought this was a bit ironic.
If you ever wondered how they made ruled paper in the old days, this is the contraption that was invented to do it.
Along one wall in the museum were the names of benefactors set up in wood type. Tobias Frere-Jones, of Hoefler Frere-Jones Type Foundry, was among them. Unfortunately, they spelled his name wrong.
A dusty Kroy lettering machine from the 1970s sat in a corner. Probably they just used it for making labels on drawers.
Norb Brylski, our tour guide was honored with a hand-drawn portrait.
On a recent trip to Chicago, I made my way to Printing House Row and snapped this photo of the entrance to the old Mergenthaler Linotype Co. headquarters:
I can’t say exactly why, but it was a little distressing to see these rather tacky ads for a photographer in the window adjacent to the entrance:
I guess I thought it would be a museum or something.
Many of the characters in Helvetica and Arial are very similar to each other, although none are quite identical. Other characters are quite a bit different, and they are the key to telling which is which. Here are some of the most obvious ones (Grotesque 215, Arial’s ancestor, has also been included for comparison):
The “a” in Helvetica has a tail; Arial does not. Also, the bowl of the “a” flows into the stem like a backwards “s”; the bowl of Arial’s “a” simply intersects the stem with a slight curve. (Interestingly, the Grotesque “a” has a tail, just like Helvetica. The bolder weights of Helvetica have no tails, an inconsistency that bothers some people. Maybe it bothered Monotype, too.) Arial’s “a” has always seemed a little badly drawn to me, but maybe it’s just me.
The top of the Arial “t” is cut off at an angle; the Helvetica “t” is cut off straight. You can see clearly here how the x-height of Arial matches Helvetica’s. This is one of the main things that makes Arial look like Helvetica at first glance, even though the details are different.
The ends of the strokes of letters like “S” and “C” are perfectly horizontal in Helvetica; in Arial and Grotesque they are cut off at a slight angle.
The “G” in Helvetica has a spur at the bottom of the stem on the right side and the curve at the bottom of the “G” flows into the stem; in Arial and Grotesque the “G” has no spur and the curve at the bottom meets the stem at an angle.
The tail of the “R” in Helvetica flows out from the bowl and curves straight down, ending in a slight curve to the right. In Arial, the tail flows down and to the right from near the center of the horizontal bar and straightens out at an angle to the end. It appears to be a compromise between the Helvetica “R” and the Grotesque “R.” This feature is very unusual for a “grotesque” design, and is more typical of “humanist” sans serifs. It feels out of place here and is one of the more awkward design features of Arial.
Here is the same word set in all three typefaces:
In both fonts, the characteristics described here apply to all weights (except, of course, the tail on the Helvetica “a,” which is dropped on the bolder weights).
Interestingly, Monotype created cheap substitutes for not only Helvetica, but all the other proprietary fonts Adobe has included with PostScript. These were created at the request of Microsoft for inclusion with its PostScript clone, TrueImage, and also included with Windows and Microsoft Office.
Of these other substitutes, Book Antiqua looks nearly identical to Palatino. The designer of Palatino, Herman Zapf, has been known to do off-name versions of his own typefaces for other foundries (notably Bitstream), but in this case he had nothing to do with it, other than being copied. [Interestingly, Microsoft now includes a very good—and fully licensed—version of Palatino with Windows. —MS]
On the other hand, they created substitute fonts for two of his other typefaces, Corsiva for Zapf Chancery and Monotype Sorts for Zapf Dingbats.
As for the others, they are similar to Arial in that they are loosely based on typefaces owned by Monotype reworked to fit the proportions and weight of a specific non-Monotype font.
Century Gothic is Monotype’s Twentieth Century redrawn to match the weight and proportions of ITC Avant Garde Gothic. (Twentieth Century is Monotype’s version of Futura.)
Bookman Oldstyle is the original Bookman (late 19th century, ATF) redrawn to match the weight and proportions of ITC Bookman, including its cursive italic. The original Bookman had a slanted roman for italic.
Century Schoolbook is simply the earlier design upon which New Century Schoolbook is based, which both Monotype and Linotype licensed from American Type Founders. The two are virtually indistinguishable except for the extra weights offered in the Linotype version.
Times New Roman was developed originally by Monotype in the 1930s. Linotype’s Times is actually licensed from Monotype. In this case, the Monotype version is obviously more authentic, though the differences are extremely subtle.
Arial is everywhere. If you don’t know what it is, you don’t use a modern personal computer. Arial is a font that is familiar to anyone who uses Microsoft products, whether on a PC or a Mac. It has spread like a virus through the typographic landscape and illustrates the pervasiveness of Microsoft’s influence in the world.
Arial’s ubiquity is not due to its beauty. It’s actually rather homely. Not that homeliness is necessarily a bad thing for a typeface. With typefaces, character and history are just as important. Arial, however, has a rather dubious history and not much character. In fact, Arial is little more than a shameless impostor.
Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, one of the most popular typefaces in the western world was Helvetica. It was developed by the Haas Foundry of Switzerland in the 1950s. Later, Haas merged with Linotype and Helvetica was heavily promoted. More weights were added and it really began to catch on.
An icon of the Swiss school of typography, Helvetica swept through the design world in the ’60s and became synonymous with modern, progressive, cosmopolitan attitudes. With its friendly, cheerful appearance and clean lines, it was universally embraced for a time by both the corporate and design worlds as a nearly perfect typeface to be used for anything and everything. “When in doubt, use Helvetica” was a common rule.
As it spread into the mainstream in the ’70s, many designers tired of it and moved on to other typographic fashions, but by then it had become a staple of everyday design and printing. So in the early ’80s when Adobe developed the PostScript page description language, it was no surprise that they chose Helvetica as one of the basic four fonts to be included with every PostScript interpreter they licensed (along with Times, Courier, and Symbol). Adobe licensed its fonts from the original foundries, demonstrating their respect and appreciation for the integrity of type, type foundries and designers. They perhaps realized that if they had used knock-offs of popular typefaces, the professional graphic arts industry—a key market—would not accept them.
By the late eighties, the desktop publishing phenomenon was in full swing. Led by the Macintosh and programs like PageMaker, and made possible by Adobe’s PostScript page description language, anyone could do near professional-quality typesetting on relatively inexpensive personal computers.
But there was a problem. There were two kinds of PostScript fonts: Type 1 and Type 3. Type 1 fonts included “hints” that improved the quality of output dramatically over Type 3 fonts. Adobe provided information on making Type 3 fonts, but kept the secrets of the superior Type 1 font technology to itself. If you wanted Type 1 fonts, Adobe was the only source. Anyone else who wanted to make or sell fonts had to settle for the inferior Type 3 format. Adobe wanted the high end of the market all to itself.
By 1989, a number of companies were hard at work trying to crack the Type 1 format or devise alternatives. Apple and Microsoft signed a cross-licensing agreement to create an alternative to Adobe’s technology. While Microsoft worked on TrueImage, a page description language, Apple developed the TrueType format. TrueType was a more open format and was compatible with—but not dependent on—PostScript. This effectively forced Adobe’s hand, causing them to release the secrets of the Type 1 format to save themselves from irrelevancy.
Around the same time, PostScript “clones” were being developed to compete with Adobe. These PostScript “work-alikes” were usually bundled with “look-alike” fonts, since the originals were owned by Adobe’s business partners. One PostScript clone, sold by Birmy, featured a Helvetica substitute developed by Monotype called Arial.
Arial appears to be a loose adaptation of Monotype’s venerable Grotesque series, redrawn to match the proportions and weight of Helvetica. At a glance, it looks like Helvetica, but up close it’s different in dozens of seemingly arbitrary ways. Because it matched Helvetica’s proportions, it was possible to automatically substitute Arial when Helvetica was specified in a document printed on a PostScript clone output device. To the untrained eye, the difference was hard to spot. (See “How to Spot Arial”) After all, most people would have trouble telling the difference between a serif and a sans serif typeface. But to an experienced designer, it was like asking for Jimmy Stewart and getting Rich Little.
What is really strange about Arial is that it appears that Monotype was uncomfortable about doing a direct copy of Helvetica. They could very easily have done that and gotten away with it. Many type manufacturers in the past have done knock-offs of Helvetica that were indistinguishable or nearly so. For better or worse, in many countries—particularly the U.S.—while typeface names can be protected legally, typeface designs themselves are difficult to protect. So, if you wanted to buy a typesetting machine and wanted the real Helvetica, you had to buy Linotype. If you opted to purchase Compugraphic, AM, or Alphatype typesetting equipment, you couldn’t get Helvetica. Instead you got Triumvirate, or Helios, or Megaron, or Newton, or whatever. Every typesetting manufacturer had its own Helvetica look-alike. It’s quite possible that most of the “Helvetica” seen in the ’70s was actually not Helvetica.
Now, Monotype was a respected type foundry with a glorious past and perhaps the idea of being associated with these “pirates” was unacceptable. So, instead, they found a loophole and devised an “original” design that just happens to share exactly the same proportions and weight as another typeface. (See “Monotype’s Other ‘Arials’”) This, to my mind, is almost worse than an outright copy. A copy, it could be said, pays homage (if not license fees) to the original by its very existence. Arial, on the other hand, pretends to be different. It says, in effect “I’m not Helvetica. I don’t even look like Helvetica!”, but gladly steps into the same shoes. In fact, it has no other role.
When Microsoft made TrueType the standard font format for Windows 3.1, they opted to go with Arial rather than Helvetica, probably because it was cheaper and they knew most people wouldn’t know (or even care about) the difference. Apple also standardized on TrueType at the same time, but went with Helvetica, not Arial, and paid Linotype’s license fee. Of course, Windows 3.1 was a big hit. Thus, Arial is now everywhere, a side effect of Windows’ success, born out of the desire to avoid paying license fees.
The situation today is that Arial has displaced Helvetica as the standard font in practically everything done by nonprofessionals in print, on television, and on the Web, where it’s become a standard font, mostly because of Microsoft bundling it with everything—even for Macs, which already come with Helvetica. This is not such a big deal since at the low resolution of a computer screen, it might as well be Helvetica. In any case, for fonts on the Web, Arial is one of the few choices available.
Despite its pervasiveness, a professional designer would rarely—at least for the moment—specify Arial. To professional designers, Arial is looked down on as a not-very-faithful imitation of a typeface that is no longer fashionable. It has what you might call a “low-end stigma.” The few cases that I have heard of where a designer has intentionally used Arial were because the client insisted on it. Why? The client wanted to be able to produce materials in-house that matched their corporate look and they already had Arial, because it’s included with Windows. True to its heritage, Arial gets chosen because it’s cheap, not because it’s a great typeface.
It’s been a very long time since I was actually a fan of Helvetica, but the fact is Helvetica became popular on its own merits. Arial owes its very existence to that success but is little more than a parasite—and it looks like it’s the kind that eventually destroys the host. I can almost hear young designers now saying, “Helvetica? That’s that font that looks kinda like Arial, right?”
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