30 April, 2008

Type bodies compared

Pica has survived as a familiar unit of measurement, although it is not what it was. (In digital terms it is 4.236 mm, or 12 points of 1/72 inch or 0.353 mm.) But what about Nonpareil, or Brevier, or Great Primer? Or Gros Parangon and Petit Romain? What exactly were they?
Several of the works that deal with the history of type, including those by authorities like H. D. L. Vervliet, Harry Carter and Philip Gaskell, print tables of ‘typical’ or ‘average’ numerical values for these names which are useful for giving a general notion of their size. But, disconcertingly, an average value may not fit any specific example. As Harry Carter once wrote, ‘Nonpareils and Picas varied: there were local traditions about them’.
What were these traditions? The purpose of the table above (click on it to view it) is to try to begin to discover some of them. It aims to say how big the named sizes were in different places and at different dates. How Caslon’s Pica differed from Moxon’s. And how Fournier’s Cicéro related to Plantin’s Mediane. The measurements were made directly from original type specimens, and the result, however approximate, is at least drawn from real life, and is not a homogenized average quantity. The basic unit is the millimetre. As explained below, the actual measurement of the body from the original printed document is the figure in square brackets; the figure that precedes it is the measurement increased by 1.5 per cent to make up for the notional paper shrinkage.
The traditional names for type sizes, like Cicéro, began to appear in France during the 16th century, when they were used in the bills submitted by punchcutters to their clients and in lists of printers’ stock. No doubt some names like Cicéro and St Augustin were originally a reference to the type used in specific editions of these writers, though claims that have been made to be able to identify the editions are not very convincing. Other names, like Canon, Brevier, and probably Pica, refer to types used in liturgical works. And there is a whole series of designations for small types, which sometimes have winsome names like Nonpareil (meaning ‘nonesuch’ or ‘incomparable’), Robijn (Ruby), and Diamant (Diamond), or alternatively bear the names of cities where they were made, like Parisienne, which was already in use in the 16th century, Sedanoise (Jannon), Parmigianina (Bodoni), and – in the 19th century – the tiny Milanina (by the Milanese punchcutter Wilmant).
But how big were they? And did two Nonpareils make a Pica? The answer to that question is, sometimes but not always. The Parisian book trade regulations of 1723 defined the relationships of some of the sizes to each other (two bodies of Nonpareil did indeed make a Cicéro), but did not set a standard on which to base their measurement.
Named bodies continued in use in different European countries until numerical point systems were generally adopted, but that was not until the later 19th or early 20th centuries. One reason for having information about their actual size is that historical types were made to fit the bodies used in the foundry that originally cast them, and when they were later cast from original matrices on bodies based on one or other of the ‘point systems’, which in the smaller sizes have relatively crude arithmetical increments, they often look different. That is something it is useful to be aware of.
This table gives some information about the size of the bodies of the types made in some major foundries before the introduction of such standards. There is one fundamental problem in trying to ascertain the exact size of type by measuring from printed matter of the hand press period. When the paper was damped for printing it expanded. The print was made on the expanded paper, which then shrank as it dried. The size of the print must therefore always be slightly smaller than the type that made it.
In order to counteract this effect, the measured values that are given first in most of the columns are adjusted to show a notional value for the real size of the type by making a rather arbitrary allowance of 1.5 per cent for the shrinkage of the dampened paper when it dried after printing. The measurements that were actually made from the original printed documents are the figures that follow and which appear in square brackets. Thus the body of the Gros Texte shown on the Berner sheet of 1592, which measures 5.9 mm on paper, is reckoned on this basis to have been 5.99 mm. A rigorously scientific observation of the degree of the shrinkage of damped paper after printing during the hand press period seems never to have made. Philip Gaskell added a very cautious note on the subject to his New introduction to bibliography (1972), p. 13, noting shrinkage of between 1 and 2.5 per cent, with a more pronounced shrinkage across the chain-lines than along them. My own experiments with old paper roughly agree with his. But there are all kinds of problems involved. Different kinds of papers and degrees of damping would probably give very different results. Systematic experiments on handmade papers of varying consistencies and made at different periods would be worth conducting and publishing.
The values given here under the names of Joseph Moxon (which are from his Mechanick exercises, 1683) and John Smith (Printer’s grammar, 1755) are calculated from their lists of names for bodies, in which both authors gave the number of them contained in one foot, how accurately we cannot tell. Since the figures in the two scales do not all correspond, it looks as if Smith did not copy Moxon’s list but gave his own, based on type in current use, perhaps Caslon’s. Moxon’s Pica, for example, is much smaller than Smith’s. Smith’s Pica is not only more or less that of Caslon in London, but as can be seen from this table it is close to the Cicéro of the contemporary typefounder Sanlecque in Paris. Moreover it is also close to the equivalent body of Le Bé in Paris and Berner in Frankfurt am Main, two of the major commercial foundries of the late 16th-century. Moxon’s Pica is similar to Plantin’s Mediane in Antwerp, and may reflect the influence of the Low Countries on British typefounding.
Since this table was compiled measurements have been made from the copy of Moxon’s type specimen sheet, Proves of several sorts of letters (1669), in the British Library, MS Harl. 5919. (459.) These are the sizes of the 7 bodies that are shown: Great Cannon 16.65 [16.40]. Double Pica 7.23 [7.12]. Great Primmer 6.26 [6.17]. English 4.94 [4.87]. Pica 4.14 [4.08]. Long Primmer 3.35 [3.30]. Brevier 2.71 [2.67].
In the column headed ‘US points’ the figures in parentheses or round brackets give the number of US points that are equivalent to the millimetre value that precedes them, based on the established value of 1 US point = 0.351 mm. This measurement is included simply in order to give a familiar standard for the purposes of comparison, but (as mentioned above) for use in modern computer software, the point has been made equivalent to one seventy-second of an inch, or 0.353 mm. For the purposes of this exercise the difference is insignificant.
In the column of the French names for type bodies, the names are followed by the number of ‘typographical points’ assigned to them by Fournier le jeune. Fournier studiously avoided giving an exact measurement for his points in terms of the official units of measurement. He stated that the system of ‘typographical points’ that was set out in the first volume of his Manuel typographique (1764), had first been published in 1737, and it seems likely that it was the table headed Table des proportions des differens caracteres de l’imprimerie, reproduced as his illustration 5 by Updike, that appears in the type specimen entitled Modéles des caracteres, 1742. This was expressed in lignes and points. The ligne was an official measure of one twelfth of the pouce or inch, and the point was an indeterminate small unit of which in this case there were six to the ligne, but the units used by Fournier do not correspond to the official ones. Fournier’s nompareille is given as 1 ligne in the Table des proportions, but the reference to notional lignes was abandoned and the size of the same body is given as 6 points in the Manuel typographique. Fournier’s system was derived from the scale of related type bodies, of which he was well aware since he mentions it in the Manuel, that had been drawn up by Sébastien Truchet, member of the Carmelite order, mathematician, hydraulic engineer, and member of the ‘Commission Bignon’ that in 1693 began to plan a ‘Description des Arts et Métiers’ or description of trades. It was also responsible for the new type for the Imprimerie royale, which was first used to print the Médailles sur les principaux événements du règne de Louis le Grand, 1702.
In about 1694 Truchet began to plan a series of related type bodies for the new type. His initial unit was a ligne seconde of 0.188 mm, one twelfth of the ligne, which was one twelfth of an inch and thus 1/144 of the official pied de roi of 324.8 mm. One of Truchet’s working documents shows how in measuring different examples of works printed in type called ‘Petit Romain’ or ‘Cicéro’ or ‘St Augustin’, he found two or three or even four different sizes for some of these named bodies. By their side he set out his recommended reformed system, the nouvelle proportion à imiter:

Bodies based on Truchet’s system appear to have been used throughout the 18th century by the Imprimerie royale, until a ‘millimetric’ point of 0.4 mm was introduced at the Imprimerie impériale in about 1810 by Firmin Didot. This was effectively the ‘point IN’ of 0.39877 mm that is still used for the metal types of the Imprimerie nationale.
In about 1781 François-Ambroise Didot followed the example of Truchet and made new types with bodies using a unit based on the pied de roi, one sixth of the ligne, or 0.376 mm. Since the Didot family never used the term ‘point’ (the term originally proposed was mètre, but this word was then adopted for the universal unit of linear measurement), a type on a body of 12 of the Didot units was designated ‘corps 12’. However it eventually became known as the Didot point, which was adopted as the common unit of the French and German typefounders, the basis of what was later known as the Cicéro system.
One reason for the variety of the bodies among founders must be that each founder worked independently from all the others and there was no movement towards uniformity. It may have suited some of them to know that the printer who bought a fount could only use it conveniently with another from the same source.
Something to bear in mind in approaching this question is that the setting of standards for the accurate measurement of very small sizes does not appear to have been possible in any technology before the introduction of precise tools, like micrometers, during the 19th century. But this is a subject on which I can find no reliable information, and shall be glad of help. However the lack of such independent standards does not mean that typefounding was not performed to a very level of precision indeed, probably to a greater degree than in any other pre-industrial small-scale technology. It is simply that the dimensions of the body (and also the ‘set’ of the registers of the mould, governing the side bearings of the type) were established by matching samples of the same type that had been kept as a standard and used when a new fount was cast or a mould was refurbished.
I do not claim absolute reliability for these measurements. I hope, though, that they go a little way towards showing some kind of relative picture in an area where one was almost wholly lacking. The measuring was done from time to time on occasions when I had the opportunity of visiting the libraries where the original documents are kept, and I am grateful to those who made them available. Most of the figures are derived from measurements of several lines at a time, and the size of the single body is calculated from this overall figure, which should reduce error. At the same time, by way of a check, single lines were measured with a magnifying glass that incorporated a scale of tenths of a millimetre. Even so, where measurements are made in millimetres to two places of decimals, the first of these figures, and a fortiori the second, must be approximate. Human error must be allowed for. Rulers vary, and so does the rate of the expansion of paper and its shrinkage. Caveat lector.

The table above and its notes were put together as part of a historical study of type bodies that is work in progress. I can think of some improvements to make. It would be worth measuring several copies of the more common specimens (Caslon, Fournier, Enschedé) to see what variations there are. But three of the specimens – Berner, Le Bé and Jannon – are known only from single copies in Frankfurt, Antwerp and Paris, and my measurements are based on these. So it seemed to me that, since the topic seems never to have been tackled systematically, the table in its present form might be worth publishing on its own.
For more on Truchet’s type bodies, see my article, ‘French academicians and modern typography: designing new types in the 1690s’, Typography papers, 2 (1997), pp. 5–29. And see also my contribution and that of Jacques André in the catalogue of the exhibition at the Musée de l’Imprimerie, Lyon, Le romain du roi: la typographie au service de l’État 1702–2002 (Lyon, 2002), the stock of which is now also available from Frits Knuf Antiquarian Books (26 rue des Beguines, 41100 Vendôme, France).
There is quite a large bibliography relating to type bodies, although very little of it addresses the questions that interest me. Perhaps the nearest (and a very useful piece of work it is) is David Shaw, ‘Standardization of type sizes in France in the early sixteenth century’, The Library, 6th ser., vol. 3, no. 4 (December 1981), pp. 330–6. Philip Gaskell’s note on ‘Type sizes in the eighteenth century’ (Studies in bibliography, 5 (1952–3), pp. 147–51), another useful piece based, like Shaw’s, on an extensive knowledge of the books of its period, illustrates the problem with which I began this post: the table he gives ‘is based on measurements taken from ten eighteenth-century specimens by Caslon, Wilson and Fry. The average of these measurements is given, so that the table is unlikely to be completely accurate with regard to the products of any one foundry.’ John Richardson, ‘Correlated type sizes and names for the fifteenth through twentieth century’ (Studies in bibliography, 43 (1990), pp. 251–272), brings together indiscriminately a mass of data – 400 measurements – from sources that are unevenly reliable. It is a useful reminder of the problems involved.
These were the original specimens measured for the table:
Plantin c. 1585
Folio specimen.
Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp. Arch. Varia II.
Facsimile in: Type specimen facsimiles [16–18]: reproductions of Christopher Plantin’s Index sive specimen characterum, 1567, and Folio specimen of c. 1585, together with the Le Bé-Moretus specimen c.1599; with annotations by H. D. L. Vervliet and Harry Carter. London, 1972.
Berner 1592
Conrad Berner, Specimen characterum seu typorum probatissimorum… Frankfurt am Main, 1592.
Stadt- und Universitätsbibliothek, Frankfurt am Main. Gustav Mori, Schriftprobensammlung, Mappe 1, 19. (Other press marks: Mf 7024a, HM6: Em 6)
Facsimiles in: Gustav Mori, Eine Frankfurter Schriftprobe vom Jahre 1592: Studie zur Geschichte des Frankfurter Schriftgießer-Gewerbes. Frankfurt am Main, 1920. Type specimen facsimiles [1–15]: reproductions of fifteen type specimen sheets issued between the 16th and 18th centuries, accompanied by notes mainly derived from the researches of A. F. Johnson [and others]; general editor, John Dreyfus. London, 1963.
Le Bé c. 1599
Fragmentary annotated specimens sent by Guillaume II Le Bé, Paris, to the Moretus printing office, Antwerp, c. 1599.
Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp. Arch. 153.
Facsimile in: Type specimen facsimiles [16–18]: reproductions of Christopher Plantin’s Index sive specimen characterum, 1567, and Folio specimen of c. 1585, together with the Le Bé-Moretus specimen c. 1599; with annotations by H. D. L. Vervliet and Harry Carter. London, 1972.
Jannon 1621
Espreuue des lettres nouuellement taillez. Sedan, 1621.
Bibliothèque Mazarine, Paris. A.15226 (2).
Facsimile in: The 1621 specimen of Jean Jannon, Paris and Sedan : designer and engraver of the caractères de l’Université: edited in facsimile with an introduction by Paul Beaujon. Paris: Honoré Champion, 1927.
Lamesle 1742
Épreuves générales des caracteres qui se trouvent chez Claude Lamesle. Paris, 1742.
St Bride Library, London. 20228.
Facsimile in: The type specimens of Claude Lamesle; a facsimile of the first edition printed at Paris in 1742, with an introduction by A. F. Johnson. Amsterdam, 1965.
Fournier 1764
Les caracteres de l’imprimerie. Par Fournier le jeune. Paris, 1764.
St Bride Library, London. 20666.
The same settings of type were used in vol. 2 of the Manuel typographique, Paris, 1766. Facsimile: Darmstadt, Technische Hochschule, 1995.
Sanlecque 1757
Épreuves des caracteres du fond des Sanlecques. Paris, 1757.
Houghton Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts. TypTS 715.57.767.
Caslon 1766
A specimen of printing type by William Caslon. London, 1766.
St Bride Library, London. 7518.
Facsimile in: Journal of the Printing Historical Society, 16 (1981/2).
Enschedé 1768
Proef van letteren welke gegooten worden in de nieuwe Haarlemsche lettergietery van J. Enschedé. Haarlem, 1768.
St Bride Library, London. 20248.
Facsimile in: The Enschedé type specimens of 1768 and 1773: a facsimile with an introduction and notes by John A. Lane. Haarlem: Stichting Museum Enschedé, 1993.
Last edited 13 August 2008