ATF, “Originator of Type Fashions”

Written by Typographica on August 12, 2004

Ralph Levien describes ATF’s automated optical scaling technique and offers high-resolution scans of ATF catalogs. One of my favorite pages: the proclamatory To The Progressive Printer which states:

This Specimen Book contains no item which has outlived its usefulness and profitableness … Not the least service the American Type Founders Company has rendered to the printers is that of discarding hundreds of series of type faces which do not conform to the present higher standard of typographic taste which has been created and fostered by the “Originator of Type Fashions.”

One wonders what the type world would be like if today’s foundries followed that policy. No more ITC Eras, perhaps?

Thank you Allesandro.


  1. jlt says:

    Shut up dude, Eras is SCHWEET.

  2. And coincidentally, ITC Eras was one of the first PostScript fonts to include an automated scaling technique — something to do with hints that knocked out the slight incline whenever rasters weren’t able to accurately render it. So perhaps we’ve come full circle.

    I stand second to none in my admiration for ATF specimen books, but it’s wise to take these kinds of lofty preambles with a grain of salt. Don’t forget that ATF was a consortium of three dozen type foundries, and the business of separating the wheat from the chaff was a commercial necessity as much as an artistic standard. When the task fell to the Bentons to determine which foundry’s version of a nearly-identical two-line gothic was to be kept, the process of choosing one from many naturally resulted in a large number of designs being discarded.

    Early twentieth century ATF books were ruthless in pruning so much Victorian dead wood, largely because it would not sell. (ITC Eras is probably a good example of the phenomenon, at least right now.) But it’s tragic that from a 21st century perspective, so many of these novelty faces make for a fascinating study, and are frustratingly difficult to unearth. Unlike the gothics and scripts and card faces of the late nineteenth century, the best of which were preserved intact in ATF books as far forward as 1923, many corinthian decorative faces and lugubrious sans serifs of the era vanished after ATF’s big purge at the turn of the century. As JLT reminds us above, there’s always someone out there interested in the discards.

  3. Hrant says:

    > ITC Eras was one of the first PostScript fonts
    > to include an automated scaling technique

    Really? Wow. I’ve been thinking about this type of thing myself (many years later…) and would love to find some documentation about “size-aware” hinting. I know that ATF/Kingsley did that sort of thing with T3 fonts, but apparently the switch to T1 fonts (and probably general weakness in the retail font market) killed it, and the people who could tell me more are like hiding in the mountains or something.


  4. jlt says:

    Are you guys familiar with the Linotype “big brown book”? I think it’s far superior to the ATF in quality if not quantity.

  5. Miss Tiffany says:

    I have to second the comment about Eras. I like Eras.

    Josh, I have BIG RED, but haven’t heard of BIG BROWN.

  6. John Butler says:

    Hrant would love to find some documentation about �size-aware� hinting.

    The most awesome example of this that I can think of is Augsburger Initials from Microsoft’s old Truetype Font Pack 2. I think Font Bureau did it. Its delta hints made each glyph’s surrounding filigree actually disappear, totally and cleanly, on the screen below certain sizes. I haven’t seen anything like it since.

  7. Tom says:

    > I have BIG RED

    There’s nothing worse.


  8. jlt says:

    I have big red too. Big brown is, in my own opinion, far superior – the quality of the specimens is really amazing, the pages are larger, far better printing quality, and 3 color letterpress and opposed to the mediocre 2-color printing of most of big red. Also, the paper is far better quality, as is the binding, and most copies of the book that I’ve seen hold up quite a bit better. I’ll write a short piece on mine with photos soon and include a few images.

  9. I’ve always been a little confused about the designation “big red” regarding the 1912 ATF catalog. I have a copy of the 1906 ATF catalog which is also big (1181 pages) and also red. What year was Linotype’s “big brown” issued?

  10. I’ve always thought of the “Big Red” as the wartime Linotype monster (I can’t for the life of me remember the date); I presume the brown book mentioned above is the “Manual of Linotype Typography” of 1923. It’s an interesting book: the type specimens themselves have a disappointing sameness, and rest on book typography to the near exclusion of everything else (jobbing typography, social printing, etc.) But there’s a didactic quality that makes the book quite useful, and — uncharacteristically, for a type specimen — a good read. The book opens with chapters on typographic arrangement and the anatomy of the book, which still make for a useful primer. Even the type specimens themselves are presented as pages from books about printing.

    I presume the 1912 ATF book also qualifies as a “big red” since it was ATF’s largest specimen book, clocking in at 1,301 pages. It’s interesting to compare this book to the 1906 one you mentioned, Mark: the earlier specimen is heady with the fin de siecle, all Will Bradley blackletters and thistle borders, where the later book is the fully realized expression of ATF’s industrial reorganization. It’s a commercial reference book for commercial printers, no question.

    By the way, anyone especially interested in ATF should pick up a copy of Printing History 43/44, the journal of the American Printing History Association. It’s devoted to ATF, and it’s a great read. (I’d encourage everyone here to join APHA, while they’re at it.) And anyone interested in type specimens in general should have these two books: Maurice Annenberg’s Type Foundries of America and their Catalogs (recently republished by Oak Knoll), and Alastair Johnston’s Alphabets to Order, which surveys type specimens as works of literature. The former is a useful reference for enthusiasts and collectors, and the latter is fascinating and funny.

  11. Thanks for the info, Jonathan. I’ve got about half the books you mention. Makes me want to get hold of the other half. I’ve got ATF catalogs from 1906, 1923, 1941, and 1955, Linotype catalogs/supplements from 1923, 1941, 1948, 1958, a BB&S catalog from about 1930 (no date), and a bunch of others, including a really cool Ludlow catalog from the early ’50s I think (not dated). I never get tired of looking at these things.

    My introduction to the ATF catalogs was in about 1982. Gerald Lange had his Bieler Press in St. Paul at the time. The magazine I art directed was doing a story about him so I took a photographer over one day. I ended up visiting Gerry fairly often over the next few weeks and got to see some of his large collection of specimen books.

    I also had the good fortune a couple of years ago to see and meet Alastair Johnston when he was in Minneapolis to do a talk about his then-new book. His presentation was very entertaining.

  12. It sounds as if you’ve got most of the good ones. The 1896 book is good, full of all the Victorian whatnots that didn’t make the cut after the consolidation was complete; there’s also a 1903 book (which is much like your 1906), and then of course the 1912. The slim red 1941 book was preceeded by a similar volume in 1935, set in Stymie instead of Lydian, with few internal differences. And there’s also a canard called “Specimens of Modernage” or something, which appears to be a bunch of ATF brochures hastily bound and gotten out the door, some time during the Depression.

    Most type specimens are variously dated (if at all) and with endless variations, so it’s a challenge to definitively say what’s what. I was very excited to pick up a late nineteenth century specimen from the Central Type Foundry recently, a lovely quarto bound in brown cloth, which Tobias neatly observed was actually identical to the green cloth Boston Type Foundry specimen that I had sitting two shelves over.

    Those Ludlow books are also great. Keep an eye out for Ludlow’s individual specimen pamphlets, too — some of them are spectacular. The one for “Ultra Modern” (a great face!) is printed in about six colors, each of them so rich in heavy metals that you can feel the cancer welling up in your cells as you gaze at the dazzling cover.

    I’m glad you got to see Alastair in person. Our entire studio descended upon him when he spoke at the Grolier Club a few years ago — it was pretty terrific.

  13. My ears were burning and LO! i find you guys are saying ONLY NICE THINGS about me. What did i do wrong? You can keep Big Red & Big Brown, give me ANY specimen pre-ATF.

    Those PONY specimen books were the first efforts at cooperation between the American founders, problem is they dumped all the COOL stuff!

    You may like to hear I am working on a biography of Richard Austin who cut both the type known as “Bell” (NOT the phonebook type) and Scotch Roman.

    If you caught my previous tour I was talking about Vernacular letterforms and have just finished a book-length study with hundreds of photos. (Now to find a publisher)

  14. Hrant says:

    Alastair, one thing I’d like to finally unravel about Austin is his role in the introduction/promotion of what are generally called “hybrid” numerals: basically old-style figures that have bodies notably larger than the lc x-height. These are not the same thing as the 3/4 lining figures (which do seem to be clearly Austin’s doing). For a while I was trying to track down the first origins of hybrid figures, if only to give them a better name! If you could shed some light on that, it would be great.


  15. Justin Howes pointed out to me William Caslon II’s large Letters of Proscription, from the mid-1770s, as the first to have lining figures. But Austin’s were the first to be widely circulated. However, when Besley revived the Austin types in 1853 he had the older non-lining figures with them. I’m not sure if that answers your question but I always thought that later founders missed the boat in blowing up their lining numerals. But then the same could be said for Italic Caps. If you look at the Granjon Scholasticis in the big Oxford book on John Fell, they are more like small caps in scale and look really neat with the lower case. Whoever decided to “improve” on Granjon and enlarge those caps was a chump.

  16. Ed Bertschy says:

    As far as I know, I digitized the first font to have automatic optical hinting. The font was ATFs Wedding Text, and Henry Schneiker developed and programmed the hinting. This was 1989 when I worked as a digitizer for the software division of Kingsley ATF in Tucson, AZ. I worked with the original Benton drawings and had to create all of the missing characters to produce a full Latin ISO Standard set. The hinting was a painful and long drawn out process which had a serious effect on the actual shape of the letters. Anyone wishing to discuss can contact me. Henry might be in the mountains, but the rest of us of the software division are still around.

  17. Hrant says:

    Ed, the Taskforce for the Pervasive Revival of Optical Scaling will be contacting you shortly… ;->


  18. Thomas Phinney says:

    Just happened to run into this thread today:

    “When the task fell to the Bentons to determine which foundryďż˝s version of a nearly-identical two-line gothic was to be kept….”

    It’s quite possible that the Bentons did some of the weeding out later on, but generally Joseph W. Phinney did the amalgamation and discarding of redundant (or just plain cruddy) typefaces following the initial merger of the foundries.



  19. Your gramps!?

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