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Typography Allan Metcalf .Tor a centenarian, The Century Dictionary (hereafter, the Century ) doesn't look its age. Its pages may be decorated in 19th-century fashion,1 but the type that faces the reader has the look of the 20th century rather than the 19th. This is for a simple and impressive reason: the Century incorporated improvements in typography so successful that they set a standard for the century to come. The typeface of the dictionary is not just a pleasure to look at. Even more important, it is readable, as readable today as it was a century ago. As William Dwight Whitney stated at the conclusion of his 1889 Preface: In the choice of the typographical style the desire has been to provide a page in which the matter should be at once condensed and legible, and it is believed tiiat this aim has been attained in an unusual degree, (xvi) Whitney's belief was enthusiastically shared by the dictionary's readers. Here is a reviewer in The Critic for 20June 1891: American printing as displayed here is like American novel-writing as explained by Mr. Howells: it is the perfection of common-sense, the outcome of an instinct hungering for clearness, in love with subtlety and refinement indeed, but not sacrificing more precious things to it: brilliant and clarifying as the thin, radiant atmosphere of America now transmuting itself into a sort of psychological characteristic of the whole people . (319) A century later readers will still concur. Better than anyone could know at the time, the typography of the Century remains a major technical and aesthetic achievement. 'See Michael Hancher's article in diis colloquium. 18Allan Metcalf And whose idea was it? The dictionary owes its innovative and superior typography to a man at the forefront of his trade, Theodore Low De Vinne. Thanks to his inventiveness and his practicality, the principal typeface of the Century is as American as apple pie—or more precisely , as American as the electric light, the typewriter, alternating current, and the personal computer. With typical American genius, in the mold of Morse, Edison, Nikola Tesla, and perhaps Theodore Roosevelt , De Vinne was a practical man, concerned not with art for art's sake but with art for the sake of legibility. He referred to himself not as an artist or designer but as a printer; his type faces were not to be admired but to be read. And yet they were so well designed for the reader's needs that they please the senses better than many consciously artistic types. De Vinne's typographical success was so complete that his achievement is easily overlooked nowadays, because it has become one ofthe norms of 20th-century typography. The type in the Century was in a direct line of evolution that led a few years later to the typeface with the name of Century, used for the first time in the Century Magazine in 1896 (De Vinne 1896, 795). It was an instant and long-lasting success. De Vinne himselfdid not actually "cut the punches" for this later Century type. The type was modeled and cut in 1894 by Linn Boyd Benton, working with De Vinne (Blackwell 22; De Vinne 1900, 376). Like De Vinne, Benton was a practical man. He was an engineer who had devised a way to automate the cutting of steel punches for type (Blackwell 16). The Century face (figure 1) was soon developed into a family of faces for American Type Founders Company, with the slightly condensed Century Magazine version being matched by an expanded or broad-face type (figure 2), along with bold and italic versions. In 1915 Morris Fuller Benton, son ofLinn Boyd, developed the design further to the now-familiar Century Schoolbook (figure 3), slightiy bolder, more regular, and even more legible than the original Century (Blackwell 238). Like his father, Morris Benton was of a pragmatic cast. Lewis Blackwell, in an overview of 20th-century typography, says Morris Benton 's "reputation rests not so much on being an innovator, as on being a highly skilled technician" (24). During the century that followed, the popularity of Century never waned. In 1952, for example, Century was one...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 17-28
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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