Excerpted from Vintage Type and Graphics: An Eclectic Collection of Typography, Ornament, Letterheads, and Trademarks from 1896 to 1936
by Steven Heller, Louise Fili
Copyright © 2011. Used with permission of Allworth Press.
Type is a tool of communication and an art of commerce. The fact that it is at once functionally enduring and aesthetically sublime is what has made type such a popular object of connoisseurship among those both in and out of the graphic design fields. Originally, letterforms were created to spread the Word, but ultimately, they were designed and redesigned to convey more quotidian ideas, many of which are sales pitches. The diversely styled alphabets presented in foundry-specimen books dating back to the turn of the century had one purpose: Attract the eye. This does not mean that the respective designers did not view themselves as artisans of the highest magnitude. It simply meant that type, while still the means of spreading the Word; was also a device for establishing mood, aura, and style. In literature and official documents, it is enough that a typeface is readable. In advertising, however, which is the main market for typefaces produced by the major foundries, a face must also have a distinct personality that demands attention.
The alphabets and specimens displayed here are not the classic typefaces that have endured centuries of stylistic and technological change. Rather, they are the graphic arts equivalent of the Victorian bonnet, flapper's frock, and dandy's spats; the bastardizations, transfigurations, and novelizations of letters into objects of desire. Some are absurdly delightful; others are delightfully grotesque. All contain the proper number of characters and are completely functional.