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German Grotesks and the origins of sanserif

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I am interested in the origins of grotesque typefaces in nineteenth-century Germany.

In my opinion, the relevance of the Grotesk typology in the context of the birth and early development of the sanserif has perhaps been underestimated by a historiographic tradition focused on Anglo-American achievements. Some indications:

– Most sources agree that William Thorowgood released the first sanserif lowercase in 1834. Nevertheless, it seems that the Schelter & Giesecke foundry (Leipzig) had produced a light sans serif with both capitals and lower case letters by 1825. (Source: Lawson, Anatomy of a Typeface, p. 297). I find this doubtful, but if proven, this face would be not only prior to Thorowgood´s (and even Figgins') but far more sophisticated.


Thorowgood 1834


Schelter&Giesecke 1825

– The Grotesk typefaces were used in the nineteenth century for setting body text (namely in scientific and technical publications), long before the american gothics left display and jobbing as their exclusive tasks. (Source: http://www.typolexikon.de/g/grotesk.html)

– Looking at specimens from late nineteenth century, one finds a very remarkable level (for the time) of formal development, and perhaps even a tendency towards systematization and coordination of weights and sizes. (Source: Schelter&Giesecke specimen, c.1898)


Any argument or contribution is more than welcome. I´d like also to pose these questions to the forum:

1. When did the first Grotesk appear in Germany?

2. Which typeface would be the first in including a lowercase in that country (if the Lawson statement is erroneous)?

3. When did the sanserif started to be used as a text face there?

Thank you very much,


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The collection of samples (the S&G and Thorowgood sanserifs together) suggests to me that images and data were taken from P.M. Handover's article "Grotesque Letters" (in Monotype News Letter 69, March 1963). There however, the "1825" reads "? ca 1825" ...

To date this Schelter & Giesecke sanserif, called "Schlanke Grotesk", back to 1825 is a mistake. Unfortunately, subsequent writer just copied this from Mrs Handhover. So much for writing history of type.
As you already noted, it is so perfect that it cannot be from such an early date. It can be found in part one of the "Muster-Sammlung", of 1886. But it should be hard to trace this back earlier for type specimens weren't dated back then.
(Side note: In the S&G specimen books you find other sanserif of much lower quality, more like the early British ones. These were -- I bet -- produced earlier than the fine "Schlanke Grotesk" which you showed, but later than the early British ones.)


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But it should be hard to trace this back earlier for type specimens weren’t dated back then.

One would have to compare type in dated magazines with type in foundry specimens.
Send in the Type Scene Investigators!

I say magazines, because that is the kind of printing where sans serifs were mainly used, although the German scientific tradition of using sans faces would be worth exploring, in scientific publications.

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Or printing trade publications/advertisement. Sadly, my little library is not that well equipped ...

But then: There is the "Handbuch der Schriftarten" (1926-) which shows typefaces of different foundries -- by similarity. With this in mind, I wonder if *only* searching magazines would suffice to decide whether a typeface appearing in a magazine is grotesk a from foundry A or grotesk b from foundry B, because they were almost identical.
That discussion today is centered around Akzidenz Grotesk so much, with some Schelter & Giesecke Breite Grotesk here and there (but only because of the revival which serves as a reminder), is a bit funny if we take into account that at its time, AG was but one among many, all of them very similar to each other. Even to experts' eyes. Similarly, almost every German foundry hat a Breite Grotesk, some better, some worse.

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they were almost identical.

But that doesn't really matter.
The purpose is to date a genre of type.
Here is an ad from the London Punch magazine, 1843 (incidentally, also the best-selling humour magazine in Canada and the United States at the time).
I have not seen these sans faces in the Figgins, or Caslon & Livermore specimens of the day.
Perhaps they are in some specimen books I am not aware of.
Or perhaps they are types that never appeared in specimen books.
Or perhaps they are types from specimen books of which no copies now exist.
Or perhaps they are types from foundries that have vanished without trace.
Type history is a little too dependent on foundry specimens -- from the usual suspects.

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Karsten, thank you for your explanation of the date mistake.
Does the article you cite "Grotesque Letters" deal with German Grotesks significantly?

the German scientific tradition of using sans faces would be worth exploring

For sure, Nick.

Anyone knows if there is any virtual gallery on nineteenth century German publications? The only gallery of this kind I know –pointed out to me by Eduardo Manso from Emtype Foundry– covers exclusively nineteenth-century USA (by the way: worth visiting, specially the reproductions of The Century magazine, printed by De Vinne. http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/moa/moa_search.html)

I have found so far a lack of first-hand, proven information (or any at all) on the birth and development of early German grotesques. Is there any source (German-language included) where this topic is extensively discussed?

Thanks again

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(I missed your last two posts while I wrote mine)

The purpose is to date a genre of type.

I think so. The matter is to widen our knowledge of the sanserif genre´s first steps, by learning more on the history of the Grotesk –which seems to have answers to questions such as e.g. when a sanserif was first used as a text face.

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> It can be found in part one of the Muster-Sammlung, of 1886.
> But it should be hard to trace this back earlier for type specimens
> werent dated back then.

Not that hard. The 'Schlanke Grotesk' dates from 1882.

In the 1870s and 18880s, Schelter & Giesecke published their own journal 'Typographische Mitteilungen' (typographic reports), in which they presented their new typefaces. This journal was published approximately every few months.

In 'Typographische Mitteilungen', 2. Band, 3. Heft, published in May 1882, on page 2 the 'Schlanke Grotesk' is presented as a new design:

'In our last issue, we presented the Enge Antiqua, and we said that this typeface allowed extreme tight setting. Today we are able to present an in-house cut Schlanke Grotesk , which enables the type setter to set even more compressed without losing legibility. This typeface will prove its usefullness not only for job printing but also for the setting of advertisments.'

(This is my translation from German.)

(St Bride Printing Library in London has a copy of Typographische
Mitteilungen', 2. Band, 3. Heft, May 1882)

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Does the article you cite “Grotesque Letters” deal with German Grotesks significantly?

More with the British. If you send me your email (I think my Typophile contact link allows this), I can make you a copy of the article at the weekend. It is nice to read.

The purpose is to date a genre of type.

Ah, genre not particular typeface. This is a different story. Maybe easier to deal with for the start. ;-)

Type history is a little too dependent on foundry specimens — from the usual suspects.

You mean, they write their own great history?

I have found so far a lack of first-hand, proven information (or any at all) on the birth and development of early German grotesques. Is there any source (German-language included) where this topic is extensively discussed?

I fear there are no *serious* publications about it. For some time I tried to find something, but most of the articles present second-hand stuff themselves. Repeating myths.
Sad because the issue is most fascinating: Like, before the Johnson and Gill sanserifs, British sanserifs (the groteques) had many features in common with the German ones. I always wondered if German sanserifs had their origin in Britain.
But this is speculation. Unfortunately. Glad about any correction.

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> In which German library can I find them?
Sorry, I don't know - but if you find them, probably you could tell us in which library ...

> Have you got any information concerning the use of sanserif as body text face
> in nineteenth-century German scientific publications?
I have heard these rumours that sans serif was used in nineteenth-century German scientific publications - does anyone know from which source this information comes from? - but bearing in mind that back then a substantial part of the newspapers and books was printed in Fraktur (blackletter) I find it hard to believe that sans serif was used for longer texts. If it was actually used, then I would rather assume that it might have been used for some special purposes. But this is only speculation.

It just came to my mind, that some ten years before Caslon's Egyptian, the first sans serif tyeface (with upper case only), there was already a Greek unseriffed typeface (uppercase only):
Edward Daniel Clarke's Greek type (1805). You can find Justin Howes's article about this typeface in the Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on Typography and Visual Communication in June 2002 in Thessaloniki, Greece. John Bowman (in his book 'Greek printing types in Britain') also mentions this typeface, and he calls it 'Cambridge Small Pica Sarcophagus'. (Nice name for a typeface!)

If anyone has information about sans serif in nineteenth-century German scientific publications - now is the time to tell us more about it...

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sans serif was used in nineteenth-century German scientific publications - does anyone know from which source this information comes from?

The source I know of –pointed out by Andreas Seidel at https://typography.guru/forums/topic/14567-forwarding, 5th post– is the typolexikon.de website, run by Wolfgang Beinert from Berlin.

"...[in the XIX century] the Grotesk was used predominantly for jobbing and in scientific and technical publications" (my approximated translation from German)
"die Grotesk dann überwiegend im * Akzidenzsatz sowie in wissenschaftlichen und technischen Publikationen verwendet."

In this other section, Beinert states that Theinhardt's Royal Grotesk was designed for the publications of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences.
"Theinhardt entwarf um 1880 für die wissenschaftlichen Publikationen der » Königlich-Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin « die » Royal-Grotesk « in vier Schnitten."

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Both Thorowgood in England and the Johnston & Smith foundry in the U.S. showed sans serif types with lowercase in 1834. Neither design was particularly good and there is reason to believe the Johnston & Smith type, which is quite ugly, was a wood letter or metal made from wood letters.

I felt bad because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no Bodoni

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And when did lowercase first appear on a Grotesk?

The crudeness you point out seems to be a clear feature of all early sanserifs, first originated –as said– in Britain and then the US. The genre got refined afterwards through the century. I got the impression (not proven) that by the last third of the century, the Grotesks had achieved a substantially greater level of development than their Anglo-American counterparts. I wonder how the Grotesks were in the beginning (if just as primitive or if they presented early clues to that future refinement), and what was the pace of their formal growth.

Another gap in the history of Grotesks seems to be right in the birth date. What is the oldest specimen of a German sanserif anyone at the forum knows of?

Thank you

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More on early Grotesks and their use for text setting:

"In 1830 this firm [Schelter und Giesecke] held a bold upper and lower case roman [grotesque] in fifteen sizes, and by 1850 had added a condensed in no less than nineteen sizes, of which three included a choice of body size. Steinschrift, as the design was named, was obviously intended for text setting rather than for eye-catching display."

P.M. Handover: “Grotesque Letters”, Monotype News Letter 69, March 1963 (provided by Karsten Luecke). [The source can be doubtful (as discussed above).]

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Schlanke Grotesk specimen from Schelter & Giesecke Muster-Sammlung, 1886
(found at Biblioteca Arús, Barcelona)

I pose once again these questions, open for everyone:

Dates for first Grotesk, Grotesk lowercase, use of Grotesk as text face.

Any clue, approximation or information related is welcome
Thanks a lot

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But the "w" and "M" have not fully evolved.
The bold condensed was the leading stytle in the development of the sans, and Thorowgood has figued out how to solve the problem for that style, but Extra Light Extra Condensed -- asking for trouble! Here's Univers 39.

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This kind of imperfections in optical adjustment seem to be the norm at that stage of development of the Grotesk. Here is another example, Schmale Steinschrift from Schelter & Giesecke specimen book (1898)


The neogrotesques' main contribution was precisely to systematize and optically polish (Univers is the best example of this) the formal findings that were already there in nineteenth-century Grotesks.

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