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Egyptian slab serif

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"The first square-serif type to be introduced was the Antique of London's Vincent Figgins Foundry, turning up in the 1817 catalogue of that firm in four sizes [...].
The provenance as much as the use of the term Egyptian is obscure. Most authorities agree that it was the coincidence of the emergence of the square-serif types with the popular interest in Egypt following the Napoleonic conquest [...] that gave the design its name."
Alexander Lawson, Anatomy of a typeface (pp. 308-311)

I was reading that just yesterday

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Now, I have no ides if this is true... but the story my boss told one day was that Napoleon wrote some sort of a text (might have even been a book) about his fights after he had conquered Egypt. This piece of writing was supposedly set in the one of the first slab-serifs ever – hence they became known as egyptiennes.

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The word Egyptian also has a gnarly sequence of descenders.
The first word I use to check out the appearance of descenders, when I'm designing a new font, any style, is always "Egyptian".

There can be no doubt that Egypt fascinated Western Europeans at the beginning of the 19th century. Check out Shelley's poem "Ozymandias".

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The term Egyptian arises from coincidental connection. Napoleon did a big PR tour that wound through Egypt where his archaeological team picked up and deciphered the Rosetta stone, which lead to a huge boom in Egyptology. At the time Egyptology was funded primarily via tomb robbing, so Britain was overwhelmed with looted Egyptian artifacts, sort of like Banshees albums in the 1980s. Slab serifs came and went along with the trend of propping a mummy up in the corner of one's dining room; and so the two are inextricably linked.

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I found out that in a publication of the treasures found in Egypt by Napoleon in 1798 was written in slab serif and so its name originated from there.

Since serif didn't become part of the English language until 30-odd years after Napoleon's invasion of Egypt was it referring to Egyptienne? But that is an interesting piece of research, let us know about it.

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And it's a Wikipedia entry with no citations... now that's a useless source if I ever saw one.

I double-checked in Typographic Design, Stop Stealing Sheep, A Type Primer, and ETS 3.0 and there isn't a single mention of the idea that the name comes from the publications about Napoleon's journeys.

Google books has a scan of Description de L’Egypte and it is most certainly not printed with a slab face. Typographic Design presents the idea of a connection between popular type and Egypt mania, and since Meggs is one of the writers, I'm sticking with that one.

Edit: The version on Google books is from 1845, the original was 1809. This still negates the story, as slabs appeared in 1815. I'll be at the Library of Congress next week and double check the 1809 edition, assuming that they have one.

Now I have a Wikipedia entry to fix...

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I have a finnish book that cites another one saying that the name comes from Napoleon’s war in Egypt.

Does it cite Napoleon's campaign as inspiring the name because it caused the Egyptian mania, or does it specifically cite Description de L’Egypte? Graafisen tyylin perusteet is in the Library of Congress as well as the Helsinki University library, but there's no hope of me deciphering Finnish, are you interested in looking it up? Maybe we can put all this together into a short paper on the etymology—and misconceptions thereof—of the name Egyptian.

I think that the only thing that can really prove the Napoleon link is if the 1809 edition of Description de L’Egypte is in fact printed with slab type and someone can find a reputable original source. I've located the book in the Library of Congress, it's too late to go today, I'll go check tomorrow.

I can't believe I've turned into such a type nerd. But I have to spend my month-long Christmas break doing something.

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Although Description de L’Egypte sounds like the correct book, it is not certain that the original wikipedia article was referring to it, it is also in several volumes, not all from 1809*, some date from 1822.

*wikipedia states that the volumes indicated as 1809 were printed in 1810

{edit: Not that I want to discourage any research}

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I'll have to see what I can come across. Hopefully the LOC keeps them together (I doubt that I can just call these up like I do other stuff in the rare books section) and I can look over the set. Since Wikipedia mentions that it was exhibited at Georgetown I can see if they actually have a set, and I'm sure that the National Geographic Society will have at least some of them around.

I'm also tryierng to think of someone else to pose the question to. In Typology Heller writes that the faces are linked to the post-Napoleon fad, but no more detail is given. I'll try contacting him about the subject.

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Why slab?

Slabs serif faces were more often referred to as "Antique" in type specimens of the early 19th century.

The first sans serif type was published in a Caslon specimen of 1816 (there are no extant examples of it in use), and named "Egyptian".

In applying the term "Egyptian" to a sans serif, at first, there may have been the association with something ancient and primitive -- this is James Mosley's thesis for the cultural space the sans came from, as told in "The Nymph and the Grot".

Updike (Printing Types, Volume II), mentions in an anecdotal footnote that in a "London Jest Book" of 1806 (unfortunately, an internet-quality reference...) there is a joke about an Irishman's reaction to a "Fashionable Egyptian Sign Board". There is no way of knowing wheher the lettering thereon, in which the "thin strokes were as thick as the thick strokes" was a sans or slab. Anyway, the signpainters were ahead of the typefounders.

Updike conjectured that there was some racial correspondence between the dark weight of the style and the Egyptian term, however, this was probably the influence on him of a later 19th century concept, encapsulated in the term from the title of the explorer Stanley's book "The Dark Continent", dark meaning undiscovered, unilluminated by civilization, and with dark-skinned inhabitants. However, even then this racist premise was often understood to refer to sub-Saharan Africa, not Egypt and the northern Arab territories.

There were in fact quite a few Egyptians in Paris in Napoleon's day -- they were Mamelukes, a caucasian ethnic group, originally abducted to Egypt as slaves, but who had become its rulers. Many of them, male citizens of the Ottoman Empire, made their way to France with the returning French army, and subsequently formed a divsion in Napoleon's army, featuring prominently in military parades, their exotic uniforms creating a fashion craze. Girodet, a leading painter of the time, was fascinated by the Orient and had several of them living in his house -- he did a series of portraits of them, and used his guests to populate his large painting "The Revolt of Cairo". So in France at least, the Egyptian phenomenon was all about the exotic novelty of the Orient. And French fashions quickly crossed the Channel to London.

So I'm sticking with the theory that while there may be several contributing factors to the Egyptian name, really it's just something that was trendy at the time, taken up by type founders because it looks cool in print (to typophiles) -- the only word with three different consecutive letters with lower-case descenders. Eventually, it settled on the slab-serif genre.

Bear in mind that, as Alastair Johnston explained in "Alphabets to Order", the people responsible for 19th century specimen books were dada poets.

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"Bear in mind that, as Alastair Johnston explained in “Alphabets to Order”, the people responsible for 19th century specimen books were dada poets."

For God's sakes. Well, at least you inadvertently pointed to where you stole the image from.

By the way, printers' ink balls.


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The trouble with Wikipedia is that it is not, and maybe never will be, a definitive encyclopedia and it is always worth finding another source to confirm it, being aware that one will often find that it is copied in several other sites, normally obvious because it is almost word for word. I would always take anything you find on the internet with a pinch of salt until you can confirm it from an alternative source.
On the other hand you have sparked some interesting discussion and investigation and have made an early New Year's resolution so hopefully you will be more welcome on the forums.

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