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Unborn: sans serif lower case in the 19th century

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This advertisement (tipped into an 1853 magazine), shows a gamut of working styles in the multi-face genre of advertisement that originated in the title pages of books. Blackletter, script, outline, dimensional and decorative styles were also available, but not used in this piece, which represents the basic "look" of advertising typography for much of the 19th century.

Sans serif faces came into common usage in the 1830s, but with the exception of the odd bold condensed display face, these were all-cap designs, and the idea and practice of using lower case sans serif fonts did not emerge until the 1890s.

Why did it take so long?

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André (AGL) just posted an interesting little bit on a thread about avenir and gotham form typotheque here featuring one little usage of a very similar sans in 1816 (first image in column).

I'd tend to agree with James. It most likely looked so odd, that nobody immediately saw it for what it was. It really is more interesting that it's so close to helvetica and avenir, and other sans that are considered cutting-edge (gotham).

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That's a question I've often wondered. They are used rather like small-caps (the wider proportions of which they resemble). I guess James might be right - if you're bringing them in for emphasis, you might feel no need for a less emphatic way to set them.

Did the slab-serif lowercase emerge contemporaneously with the uppercase?

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Since you are talking about ads, it may be that all caps was looked at as being an attention grabber, sort of shouting like the street huckster of the day. Lowercase may have seemed too genteel or meek to be "heard" among the throng of shouters it was competing against.


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Probably the idea of a gothic appears because everything was kind of roman, everywhere. If you look at the advertising, the gothic face is used to cause contrast; all that matter on a fast look is in gothic, the rest roman or italic.
Thanks Andrew for connecting the dots.

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Another factor may have been that it is harder to see what to do with the lower case and a mono-line look.

With the upper case, the joins in DPBR are at right angles to the stems, whereas in the lower case many, bdghmnpq, are at a steeper angle. And you have to narrow them more at the joins, like in a serif font, for them not to look clotted. But that compromises the mono-line look to some extent.

That doesn't answer the question of why they felt they needed a lower case, though.

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For what it’s worth, this is my take on the topic. If, as I think, the sanserif letter of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was based first on Roman capitals of the Republican period – up to the first century BCE – which are monoline letters with hardly any noticeable serifs and no thick and thin strokes – and then on earlier Greek capitals, then our lower case letters did not exist at that period and it would have been illogical to add them to sanserif letters of any kind. During the 19th century, quite a lot of display typography using sanserif types, in books at any rate, seems, whether consciously or not, to have a sort of echo of the form of the Roman inscription, and is set all in caps.

When typefounders began to think that the strange new ‘Egyptian’ (sanserif) design was worth developing (as we know it was already used by signwriters and letter cutters and lithographers and engravers), that argument did not hold out for very long. So you get Thorowgood’s well-known Grotesque round about 1830, which has condensed proportions and a lower case, and does not look remotely like the letters of a Roman or a Greek inscription. And then gradually lower case characters begin to be provided for some sanserif types. My impression is that these happen first, or at any rate more frequently, in Germany, round about 1850.

But of course anyone could have made a sanserif lower case. In 1810 William Gell published a book about his exploration of antiquities in Greece, and drew this quite nice title page for it using sanserif capitals. He would have been familiar with early Greek monoline inscriptional lettering.

And this is an engraving of a detail of one of the maps he drew for the book. The sanserif lower case must simply have seemed a sensible addition.

If there is an earlier sanserif lower case in print than this, of 1810, I have yet to hear of it. (Note that I said in print. During the 18th century there were monoline types with a lower case for impressing lettering in relief for blind people to read.)

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Is the story of greater use of lower case sans a matter of gradual improvement in the design of the lower case sans letters, which, when they were better, started to be used more often?

Yes Bill, I think there’s a lot in that. The sans was so strange that it was not easy how to figure out a lower case for it – whereas the slab serifs, which just seemed to be rather crude roman types, soon had lower case in roman and italic.

I dived into this without much preparation, but here to justify my remarks about the German sans is one from the foundry of F. W. Bauer in Frankfurt am Main (not, I think, any relation to Johann Christian Bauer, whose firm became the Bauer’sche Gießerei in Frankfurt), from the technical publication Journal für Buchdruckerkunst, 1858. The size is 14 Didot points. Seems pretty competent to me.

English founders do seem to have woken up to the idea much later. Here is a sans from the Caslon foundry in London, from their house journal, The Caslon Circular for October 1878. The size is 2-line English or about 28 point. They introduce it with the note, ‘Many have been the applications we have received for the Doric—or Sans-serif— lowercase, and we have been induced to commence the series so as to supply the want thus indicated.’ In other words we are making a lower case for this font because our customers keep asking for it, not because we want to. They say, without enthusiasm, that it has ‘the quality of plainness’, and that it can’t help being ‘a good wearing letter’. What one might call low-key marketing.

More early German examples would be welcome – but not that notorious and much-reproduced condensed sans of ‘1825’, which I hope is now thoroughly discredited.

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That's brilliant James, great samples!

...because our customers keep asking for it, not because we want to...

It seems paradoxical that the sans was more developed in blackletter-using Germany than the UK.
But perhaps German type culture had less prejudices about what was appropriate for the foreign and already strange-seeming roman letter (as Paul Renner would later demonstrate with Futura).

Another explanation is suggested in Fred Smeijers' Counterpunch--that by the 19th century type founding had become an industrial institution with clearly demarcated job functions which separated concept and execution, the conceptualizers being marketers, not designers or makers. But why did the marketers not respond to the market's "applications" for a sans lower case? Because it was beneath the diginity of type founders?--They were men of rank, many being engaged in public affairs. James Figgins I, for instance, was an Alderman while directing the Figgins foundry, only retiring from the business when he became an MP in 1868.

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One of the small stories here is the use of the one story g in the German sans you put up. I'm wondering whether this was a German practice, based on the black letter style of g.

Perhaps the one story g is easier to make work in a monoline look, as you have three horigonals, instead of the four in the double story g.

And the need for a more forced double story g may have influenced the more quirky look of the English Grotesques. That German 'Mittel Grotesque' already has a more even, sober look than the English example.

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I did a search for old books from 1800 to 1885. Looked for books in italian, french, spanish, english. I have found some samples with gothic. There is gothic italic in the map, found only in French and English. I have not found any gothic in spanish or italian books on this time line. It is a random search.
Adding two more samples, cause in the end you get to see it. You can find the books on google by their tiles. If any of you can discern these samples and comment on them, that helps.

-Link to Images

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