035: Blackletter: An Incomplete History of Type

From type tales to type fails, this is the first in a 10-part series of an incomplete history of type. By exploring the history of type one face at a time, we get an intimate look at the people and the stories behind the letterforms. We’ve asked important questions to get to the bottom of each story, such as...

Where, out of this world, can Futura be found?

How did Helvetica get its name?

Who was Mrs. Zapf Chancery?

Why, fundamentally, do so many people loathe Papyrus?

When did Gotham designer, Jonathan Hoefler, know he’d really made it?

What is typographer Nadine Chahine doing that is so needed in the world of type right now?

But remember, this is an incomplete history of type; there are too many incredible and influential type designers that have lived and worked in the past 500+ years that it’s impossible to tell the complete history. So we’ll run with the idea that we’re learning the incomplete history of type. Some of the featured type designers may even seem like odd choices; but each has a story to tell. They were influenced by the work that came before them and influenced the work that came after them. Each of these designers have made waves in their own unique ways and disrupted the status quo, helping to shape the look of letterforms found everywhere in our modern world.

Stay on the lookout for one character in particular: Mr. Hermann Zapf. Zapf finds himself playing the leading role in one episode featuring a typeface he designed in the 1970’s, and in supporting roles in the 1990’s and into the new millennium. Zapf is someone who influenced an entirely new generation of type designers from across the globe, and indirectly impacted faces that have changed the world’s letterforms.

From the middle ages to the Middle East, from Futura to Freight, join us on a journey across the type universe and go where no designer has gone before… welcome to An Incomplete History of Type.

First up: let’s look backwards more than 500 years to learn the significance of Gutenberg’s BLACKLETTER.

Name: Blackletter (specifically Donatus-Kalender)

Release Date: 1455

Designer: Johannes Gutenberg

Classification: Blackletter

Owned By: n/a

Claim to Fame: The world’s first mechanized typeface, used in the world’s first mass-produced book.

I’ve had the extreme good fortune of seeing a Gutenberg bible in person and it was awesome. There are fewer than 50 copies left in the world and I saw it at the epicentre of Gutenberg’s world, on the site where the book was produced, in Mainz, Germany. Spectacular! It’s not an exaggeration to say that this book, along with the technologies that made it happen including the blackletter mechanized font used throughout made it possible for us to exist as we are today. Today we’re talking about blackletter.

I’m going to start by taking us on a tangent; the odds of winning the lottery is approximately 1 in 14 million. The odds of winning the life lottery is so improbable that it’s incalculable, yet each of our lucky numbers were drawn the day we were born. A few years ago, while reading Neil Pasricha’s bestselling work, #thebookofawesome, I was reminded how totally crazy it is that we’re alive. Your father will produce approximately 525 billion sperm (gross, sorry) in his lifetime. You WERE one of these sperm. For your unique self to have come from 500+ billion sperm, while at the same time having met your mother and combining with one of her 300-400 ovulated eggs is completely unlikely. Pair that with the fact that your mother or father could have procreated with a billion or more people different than one another, and that number becomes astronomical. Take it one step further to understand that you exist on Earth today (not 100 or 1000 years ago) and it’s arguably the BEST time to be alive in the history of the planet. Our descendants have existed in each and every century before us for 200,000 years, but we get to experience today’s world. And for those of us who live in a wonderful place like Canada, our odds of living here are incredibly slim as only 0.5% of the world’s population lives in this country (one in approximately every 200 people on the planet). It’s all pretty incredible.

It is ENTIRELY likely that you and I wouldn’t exist if Gutenberg hadn’t created the blackletter typeface, invented the type mould, and commercialized printing when he did.

Now, on to Blackletter.

Blackletter is the typeface used to print the world’s very first commercially printed book using moveable type: the Gutenberg Bible. Blackletter type was created to mimic handwritten scribes’ work and look like calligraphic text. Technically speaking, “Blackletter” is the overarching classification category; the sub-category is Textura (more on that in a second) and the specific style of blackletter metal type used for the Gutenberg Bible is called Donatus-Kalender (D-K, for short), which was rarely replicated or used in metal type since the days of Gutenberg.

Blackletter typefaces are also sometimes called Gothic or Old English typefaces. These typefaces are characterized by dense black texture and very highly decorative capital letters. All of the letterforms contain dramatic stroke contrast within their serifed forms. There are four major categories or families within the Blackletter category: Textura, Rotunda, Schwabacher and Fraktur. It’s important to know that these four categories exist with subtle differences especially apparent in the letter “o”. Let’s have a look at each:

Textura - 11th Century; foundational form of Blackletter that occured as there was a boost in literacy across Europe; textura’s calculated uniformity mimicked gothic architecture at the time

Rotunda - 12th Century; originated in Italy; considered a ‘sibling’ to Textura in southern Europe; named derived from latin word ‘rotundus’ - building that has a round floor plan (rotunda); more rounded strokes therefore letters tend to be more legible than textura

Schwabacher - 15th Century; evolved from textura; similarly round like rotunda but with sharper edges; popular in Germany until Fraktur took over in 16th Century (but interestingly, Schwabacher was still used in conjunction with fraktur, similar to the way we use italic type for emphasis today)

Fraktur - 16th Century to improve legibility of type (make characters more legible); Fraktur comes from latin ‘fractus’ or english ‘fracture’ or broken - letterforms are broken apart into independent strokes at different angles and it’s these varying angles that improve fraktur’s legibility; fraktur style was still popular in Germany until the early 1900’s when new, more modern sans-serif typefaces were becoming popular; but Nazi Germany declared these more modern typefaces ‘un-German’ and used it for their propaganda. Fraktur wasn’t popular after that because it was associated with the Nazi party.

Back to Gutenberg’s specific rendition of Blackletter.

The Textura blackletter typeface used in the Gutenberg Bible was focused on two things: preserving scribal hand-writing traditions that came before mechanized type and space optimization (got to save that cash where possible!). FontFabric describes Gutenberg’s original moveable typeface as recognizable by its “...dramatic thin and thick strokes, some elaborate swirls on the serifs, and the impression of the texture of a woven pattern across the page.” In an interesting nod to Gutenberg’s practical nature, he actually didn’t claim the typeface as it’s own by giving it a specific name (no ‘Gutenberg Bold’ here!). Instead his predecessors, some 500+ years into the future carefully mimicked his mimicking of scribal writing and gave birth to accurate reproductions, such as typefaces called ‘Bibel’, ‘1456 Gutenberg’ and ‘Gutenberg Textura’ to name a few.

In regards to the actual process of crafting and sculpting each letter of the typeface, it’s been described as having focused on automation, consistency and recycling. The printing process enabled pages of previously only hand-written books to be printed again and again and again using movable type. Remember that Gutenberg didn’t invent printing, per se, instead he commercialized it. He took the concept of movable type, a converted wine press and figured out a way to create consistency on the printed page (using a type mould). The type mould was his one true invention (breakthrough!) is the hand moulding system for casting type. There is a matrix (mother or indented mould) and patrix/punch (father or outdented mould) poured into to create individual letters.

In an excellent documentary called The Machine That Made Us Stephen Fry travels to Germany to try to recreate Gutenberg’s process, including re-creating his technologies. At around the 30-minute mark, there’s an excellent visual of what Gutenberg’s type mould would have looked like. Picture a punch of an individual letter made by hand (this is a master copy). It’s estimated that it could take an experienced punch maker an entire day to carve a punch by hand using a file. If a single page of type needs hundreds or thousands of characters, this is a long, lengthy process. So Gutenberg wanted to figure out how to speed up this process. Enter the type mould. Gutenberg’s type mould was the single new invention in his whole system of printing. It was made of two halves that come together. The matrix (mould) is fitted in the bottom and there’s now a cavity formed - molten metal is poured into the cavity and down into the matrix. The metal solidifies instantly, the type mould is opened and out pops an exact replica of the punch (patrix). THIS is how so many letters could be made again and again and again - quickly and cheaply. You can think of this like drawing a beautiful letter by hand (creating the punch/patrix), but using the type mould instead allows you to copy + paste, copy + paste exact replicas of your letter again and again with minimal effort.

Approx 270 characters in his alphabet because of the alternate characters (multiple different e’s, for example); he created multiples of the same letter or letter pairs to create a more uniform look (so it took the better part of a year to just create the punches needed for his Blackletter typeface). Remember that it wasn’t just 270 little pieces of type; Gutenberg had hundreds of pieces of EACH of the 270 pieces, literally thousands of tiny pieces of type organized and arranged into words and sentences that made up each page of printed type. Each could be used in different situations and different line lengths to achieve an overall visual texture that was remarkably consistent throughout its more than 1200 pages.

The letterpress technology that Gutenberg used to create his bible is not unlike a children’s “potato-printing” craft projects, where potatoes are cut in half and carved so that shapes (a circle, square or star) extend from the potato, so it can be dipped in paint and stamped onto paper. The image area is raised above the non-image area like a stamp (lead, instead of potato, was the carrier of Gutenberg’s ink). Letterpress printing technology and moveable type wasn’t so different from this; except his “potato carvings” were significantly more intricate, consistent and precise, and letters were assembled beside one another seamlessly to mimic the handwritten work of great scribes. It’s important to note that printing technology that included the mechanized typeface was not invited with open arms; not everyone was a fan of printing, it wasn’t received well. Some saw it as a ‘knock off’ to the original thing - handwritten books. Scribes’ saw their roles in jeopardy (and for good reason!). More than 500 years later in the age of modern computing when most homes have their own printer, scribes were right to fear for their jobs. We live in an age where any adult (or even child!) can typeset a page of text digitally and print it out again and again and again, at speeds much faster and more efficiently than Gutenberg could ever achieve. We’ve come so far.

Thank you Mr. Gutenberg, for your important contributions to an incomplete history of type.

From the middle ages to the Middle East, from Futura to Freight, thanks for joining us on a journey across the type universe and going where no designer has gone before… next up: let’s travel back to the FUTURA.


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