Category Archives: Typography

The First Alphabet

Premiering this Wednesday is a documentary on the history of writing that experts have been working on for sixteen years; twelve years to puzzle out a story and four to film and edit. The first of three episodes will be airing on NOVA/PBS Wednesday, 23 September 2020, 9:00 pm EST.

“Where would we be without the world’s alphabets? Writing has played a vital role in the expansion and domination of cultures throughout history. But researchers are only now uncovering the origin story to our own alphabet, which may have gotten its beginnings in a turquoise mine 4,000 years ago. From the shape of the letter A to the role of writing in trade and storytelling, discover how the written word shaped civilization itself.”

The second episode will air Wednesday, 30 September 2020, 9:00pm EST and the third will go online afterwards.

“Just as writing changed the course of human history, the evolution of paper and printing revolutionized the spread of information. The printing press kicked off the Industrial Revolution that fast-tracked us to the current digital age. But as the 4,000-year-old tradition of penmanship falls out of favor, should we consider what might be lost in this pursuit of ever more efficient communication?”

“NOVA brings you stories from the frontlines of science and engineering, answering the big questions of today and tomorrow, from how our ancestors lived, to whether parallel universes exist, to how technology will transform our lives. Visit the official website to watch full-length documentaries, or explore our world through short-form video, on our digital publication NOVA Next.”

The Case of Lewis H. Douglass

The National Typographical Union was founded in 1852 and renamed the International Typographical Union (ITU) in 1869, the same year the first female printers were accepted as members.

Also in 1869, Lewis Henry Douglass (1840-1908), the oldest son of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), joined the Government Printing Office in Washington D.C., as the government’s first African American typesetter. In keeping with current standards for professional workers, he sent in his application to join the local branch of the ITU. This was the beginning of a protracted battle with union members arguing about whether a “colored printer” should be allowed to join their union.

When it looked as though the Columbia chapter (Washington, D.C.) was going to accept Douglass’s application, a special national committee was appointed to study the “Negro question.” Only a few years after the Civil War, the topic was deemed too sensitive to resolve immediately and they left admittance of colored printers “to the discretion of Subordinate Unions.”

May 16, 1869, the question was finally raised at a meeting of the Washington D.C. chapter, the largest meeting ever convened, and there was massive confusion, both local and national disagreement voiced, proposals and then, counter proposals. Finally, the Union proceeded to vote on all the other candidates proposed for admission, leaving Douglass for last but just before that last name was proposed, a motion to adjourn was made and the meeting was over.

“It is said that Lewis H. Douglass, colored printer, was yesterday transferred from the case to a position as copy holder in the Government Printing Office. This action would seem to take the question of the admission of colored members to the Typographical union out of the control of such organizations, as copy holders are not required to be members of such Unions. But the issue having been raised, it will probably be pressed to a decision.”—Philadelphia Inquirer June 2, 1869

“The Negro Question and the Printers–The Case of Lewis H. Douglass” The Baltimore Sun, May 17 1869


Many letters were written to the President of the International Typographical Union, Douglass was called a ‘rat,’ someone who works outside the union, especially for lower wages. While still a teenager, he had apprenticed in Rochester, New York, as a typesetter for his father’s newspaper The North Star and after the Civil War, Lewis and his brother, Frederick Douglass, Jr. went to Denver where Henry O. Wagoner taught them all aspect of printing. Douglass never applied for union membership at either location and this was used against him, claiming he was trying to subvert the newly formed union.

“…acting in the interest of the minority, without any instructions from the Union—without the knowledge, advice, or consent of its membership—[someone] introduced a resolution, which was adopted by that body, censuring the Congressional Printer for employing L. H. Douglass, ‘an avowed rat’ calling upon Columbia Union to reject his application, and pledging the support of the National Union in such action.”

The Washington chapter wrote to leadership, calling this action “unjust, absurd, and unparalleled,”

The minority group that was against Black members threatened to eradicate the Columbia chapter and in response, the majority group that supported Douglass threatened to withdraw entirely, writing “If [the Union votes against Douglass] we shall … withdraw from the National Union and to organize a new National Typographical Society, which shall be founded on the principles of justice to all men, regardless of race or color.”

“That there are deep-seated prejudices against the colored race no one will deny; and these prejudices are so strong in many local unions that any attempt to disregard or override them will almost inevitably lead to anarchy and disintegration . . . and surely no one who has the welfare of the craft at heart will seriously contend that the union to thousands of white printers should be destroyed for the purpose of granting a barren honor of membership to a few Negroes.”–Printers’ Circular reprinted in Proceedings of the International Typographical Union of 1870 (Philadelphia, 1870), p. 140.

Two years went by and Douglass was still neither admitted to membership nor rejected. By this time, several other Black compositors had applied for union membership along with Douglass, including his brother Frederick Douglass Jr., William A. LaVelette, and Keith Smith. Eventually LaVelette withdrew his application. Keith Smith was admitted to the union in 1872(?), and Lewis Douglass is said to have been satisfied with another situation. No record of a vote on either Douglass men can be found. Lewis Douglass went on to help establish and publish The New National Era, a weekly newspaper aimed at Washington’s African American community.


Read more: Philip S. Foner and Ronald L. Lewis, editors. The Black Worker, Volume 1: The Black Worker to 1896. Temple University Press, 1978. JSTOR, Accessed 17 July 2020.

See also:

In the Library Frederick Douglass Family Materials from the Walter O. Evans Collection April 22 – June 14, 2019 (National Gallery of Art, 2019)

African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album edited by Ronald S. Coddington (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

Typography playing cards

Back in 2018, the Canadian designer Ben Barrett-Forrest ran a successful kickstarter campaign to produce The Font Deck, playing cards packed with information about typography so you can practice identifying fonts while playing solitaire. 720 backers pledged $ 26,626 to help bring this project to life. Can’t go to rare book school? Get out the cards and start shuffling.

Thanks to a recent donor, the Graphic Arts Collection has a Font Deck ready, whenever the students return. Each of the 52 faces contains a mini-lesson, complete with a beautiful visual example. Old-timers will also enjoy the history, quotations, and other type minutia among the diamonds and clubs.


Barrett-Forrest is also the author of this history of typography video:




When we were offered a copy of Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz’s 1663 book on metametrica, with a series of engraved plates that could be described as visual poetry, it was a happy surprise to find it already in our vault. Historians have labeled the plates anagrams, pattern poems, echo poems, and rebuses while Caramuel called his work “labyrinths, hexagonus, and retrogrades”. No matter the tag, he was obviously having fun with Latin and letters (although our colleagues fluent in Chinese are unimpressed with his attempt at Eastern metametrics).


Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz (1606-1682) was a Cistercian priest and a prominent figure in the Spanish Golden Age. One biographer notes:

He was a precocious child, early delving into serious problems in mathematics and even publishing astronomical tables in his tenth year. After receiving a superficial education at college, where his unusual ability brought rapid advancement, this prodigy turned his attention to the Asiatic languages, especially Chinese. …His books are even more numerous than his titles and his varied achievements; for, according to Paquot, he published no less than 262 works on grammar, poetry, oratory, mathematics, astronomy, physics, politics, canon law, logic, metaphysics, theology and asceticism. –L. O’Neil, L. (1908). Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved January 30, 2020 from New Advent:

The complete volume can be downloaded here:

Juan Caramuel Lobkowitz (1606-1682), Ioannis Caramuelis Primus calamus ob oculos ponens metametricam : quae varijs currentium, recurrentium, adscendentium, descendentium, nec-non circumvolantium versuum ductibus, aut aeri incisos, aut buxo insculptos, aut plumbo infusos, multiformes labyrinthos exornat (Romae: Fabius Falconius excudebat, anno 1663). Rare Books Oversize PA8485.C374 P74 1663q.

Read: Dick Higgins Pattern poetry: guide to an unknown literature / Dick Higgins; with appendices by Herbert Francke … on Chinese pattern poetry, and a comparative study by Kalānāth Jhā … on the Citrakāvyas of Sanskrit and the Prākrits (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. PN1455 .H54 1987

Jed Rasula, Steve McCaffery, Imagining Language: an Anthology (MIT Press, 2001). P120.I53 I46 1998



See also Library of Congress post by Nathan Dorn



Madeline Gins, speculative fiction

Madeline Gins (1941-2014) was an American poet, writer and philosopher. She grew up in Island Park, NY, and graduated from Barnard College in 1962 where she studied physics and philosophy. While studying painting at the Brooklyn Museum Art School in 1962, Gins met Arakawa and she would become one of the primary interpreters of Arakawa’s work.

Gins published three books: the experimental novel Word Rain (or a Discursive Introduction to the Intimate Philosophical Investigations of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says) (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1969); What The President Will Say and Do!! (New York: Station Hill, 1984), an excursion into identity, language and free speech using the devices of political rhetoric; and Helen Keller or Arakawa (Santa Fe: Burning Books with East/West Cultural Studies, 1994), an art-historical novel that took on a form of speculative fiction.

With Arakawa, Gins developed the philosophy of ‘procedural architecture’ to further its impact on human lives. These ideas were explored through three books that she co-authored with Arakawa: Pour ne Pas Mourir/To Not to Die (Éditions de la Différence, Paris 1987); Architectural Body (University of Alabama Press, 2002); and Making Dying Illegal – Architecture Against Death: Original to the 21st Century (Roof Books, New York, 2006). …Gins also completed the manuscript for Alive Forever and the illustrated version of her poem Krebs Cycle.–

Word rain; or, A discursive introduction to the intimate philosophical investigations of G,r,e,t,a, G,a,r,b,o, it says. New York, Grossman Publishers, 1969. Firestone Library » PS3557.I5 W6 1969; Rare Books Off-Site Storage » RECAP-94763388

For example (a critique of never) = Par esempio (una critica del mai): a melodrama / by Madeline Gins and Arakawa (from The mechanism of meaning). [Place of publication not identified]: A. Castelli, [1974?]. Rare Books Off-Site Storage » RECAP-94765342

The mechanism of meaning: work in progress (1963-1971, 1978) based on the method of Arakawa / Arakawa and Madeline H. Gins; [editor, Ellen Schwartz]. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1979. N7359.A7 G56; Rare Books Off-Site Storage » RECAP-97151300

What the president will say and do!! / Madeline Gins. Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill, c1984. Rare Books Off-Site Storage » RECAP-33922780

To not to die / Arakawa, Madeline Gins = Shinanai tame ni / Arakawa Shūsaku, Madorin Ginzu; Miura Masashi yaku. Tōkyō: Riburo Pōto, 1988. PS3557.I5 T66 1988

Helen Keller or Arakawa / Madeline Gins. Santa Fe, N.M.: Burning Books; New York: East-West Cultural Studies: D.A.P., distributor, c1994. PS3557.I5 H44 1994; Rare Books Off-Site Storage » RECAP-94763370

Reversible destiny: Arakawa/Gins / [organized by Michael Govan]. New York: Guggenheim Museum: Distributed by H.N. Abrams, c1997. Marquand Library » Oversize N7359.A7 G562 1997q

Architectural body / Madeline Gins and Arakawa. Tuscaloosa, Ala.; London: University of Alabama Press, c2002. Architecture Library » NA2500 .G455 2002. Marquand Library » NA2500 .G455 2002

Making dying illegal: architecture against death: original to the 21st century / Arakawa and Madeline Gins; introduction by Jean-Jacques Lecercle. New York: Roof Books, 2006. HQ1073 .A73 2006g

Touarick alphabet and drawings

James Richardson, Touarick Alphabet, with the Corresponding Arabic and English Letters. First edition (London: T.R. Harrison, 1847). Graphic Arts Collection GAX 2019- in process

Dealer’s note: “This rare pamphlet is prefaced with a note from Richardson to John Bidwell at the Foreign Office. “I think I may say without hesitation, that the enclosed Alphabet is the most remarkable, as well as the most interesting contribution to the Science of Philology which has been brought into Europe during the present year.”

It commences with the Toureg alphabet in column form alongside that of English and Arabic. Richardson states that this alphabet, and how it corresponds to the other two languages, was dictated to him by a Toureg. This is accompanied by Richardson’s observations on the pronunciation of the language and some of its irregularities, and completed with lithographed “Specimens of Touarick Character.”

Richardson was born in Lincolnshire. He trained as a missionary and set out for North Africa in 1845. He travelled “openly as a European and a Christian, and headed southwest to Ghadames, where he remained for three months. He then went on to Ghat, where he concentrated on establishing friendly relations with the inhabitants.

He styled himself ‘Consul for the English’, met Sheikh Hatita who had helped Lyon, Clapperton and Laing, and was given presents to take back to Queen Victoria. He also collected much valuable information about Timbuktu, but was warned against undertaking the journey himself. Richardson returned to Tripoli with a caravan of slaves, having spent nearly nine months in the interior, then took a ship for London, arriving in 1846. (Howgego).

Homer’s “Odyssey” and Owen’s “Sing to Me”

We hosted a visit this week from Professor Reeves’s class “The Classical Roots of Western Literature,” which focuses on the classics of the Western literary tradition from Antiquity through the medieval period, including Apollonius of Rhodes’s Jason and the Argonauts, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, Dante’s Inferno and others.  This week they read The Odyssey and so, we focused on the calligraphic work of Jan Owen’s “Sing to Me” with text by Homer.

The group had so many questions about the work, donated to the Graphic Arts Collection by Lynne Fagles, that an email was sent directly to the artist. The wonderful Ms. Owen replied immediately with an explanation of how the work came about and the inspiration for her interest in calligraphy. Here are a few of her words.

In 1997, I was invited to participate in Perspectives, the Art of the Book at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, ME. That fall, I got a call from Lynne Fagles who said her husband had seen and liked my work and would I do a piece with words from his new translation as a Christmas present. I had read excerpts of The Odyssey in high school so began to read. I asked her to help me select text and she sent some of his favorite passages, which I marked and posted in my copy of the book. She had also asked that Greek text be included and this was before everything could be found on the web. Fortunately a local theological school had a copy of The Odyssey in Greek.

Several years before the Portland show, I’d wanted to work large on paper but not have to frame under glass. I experimented with hanging accordion fold books and liked the relief of the form. After doing several, they seemed to look ‘old’ and I began weaving in strips of gold painted paper, now Tyvek, to give texture to the surface and to be like a new communication code. The little basketmaker’s twist gives the strips dimension but can still fold flat. The weaving was also a fitting reference for The Odyssey. The ink changes color to give more variety—and to try to keep doing something a computer can’t do. Robert Fagles gave me permission to use the translation and I’ve included passages in several pieces [in addition to Sing to Me].

Corrado Govoni, with and without teeth

Carrado Govoni’s “Diver” (La Palombaro) first appeared in the February 11, 1915 issue of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Parole consonanti vocali numeri in libertà. Then on March 27, 1915, the Futurist journal Lacerba published Govoni’s self-portrait, drawn with visual poetry.

Not long after this, Govoni’s book Rarefazioni e parole in libertà was published by the Marinetti’s Milan imprint Edizioni futuriste di “Poesia.” (SAX PQ4817.O8 Z4852 1915q), which included both Govoni’s Driver and his Self-portrait but this time, with slight variations in each. Why are they different? Did he decide not to have teeth for a reason? Which versions are the final, definitive work?

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) began the entrepreneurship [Parole] as “a disinterested love of art which was combined with his wish to address the need for an alternative space that could sustain the talents he wished to launch into the marketplace of art and literature: the painters Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Gino Severini, Ardengo Soffici, Fortunato Depero, Enrico Prampolini, as well as the writers Aldo Palazzeschi, Corrado Govoni, Paolo Buzzi, Luciano Folgore, Francesco Cangiullo, and many others.

The “Futurist Editions of Poesia” were perhaps the most important embodiment of Marinetti’s desire to create an alternative cultural space, becoming an experimental laboratory in the true sense of the term, where the canons of a new writing, the “words-in-freedom,” were successively elaborated and consecrated for the first time …’We reserve the ‘Futurist Editions of Poesia’ for those works that are absolutely Futurist in their violence and intellectual extremism and that cannot be published by others because of their typographical difficulties.—Claudia Salaris, “Marketing Modernism: Marinetti as Publisher,”.Modernism/Modernity 1.3 (1994): 109-27.

Corrado Govoni’s book, Rarefazioni e parole in libertà (Rarefactions and Words in Freedom) is divided into two parts:

“The first presented a series of experiments in visual poetry, while the second featured applications of the poetical techniques suggested by F.M. Marinetti in the “Manifesto della letteratura futurista” (Manifesto of Futurist Literature, 1912). In both instances, however, the Futurist method provided Govoni a pretext for his eclectic analogical imagery. These works were often illustrated by the poet’s own sketches or drawings, which constituted in integral part of his verse.” —Encyclopedia of Italian Literary Studies (2006)


Two exhibitions are in New York City this spring featuring masters of typography. Already open is a show at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery titled, Jan Tschichold and the New Typography, which examines the role of graphic design in the broader context of Weimar culture (1919-1933). Here is the press release:

They write,

“Tracing the revolution in graphic design in the 1920s, this exhibition displays materials assembled by typographer and designer Jan Tschichold (1902–1974) in Weimar Germany. Published in Berlin in 1928, Tschichold’s book Die Neue Typographie was one of the key texts of modern design, partly due to its grasp of Constructivist ideas and new print technology, but equally, because it was a manual for practicing designers. In the years leading up to its publication, Tschichold struck up a correspondence with many European artist-designers, including Kurt Schwitters, El Lissitzky, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Piet Zwart, and Ladislav Sutnar, among others. In the course of this, Tschichold exchanged and acquired many examples of their design work, some pieces now quite famous (such as El Lissitzky’s Pro dva kvadrata [The Story of Two Squares], 1920) while other items are modest and ephemeral, such as tourist brochures, handbills, headed notepaper, product catalogues, and magazine advertisements.

In conjunction with the exhibition is a symposium, The New Typography: Graphic Design in Weimar Germany 1919–1933 at Bard on Friday, March 22, 2019 from 1:00 to 5:30. Admission is free but you must register. They promise to address the broader history of design, technology, economics, and aesthetics that played a similarly decisive role in the formation of modernist graphic design.


From February 20 to April 27, 2019, the exhibition Alphabet Magic: Gudrun & Hermann Zapf and the World They Designed will be on view at the Grolier Club on East 60th Street.

2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of both Hermann Zapf and Gudrun Zapf von Hesse, and the show, Alphabet Magic will chronicle the extraordinary artistic achievements of both with the most comprehensive display of their work to date.

The curators write, “Zapf’s typefaces Palatino, Optima, and Zapfino (to name a few) are a part of our everyday lives in the United States and Europe, as well as around the world. He was also at the forefront of type technology. Zapf’s Marconi alphabet design was the first typeface ever created specifically for digital typography. Gudrun Zapf Von Hesse secured her own design legacy through typefaces such as Diotima, Carmina, and Shakespeare Roman.”

The show draws mainly on two collections: The Melbert B. Cary Jr. Graphic Arts Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where Dr. Steven K. Galbraith is curator and the private collection of Jerry Kelly, a leading calligrapher, book designer, type designer and typographer, who has co-curated the show with Dr. Galbraith.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the Club will host the New York premier of the film: Alphabet Magic, by Alexandra Albrand, on Thursday, February 27, beginning at 6:00 p.m. Then, on Wednesday, March 20, there will be a panel discussion with author Robert Bringhurst (Canada), type historian Ferdinand Ulrich (Germany), calligrapher Julian Waters, and moderator David Pankow (USA). As far as I know, these events are open to the public.

Typographics 2019

The website for the fourth annual New York City Typographics festival is now online at The team organizing this year’s event includes Cara Di Edwardo, Alexander Tochilovsky, Ellen Lupton, Barbara Glauber, and many others.

The site notes: “The 11-day festival is a forum for presentations about graphic design, web design, publication design, book design, type design, packaging, branding, corporate identity, advertising, motion graphics, and more. Importantly, Typographics focuses on new frontiers in digital typography.”

From June 10 to 20, 2019, there will be workshops, tours, speakers, and of particular interest, a book fair. Entrance to the fair on Saturday June 15 is limited to those registered for the conference but on Sunday June 16 the event will be free and open to the public. This year’s location will be the East Village gallery space at 41 Cooper Square, just across the street from the Cooper Union Great Hall where the main conference will be taking place. .

The organizers promise “a wide diversity of material available relating to typography, lettering, design, etc, with everything from rare antiquarian type specimens to contemporary titles on modern graphic design.” A full listing of participating booksellers will be posted soon. For updates and announcements, join the Typographics mailing list or follow @TypographicsNYC on Twitter.