*First published at Congreso Internacional de Tipografía de Valencia, Valencia, June 2010, as: “Lettering comercial en Inglaterra. Estudio de diez manuales de lettering durante la segunda mitad del siglo XX: contenido, autores, lectores y aspectos formales“.
Essay submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the MA (Res) Typography & Graphic Communication. Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading, February 2010.
Commercial lettering copybooks in Britain. Ten case studies from 1895 to 1965: contents, authors, readers and formal aspects*
Since man’s need to undertake commercial transactions, publicising one’s wares with the aim of selling them has been essential. This publicity was mainly in the form of pictorial signs until literacy rates increased at the time of the Industrial Revolution in Nineteenth Century, when as a consequence, signs began to be written and the history of commercial lettering started as a separately designated trade.(1) Subsequently, copybooks(2) containing models of letters for imitation or inspiration were produced to be used by signwriters when producing signage on, for example, shop fascias, wagons or cars. The literature surrounding the field of copybooks refers to them in a number of ways, for instance textbooks, manuals, handbooks and alphabet-books, and for the purpose of this essay no distinction between them will be made and they will be referred to as “manuals” in order to avoid confusing terminology.
The purpose of this essay is to analyse the presentation of the art of commercial lettering through manuals written during the 1940s to the 1960s, with two exceptions from 1895 and 1932, which are useful as historical background. Ten different manuals were examined and are listed in the appendix. These manuals cover an extensive period and are addressed to different types of readers. This essay first will address the history of commercial lettering and manuals and the selection of the manuals. Then it will discuss the manuals’ authors and readers, the content, such as alphabets together with formal aspects, such as size, structure and foliation. Finally conclusions will be drawn in order to evaluate the relevance of copybooks within the signwriting discipline.
Several articles and books have been written about the history and development of lettering in general and commercial lettering in particular;(3) in addition a small number of books related to copybooks from other disciplines has been found,(4) concretely in handwriting and penmanship.
Brief history of signwriting and commercial lettering
Since the times of the Phoenicians and Greeks, the inhabitants of cities were in need of signs to recognize establishments such as shops, inns and professionals’ houses.(5) The purpose of these signs, referred to in much of the literature as signboards, was not only to name the shop itself but also to locate it, as the streets did not often have names or house numbers. Due of the lack of literacy among the population, most of these signs were not lettered, but comprised of signs representing trades, heralds, animals, or locations, with variable quality and complexity.
Signboard development was constrained by factors such as local policies and regulations,(6) the painters’ skills and cultural changes.
In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution meant socials and economics changes in Europe and England. The growth of industry led to a rise in education, consequently “both the reading public and the market for goods” (7) expanded affecting disciplines such as advertising or signboard. Whereas the signs of the shops’ fascias felt into disuse, the use of lettering increased as the population learnt to read. The work first realised by signpainters was now split in three categories: sign-painting, sign-writing, and lettering.(8)
In this appropriate atmosphere, it is not surprising than publishers and editors would look at this new market editing manuals and alphabet books for signwriting lettering. In the beginning lettering was only one chapter, or even a few pages, in manuals of other related disciplines, such as The Decorative Painter and Glazier’s Manual by Nathaniel Whittock in 1827.(9) These manuals, copybooks and alphabet books, were the successors of the penmanships copybooks, used to learn calligraphy, a closed discipline. Although some were published in the first half of the Nineteenth century, the vast majority were printed during the second half of the century, as a “new source of inspiration” showing different kinds of letters, for instance Romans, sanserif or Gothics.(10) However, during the Twentieth century, technological developments changed the scene; hand lettering fell in disuse, slowly disappearing among the plastics, the neons, and other new surfaces that enabled cheaper, faster and uniform brand shop fascias and the art of signwriting all but disappeared.
Signwriting is ephemeral by nature as signs change through time and disappear due to the effects of sun and rain, of new trends and new trades. In addition, before photography was as accessible as it is now, there was not an easy and cheap mode to capture the visual culture, thus these manuals are a vital source of information detailing how commercial lettering has been developed and how it has evolved from the peak of the Nineteenth century to the decline of the Twentieth.
Additionally, whereas in many artistic disciplines the artist is generally recognized or at least could sign his own works, signwriting was a guild whereby the signwriter and his work remained anonymous. Nevertheless, the manuals, which were written by lettering artist, are the remaining evidence of real lettering work and they could be a significant approach to the history of commercial lettering.
Selecting the copybooks
The books to be examined were selected as they address commercial lettering and were written until the period in which signwriting, in England, was at its height. Additionally, the purpose of the manuals was to provide completed alphabets therefore, those books that did not show completed alphabets were not taken into consideration. A full list of the manuals can be found in the Appendix.
The authors and readers of the manuals
Although little biographical information is provided about the authors in the books, several of the book jackets give their brief professional credentials, showing that they were professional lettering artists. Russell Laker was related to advertising, Tom Gourdie was an artist and a reputed calligrapher, Paul N. Hasluck was an editor of technical publications, Cecil Wade was an active and well know lettering artist in London, Robert Shaw was a commercial letterer artist in the United States, Raymond A. Ballinger was a graphic designer, and John C. Tarr, was a calligrapher and student of Edward Johnston.
With regards to the authors’ style of writing, in general terms their style is direct and informal, tailored to suit a reader, who was likely a student or a inexperienced signwriter, using informal appellatives such as ‘you’. The Puffin Book of lettering (1961) is probably the most extreme example of informality, with sentences like “try them!” Many of the manuals refer directly to the reader as a ‘student’ within the texts. For instance, Lettering art in modern Use (1965) refers to the reader as students and “junior designers”. The level of acquaintance of the students with the subject might vary depending on the manual. In certain manuals some previous knowledge is assumed, as they are written for students with an obvious interest and awareness in the art of letters. Laker(11) points out “I have assumed that the prospective reader has some slight knowledge of lettering”. On the other hand beginners are catered for by Wade(12) in his second book that recognises that “the purpose of this book, therefore, is to offer instruction, verbal and visual, in a simple manner that will enable anyone having a reasonable interest in lettering”. Additionally, children are addressed in The Puffin Book of lettering (1961), which consequently does not assume any previous knowledge, for instance Gourdie(13) expresses that “doing lettering for a practical purpose is much more satisfying the lettering ‘for fun’, and much could be done in and around your school or club-rooms in this way – your school library could use those ideas. Try them!”.
In conclusion, these manuals presents different sort of authors, but all related to commercial lettering, and different approaches to the readers, whose might have different level of knowledge in order to acquire a wide panoramic.
The content of the manuals
The relevant aspect of the manuals is the content they offer. The alphabets provided allow outlining the trends and changes in commercial lettering, the study of the terminology is useful to deep in the alphabets development, and the lectures in drawing and layout shows how lettering was done.
The content the manuals can be divided in two general categories. The first category is composed of manuals that provide a succession of plates of alphabets in their complete set of letters (from ‘a’ to ‘z’) and numerals and possibly a few other characters such as ampersands, dashes, or stops.(14) Although the manuals in this category are essentially guides to imitate different styles, they do not include any background information explaining critical factors such as how to build the letters, the history of the alphabets or the use of tools.
On the other hand, the second category does include such information, providing a combination of information with plates as follows:(15)
- History, from the origin of the alphabets to modern lettering;
- Drawing and building letters – the core of each manual – from a particular approach on how to build each character to a general view of lettering;
- Layout, essentially letter spacing legibility, considered by most of the authors as critical in lettering design;
- Tools, eventually some manuals include the use and the taking care for instance of brushes, pens, pencils, papers and chalks.
This second category of manuals is also used for imitation, but due to the additional information provided, they can be used as reference books.
Drawing and building letters
The core of the manuals is the description of each letter, the instructions of how to draw each character and the different alphabets that can be used in lettering. The terminology and the alphabets provided by the manuals have changed through the years.
When describing the different alphabets there is a lack of standardization in classification thus each book uses a different terminology for the diverse style of alphabets. This makes the content more complicated for the apprentice to understand, who must learn the letters despite the terminology. An illustration of this complexity is that different names are used for the same alphabets. For instance sanserif letters are not only called ‘sanserif’, but also ‘gothic’, ‘grotesque’ ‘egyptian’ and ‘mechanical’; the same terminology is applied for different letters, such as the word ‘gothic’, which is used to refer to English Old Style and sanserif; ‘egypcian’ is mainly used for slabserif, but also for sanserif. Probably due to the lack of classification, the rest of the alphabets are mixing forms, such as English Old Style, Uncials, and Gothics, with styles such as the versals, italics, bolds, or small letters.
Despite the terminology, there are three alphabets repeated in practically every manual: Roman, sanserif and script. Firstly, the Roman alphabet is exposed as a basic form that the novel signwriter must know perfectly, until he can draw it without any need of copybooks, and most of the authors refer to the Trajan column as the “highest expression” of the capital letters.(16)
In spite of this, the first alphabet that the manuals present is sanserif. It is provided as the skeleton or most basic form that the apprentice should be trained to reproduce before trying more complicated letters. However, sanserif is an accepted alphabet in the majority of the manuals, except for Hasluck’s(17). Hasluck employed a sanserif alphabet as an example of a skeleton: he does not considered it as an alphabet to be used alone, on the contrary it is only useful to learn. However, Hasluck presented another reference to sanserif when he introduced perspective letters. The alphabet Hasluck shows in his manual is sanserif but called ‘egyptian’,(18) a term that was being utilised for this style during the Nineteenth century, and a terminology that Hasluck employed again for a slab-serif alphabet.
Finally, the script letter is also present in the vast majority of the manuals , presented as a “controlled freehand writing”(19) and constrained to the tool used, for instance a Gillott pen, a speedball, a brush, or flat pen. Although this style is included in most of the manuals, only Ballinger(20) attempts to outline the history of script letters.
The manuals include also other sort of alphabets such as blocks and shadows, uncials, versals, italics, Old English and rounded. It is remarkable how the blocked and shadow letters, although they were very popular during the half of the Nineteenth century apparently to imitate the projected letters made of wood or glass,(21) they were not included in these manuals except for the oldest one How to write signs, tickets and posters, from 1895. The reason might be the general restrain that followed during most of the Twentieth century, mainly provoked by the crisis and the wars.
It is interesting to stress that the alphabets provided in the analysed manuals are creations of the manuals’ authors, since they were themselves lettering artists, conferring these manuals the ability of keeping an, otherwise, ephemeral culture. The exception are the displaying plates manuals, as the Studio ones, not before the decade of 1950, that shown corporative typeface, for instance Peignot Bold by the typefoundry Deleny & Peignot or Times New Roman by Monotype.
Concerning to how the alphabets are explained, it is interesting to stress that not all the manuals describe the process of drawing each letter thoroughly, therefore assuming that the reader has some knowledge in drawing the basic forms. Those that explain the letters creation, such as Anatomy of Lettering, always in their capital version, categorize the characters into similar shapes. According to Hasluck’s manual(22) they can be divided in the following categories: E, F, H, I, L and T, straight lines and right angles; V, W and X, oblique lines; A, K, M, N, Y and Z, vertical, horizontal and oblique lines; B, O, J, P, R and U, straight and curved lines; C, G, O, Q, and S, considered the hardest letters to draw due their curved lines. The characters that are not among the principal 26 letters, such as numerals, stops, dashes, rules, brackets, as well as small letters and italics, are mainly listed in a separated chapter or page.
However, in the final result of the lettering the shape and the style is not the only matter. Layout, in particular spacing and legibility, is equally relevant to obtain a balanced design and students are addressed to practice it since they began to learn lettering.
Letter spacing and legibility
As discussed above, lettering spacing and legibility are also a relevant subject that is repeated in most of the manuals. The manuals refer to spacing in different ways, as good or poor spacing, they could be more or less authoritarian, but all the manuals agree that spacing is critical in the lettering work, and it is explained as a balance between letters that no machine could measure, thus it relies entirely on the signwriter’s eye. Legibility is also an important subject in most of the manuals, considered a prior purpose in signwriting and against ornamentation and superfluous decoration, as Laker(23) points out “legibility must be the first consideration of all beginners at lettering”.
In order to acquire a general approach to manuals of signwriting the formal aspects has also been taken in consideration in particular regarding to the structure size, the binding, the colour, and the foliation.
Concerning the structure, except for the display alphabets books alphabets – which are neither divided in chapters, neither included a table of contents, but a useful list of typefaces – the manual’s structure includes a preface or introduction, a table of contents and a succession of chapters of different matters.
Turning to the topic of the size of the publications, it is possible to divide them into two categories, pocket and large sizes. Most of the manuals studied are pocket sized, which allows the reader, the signwriter, to carry the book to different working places, for instance when painting a shop fascia. The rest of the manuals are larger and it is more difficult to carry them to the workplace. It can be suggested, therefore, that these books are more likely to be used at home, at school or in the studio, depending on the reader, as a reference book.
It is remarkable the spiral-bound binding used in the manual A book of alphabets with 26 plates(1950). This kind of binding, as a notebook, is useful in order to fold the book totally and see each page, and letter in this particular case, separately, but it is quite unusual to see this binding in books.
Nearly all the manuals are in black and white with some non-remarkable exceptions. In these manuals the main purpose is to show the construction of the letter, the colour does not add any useful information. The Puffin Book of lettering (1961) uses black and red ink, but without any significant participation. In addition, Lettering art in modern use (1965), Anatomy of lettering (1946) used a few spread pages in colour. It is only in Modern Lettering from A to Z (1938) where colour has prominence in the plates of real examples.
The average amount of pages per book is circa 85. Two manual are much larger: Modern Lettering from A to Z (1938) and How to write signs, tickets and posters (1895), which includes chapters on different disciplines such as tools, drawing skills and how to build a signboard and heraldry. As this is the oldest of the analysed manuals it might be suggested that it has still a legacy from those manuals that included almost all possible related discipline, for instance The painter, gilder, and varnisher’s companion: containing rules and regulations in everything relating to the arts of painting, gilding, varnishing, and glass-stainingfrom 1850.
On the other hand, the shorter ones: The Puffin Book of lettering (1961), is precisely the one addressed to a more novice audience, and A book of Alphabets with 26 Plates (1950), that includes a plate of each character but without an explanation about how to build them.
To conclude, the formal aspects, such as the size, the number of pages and therefore the amount of plates showed or the binding, are relevant in the manuals studies because they might be an important influence on how to use these manuals or where to use them.
The objective of this essay was to describe and analyse the art of commercial lettering presented through manuals, in order to examine information on lettering practice and to draw attention to the importance of the manuals in the history of the printed alphabet. Without manuals of the sort discussed in this paper, signwriting would be committed to be forgotten due to its ephemeral nature, as prior to their publication there were only a small number of commercial lettering history books which described signboards in text, but with limited visual support. However the manuals analysed were written by active signwriters, for inexperienced and novice signwriters and included authentic examples and descriptions as to how to produce lettering.
In addition, the diversity of dates, authors and readers of these manuals allows for the generation of a wide panoramic on manuals and the practice of lettering. Even though each manual is different and every author has impressed his personal view, some aspects are agreed upon, such as the importance of Roman alphabet, the knowledge of the basic forms through sanserif, the balanced layout though legibility and spacing, suggesting that these might the basic aspects within the discipline of signwriting.
Accordingly, it is hoped that the analysis of these valuable and reliable sources of knowledge will help to understand the evolution of commercial lettering in Britain.
Appendix A. List of manuals described in this essay
1895. How to write signs, tickets and posters by Paul N. Hasluck. The origin of this pocket size book is the weekly journal ‘Work’, edited by Hasluck himself. In this case lettering is considered a craft, and the information is wide and technical. [fig 1]
1932 (1938 second edition). Modern lettering from A to Z, by Cecil Wade, a recognized lettering artist. The quantity of information about the lettering work is scarce, although it is compensated with a large display of alphabets and real examples in layout and lettering. [fig 2]
1946. Anatomy of lettering, by Russell Laker. A remarkable study of the drawing of each character in their Roman form and other variables with a balance mix of information and examples. [fig 3]
1950. A book of alphabets in common use today for writing, lettering and printing. With 26 plates, by John Tarr. A Pocket size book with the peculiarity of displaying the alphabets letter by letter, instead of by alphabets. It is part of a series of twenty-nine volumes on printing. [fig 4]
1952. Lettering for amateurs, also by Cecil Wade. Contrary to his previous book, in this pocket sized publication the information takes priority over the examples, and as the title expresses is addressed to amateurs interested in lettering therefore the approach might be less technical. [fig 5]
1952. (Revised and redesigned in 1965). Lettering art in modern use. Student edition by the lettering artist and graphic designer Raymond A. Ballinger. A mix of information, alphabets plates and real examples from different authors with an artistic and inspirational approach. [fig 6]
1953 (Reprinted 1959). The studio book of alphabets. First of two books from the Studio publisher house in London and New York. A pocket sized book that displays a collection of typefaces. [fig 7]
1955. Practical lettering. Methods and techniques for lettering work, a mix of information and alphabets plates by the lettering artist Robert Shaw, with the purpose of being a self-instruction book. [fig 8]
1959. Second book from the Studio publishing house. A pocket sized book with a different selection of display letters, addressed to typographers and lettering artists. [fig 9]
1961. The puffin book of lettering. A pocket sized, paperback, staple binding, with a very simple approach to lettering for a book supposed to be read by children. It belongs to a Penguin series, The Puffin Books, a collection of books to exemplify diverse disciplines to children. [fig 10]
1 Lewery, A. J. (1991, 1st edited 1989). Signwritten art, David & Charles, London (p 20).
2 Merriam Webster Dictionary Online www.merriam-webster.com. “Copybook: a book formerly used in teaching penmanship and containing models for imitation” (Retrieved 25/01/2010)
3 See the Appendix.
4 Some books related to copybooks from other disciplines has been found such as:
- Foster, Benjamin Franklin. (1843). Penmanship, theoretical and practical, illustrated and explained. Souter and Law, School Library, London.
- Heal, A. (1988). The signboards of old London shops: a review of the shop signs employed by the London tradesmen during the 17th and 18th centuries. Portman, London.
- Morison, S. (1951). American Copybooks: An Outline of their History from Colonial to Modern Times. W. F. Fell Co., printers, Philadelphia.
- Nash, R. (1969). American penmanship, 1800-1850: a history of writing and a bibliography of copybooks from Jenkins to Spencer. American Antiquarian Society, Worcester.
- Nash, R. (1960) “Colonial writing master’s collection of English copybooks”. Harvard Library Bulletin, vol. XIV, no. 1, winter .
5 Larwood, J. and Hotten, J. C. (1866, 2nd edition). History of signboards. From the earliest times to the present day, John Camden Hotten, Picadilly, London (p.1).
6 Gray, N. (1960). Lettering on buildings, The Architectural Press, London (p.82).
7 Gray, N. (1986). A History of Lettering. Phaidon Press Limited, Oxford (p.164).
8 Hasluck, P. N. (1895). How to write signs, tickets and posters. Cassell and Company, Limited, London (p.9).
9 Lewery, A. J. (1991). op. cit (p.139).
10 Gray, N. (1986) op. cit.(p.175).
11 Laker, R. (1946). Anatomy of lettering, The Studio Publications, London.
12 Wade, C. (1952). Lettering for amateurs, W. & G. Foyle Ltd, London.
13 Gourdie, T. (1961). The Puffin Book of lettering, Puffin Pictures Book, London.
14 Manuals that show plates without background: Modern Lettering. From A to Z (1938), A book of alphabets with twenty-six plates (1950), The Studio book of alphabets (1953) and Second book of alphabets (1959).
15 Manuals that mix plates and background information: How to write signs, tickets and posters (1895), Anatomy of lettering (1946), Lettering for amateurs (1952), Practical lettering (1955), The Puffin book of lettering (1961) and Lettering art in modern use (1965).
16 Hewitt, G. (1930). Lettering. Seely, Service & Co., London (p.30).
17 Hasluck, P. N. (1895). op. cit.
18 James Mosley’s Lecture History of Letterforms, January 26, 2010: “In 1805 and for the next year or two there is evidence in the press of public reaction, mostly hostile, to the wide use by commercial signwriters in London of an aggressive and novel style of lettering that was said to be based on ‘old Roman’ letters but which was often called ‘egyptian’”.
19 Shaw, R. (1955). Practical lettering. Tudor Publishing Company, New York (p.50).
20 Ballinger, R. A. (1965). Lettering art in modern use. Studio Vista, London.
21 Hasluck, P. N. (1895). op. cit (p.95).
22 Hasluck, P. N. (1895). op. cit (p. 67).
23 Laker, R. (1946). op. cit.
Chronological history of publications of lettering copybooks. It is provided a brief chronological list of publications, both of books consulted for the realization of this essay and those quoted in other books and bibliographies, to consult here:
Chronological History Lettering Publications
Edited: I have found some inaccuracy dates and editions. I prefer to eliminate it until I find time to update it.
Ballinger, Raymond A. Lettering art in modern use. London: Studio Vista, 1965.
Day, Lewis F. Alphabets old and new (facsimile of the 3rd edition 1910). London: Omega Books, Ltd., 1988.
Hasluck, Paul N. How to write signs, tickets and posters. London: Cassell and Company, Limited, 1895.
Hewitt, Graily. Lettering. London: Seely, Service & Co. Ltd., 1930.
Gray, Nicolete. A History of Lettering. Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited, 1986.
Gray, Nicolete. Lettering on buildings. London: The Architectural Press, 1960.
Gourdie, Tom. The Puffin Book of lettering. London: Puffin Pictures Book, 1961.
Laker, Russell. Anatomy of lettering. London & New York: The Studio Publications, 1946.
Larwood, Jacob and Hotten, John Camden. History of signboards. From the earliest times to the present day (second edition). London: John Camden Hotten, Picadilly, 1866.
Lewery, Anthony John. Signwritten art. (1stedited 1989) London: David & Charles, 1991.
Shaw, Robert. Practical lettering. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1955.
Studio Limited. Second book of alphabets. London: The Studio Limited, 1959.
Studio Limited. The Studio book of alphabets. (first published 1953) London: The Studio Limited, 1959.
Tarr, John C. A book of alphabets with 26 plates. London: Pitman, 1950.
Wade, Cecil. Lettering for amateurs. London: W. & G. Foyle Ltd, 1952.
Wade, Cecil. Modern Lettering. From A to Z. London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd., 1938.
Jonhston, Edward. Writing & Illumination & Lettering. (1st edited 1906) London: Pitman House Limited, 1977.
Kindersley, Richard & Jennings, Martin. Architectural Lettering: a Reassessment, Royal Institute of British Architects. London 1981. (Pamphlet accompanying an exhibition at the RIBA)
Martin, Judy. The complete guide to calligraphy: techniques and materials. Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited, 1984.
Larwood, Jacob and Hotten, John Camden. English inn signs (first published in 1866 as History of signboards). London: Chatto & Windus, 1951.
Shaw, Paul. “A Chronology of the Lettering Arts from 1850 to 2000. A work in progress”. Alphabet. The Journal of the Friends of Calligraphy. Vol 25, nº 3. The Friends of Calligraphy, Spring 2000.
Smeijers, Fred. Counterpunch. Making type in the sixteenth century, designing typefaces now. London: Hyphen Press, 1996.
Strange, Edward F. Alphabets. A manual of lettering for the use of students with historical and practical descriptions (1st edited 1845). London: George Bell and Sons, 1898.
Sutton, James. Signs in action. London: Studio Vista, 1965.
Sutherland, William. The Art & Craft of sign-writing (1sr edited in 1889). London: Omega Books Ltd, 1987. RR
Tschichold, Jan. Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering. New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1966.
VVAA. Lettering of today. Edited by C. G. Holmes. London: The Studio Limited; New York: Studio Publications Inc. (1st printed 1937), 1945.
Images nos 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 18, 19, 20, 23, 24, 26, 27, 28, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 36, 38, 39,40, 41, 42, 44, were taken by the author and are reproduced courtesy of the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading.
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