A Reply to Rick von Holdt

Rick von Holdt gave a talk in Phoenix June 2013 that set people talking. It was published in several printing journals as “Morris Fuller Benton, Type Designer: Fact or Fiction?” This short excerpt gives von Holdt’s argument in a nutshell:

It has long been my contention that he was a brilliant engineer and organizer and headed the type design department at ATF, but I doubt if he ever actually took a pencil to paper and drew any of the typefaces that he is given credit for. …  I have been trying for the past three decades to find anything that would confirm that M. F. Benton actually drew any designs and have come up short.

My reply  to von Holdt was published in the March 2015 ATF (American Typecasting Fellowship) Newsletter, No. 40, edited by Rich Hopkins. I’ve waited until I had my copy in hand before posting it here, with Rich’s approval (and edits):

A Response to the Question About Credit for ATF Type Designs:   Benton Himself Claims Design Credit

There is so much that we’ll never know about Morris Fuller Benton. But while gathering information about him and his father for The Bentons: How an American Father and Son Changed the Printing Industry, I was fortunate to be in contact with his daughter, her son, and other family members, who were enthusiastic about the project and generous with their time. They shared photographs, personal letters and other documents with me. A look at some of these will help to answer Rick vonHoldt’s question “Was M. F. Benton Truly a Type Designer?” (published in ATF Newsletter No. 38)

On May 25, 1948, Morris Fuller Benton wrote a letter to Loomis Burrell for the Little Falls (New York) Public Library file about his grandfather, father and himself. Little Falls had been the birthplace of Linn Boyd Benton, and even today, the Little Falls Historical Society Museum houses many original documents about the Benton family. At the end of the letter, Morris states: “I retired from my association with the American Type Founders Company in 1937. At present I am contemplating the compilation of a list of type faces designed or redesigned by myself, as all such lists heretofore published are incomplete.” But Morris died on June 30, 1948 after a brief illness.

Twelve years earlier, Morris had compiled what he called a partial list of his type designs (there are 101 typefaces on the list, shown below) in a two-page letter to Harold Kathman of ATF’s Sales Promotion Department. In front of 52 typefaces he put asterisks indicating, as he explained, the ones that could be selected for a shorter list if the whole list was too long for Kathman’s purposes. A carbon copy of this letter is housed in the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at RIT.

The list likely identifies the typefaces that Benton considered his best or most significant. He had no apparent reason to lie about designing these typefaces. Many of his types are not on the list, including his variations for the Goudy Old Style family, although both Mac McGrew (American Metal Typefaces of the Twentieth Century) and Stevens L. Watts (in charge of ATF type sales and production of new typefaces from 1948 to 1955) attribute nine Goudy Old Style variations to Benton.

Morris Benton did not always have, as von Holdt assumed, “a whole department of designers, artists and engineers under him.” This is a huge issue. Getting philosophical, Michelangelo had a lot of assistants, but his work is still his. In the same way, Benton had assistants but he was still in charge.

Typefaces originated by other ATF employees or independent type designers were noted as such in many of the typeface lists. And when Benton had assistance with a typeface, that is noted too. There was no “secret” designer lurking in the background doing all the work.

Benton started at ATF helping his father with his inventions, and then was assigned the task of standardizing the various type lines that ATF had acquired from the type foundries in the 1892 merger which created the company. He also helped his father design Century Expanded and Century Expanded Italic (both released in 1900). Before being put in charge of the type-designing department at ATF in Jersey City in 1903, Morris already had designed several of his own (Wedding Text, 1901; Franklin Gothic, 1902; and Cloister Black, before 1903).

VonHoldt doubts that Morris Benton “ever actually took a pencil to paper and drew any of the typefaces he is given credit for.” But some of Benton’s working drawings still survive. A Typographica Internet thread on ATF contains this note by Ed Bertschy from March 7, 2005: “As far as I know, I digitized the first font to have automatic optical hinting. The font was ATF’s Wedding Text, and Henry Schneiker developed and programmed the hinting. This was 1989 when I worked for the software division of Kingsley ATF in Tucson, AZ. I worked with the original Benton drawings ….”[1] The Font Bureau website gives this history: “In 1908, faced with the welter of san serifs offered by ATF, Morris Fuller Benton designed News Gothic, a 20th century standard. In 1995 Tobias Frere-Jones studied the original drawings, which survive in the Smithsonian, and advanced the design.”[2] And RIT’s Cary Graphic Arts Collection has a complete set of what are identified as Morris Benton’s working drawings for Bodoni.

William Gregan, a contemporary of Benton’s at ATF, remembered that Benton “wouldn’t say two words, when none would do.” That’s why it’s notable in Benton’s letter to Kathman that he chooses to call the faces (both  revivals and others like Century Schoolbook, Franklin Gothic and News Gothic) “my designs.” He does not include faces that were based on the designs of others.

We may not have evidence that Benton drew every draft of these typefaces with his own hand, but we have no reason to believe that they aren’t his. Keep in mind that this was a partial list in 1936. Certainly there were more. I cover this in far greater detail in my book.[3]

[1] http://typographica.org/on-typography/atf-originator-of-type-fashions/

[2] http://www.fontbureau.com/historical/morrisbenton/

[3] Patricia A. Cost, The Bentons: How an American Father and Son Changed the Printing Industry (Rochester, NY: Cary Graphic Arts Press, 2011).

Benton's letter to Harold Kathman

Benton’s letter to Harold Kathman

second page

Second page of Kathman letter

Morris Benton Up Close

This short clip of Morris Benton walking through the woods and sitting, looking at the camera, was probably filmed by his wife Katrina in the late 1930s in Beaver Lake, New Jersey, where they had a summer cottage. It testifies to Morris Benton’s whimsical side.

Benton made home movies on 16 mm film in the 1930s and ’40s. His grandson, Larry Gregg, filmed all of Morris Benton’s old movies on a screen, digitally edited them, and made several DVDs to share with his family. In addition to documenting family gatherings, especially his granddaughters’ diving and rowing accomplishments at very young ages, Benton also recorded his travels, showing an affinity for the extended, slow pan, both horizontally  for landscapes and vertically for very tall buildings.

A Quote from Beatrice Warde

How did Morris Benton’s reticent temperament and seemingly mundane personality affect his working life? I would venture to say that they were assets.

On March 12, 2015, the RIT Cary Collection in Rochester, NY, will open a new exhibition on the gregarious and prolific type designer to whom Benton is often compared, entitled “Frederic W. Goudy: 150 Years of Typographic Influence.” Steve Matteson, Creative Type Director at Monotype, will speak at 5 p.m. on Discovering the Goudy Legacy. The Cary Collection is home to many Goudy artifacts, including some type original drawings and The Paw, the plaster cast of FWG’s hand, said to bestow bad luck upon touch.

One of the cases in the exhibition will display a first edition copy of a book of Beatrice Warde’s essays on type and typography. Warde started her career in the early 1920s by working as Henry Lewis Bullen’s assistant at the American Type Founders (ATF) Company’s extensive typographic library. She went on to become a well-known writer on typographic subjects. In her famous 1932 address to the British Typographers’ Guild, “The Crystal Goblet, or, Printing Should Be Invisible,” she said:

I once was talking to a man who designed a very pleasing advertising type which undoubtedly all of you have used. I said something about what artists think about a certain problem, and he replied with a beautiful gesture: ‘Ah, madam, we artists do not think – we feel!’ That same day I quoted that remark to another designer of my acquaintance, and he, being less poetically inclined, murmured: ‘I’m not feeling very well today, I think!’ He was right, he did think; he was the thinking sort; and that is why he is not so good a painter, and to my mind ten times better as a typographer and type designer than the man who instinctively avoided anything as coherent as a reason.[1]

The two type designers to whom Warde was referring were most likely type designer Frederic Goudy, and Morris Benton, ATF’s chief type designer, who had a mechanical engineering degree from Cornell University. Goudy and Beatrice Warde must have met at ATF because Goudy made frequent visits to the company when it was located in Jersey City.[2] Goudy was famous at ATF for his artistic temperament, and Benton for his reticence.

That Warde was speaking of Goudy and Benton was also the opinion of Richard C. Marder, whose grandfather John Marder of Chicago’s Marder, Luse & Co. was one of the original founders of ATF. Richard Marder spent a lot of time on Saturdays in ATF’s typographic library, often seeing Morris Benton there because Saturdays were half-workdays.[3]

He may not have been as lively or extroverted as Goudy, but Benton’s attention to detail and his engineering bent no doubt helped him in the business of type designing. He didn’t consider himself an “artist,” and that’s not a bad thing.

[1] Beatrice Warde, The Crystal Goblet: Sixteen Essays on Typography (Cleveland and New York: World Publishing Co., 1956), 1415.

[2] Frederic Goudy, A Half-Century of Type Design & Typography, 1895–1945 (New York: The Typophiles, 1946), 1:92.

[3] Richard C. Marder, handwritten note on my original Benton master’s thesis, 1986.


Adobe releases open source font family based on Benton gothics

Today, August 3, 2012, Adobe introduced its first open source type family, a set of sans serif text fonts based on Morris Fuller Benton’s gothic forms, especially Franklin Gothic, released by the American Type Founders Company (ATF) in 1902, and News Gothic, released in 1908. Adobe’s Paul Hunt wanted to “create a set of fonts that would be both legible in short UI labels, as well as being comfortable to read in longer passages of text on screen and in print.” Hunt didn’t intend to copy specific features from these types, but instead, he “sought to achieve a similar visual simplicity by paring each glyph to its most essential form.”

Interesting that Hunt would choose the Benton types, as opposed to any of the array of sans serif possibilities available today. News Gothic, used for the  opening crawls of the Star Wars movies, was found to be the most legible typeface in a 1912 type legibility study done by Barbara Roethlein at Clark University. “If legibility is to be our sole criterion of excellence of typeface,” Roethlein wrote, “News Gothic must be regarded as our nearest approximation to an ideal face, in so far as the present investigation is able to decide this question.”

Morris Benton was 36 years old when News Gothic came out in 1908, and had two young daughters, aged ten and six and no doubt learning to read. He hadn’t yet formally initiated the legibility studies he would pursue for designing Century Schoolbook (1918–1921), but he must have studied or at least discussed Louis Emile Javal’s 1879 type legibility test results with his father, who used them to collaborate with Theodore Lowe De Vinne on the Century Roman type, designed for De Vinne’s magazine The Century, and first used in 1896.  Apparently Javal had said that “the most legible type is also the most beautiful.”

And apparently Adobe’s Paul Hunt agreed.

Some of Morris Benton’s gothic types:

An Evening of Typeface Revivals

On February 10th, Matthew Carter is going to speak at RIT on “Genuine Imitations: A Type Designer’s View of Revivals.” It will be thrilling for me, and I’m sure for many RIT students. The event is meant to celebrate the publication of my new book, The Bentons: How an American Father and Son Changed the Printing Industry. (Carter graciously wrote the Foreword back in 2007.) I’ll start out talking about Morris Benton’s Type Revivals, which were groundbreaking in their own day, and Matthew Carter will bring the discussion into the 21st century.

To gather more images for my talk, I’ve been spending time lately in the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at RIT. (The Benton book, at almost 400 pages, does include many type images, but the chance to see them in a larger format and the opportunity to show many more examples is too good to pass up.) Because I’ll concentrate on four Benton revivals—Bodoni, Garamond, Civilite and Bulmer—I’ve been lingering over Giambattista Bodoni’s 1818 Manuale Typografico and RIT’s set of Morris Benton’s original 1909 drawings for his Bodoni revival; The Dramatic Works of Shakespeare printed by W. Bulmer and Co. in 1791; and La Civilite Puerile, 1564, no doubt one of the earliest examples of Civilite type in France. The Cary Collection is so amazing. When I gave David Pankow a few call letters for books that I thought would be printed with the original Civilite type, he pulled out many, many others, including one that he called “an orgy of Civilite.”

I asked David whether he got the original Benton drawings for Bodoni at the ATF auction in 1993, and he said no, that he didn’t actually know where they came from, since they were already part of the collection when he arrived at RIT in 1979. Some of the drawings are hard to see on the yellowed paper, but after a little bit of magic on the computer (thanks, Frank Cost!), they are pretty amazing. In the image below, you can see how the lower case t was revised more than a year after the original drawing. The letters (from baseline to the top of the ascender line) are about nine inches high. There are many markings on each sheet, some with equations or other numbers.

working drawings for ATF’s Bodoni revival, 1910

Why Morris Benton revived types is easier to discuss than how, since he didn’t leave notes or diaries about his work. Of course, we do know how types were made at ATF, but did Morris Benton start with a small, inked-in drawing, or a larger outline drawing, or did he perhaps enlarge and then trace over the original examples that were in ATF’s Typographic Library and Museum? We don’t know. Unlike his father, who wrote several essays about type and about his work, and also a manual for the matrix engravers that ATF sold to Japanese companies, Morris Benton didn’t leave a written record, except, it appears, for the several boxes of letters that he wrote to his fiancée Mary Ethel Bottum during their four-year engagement!!

The books are due back from the printer any day now. Hope to see you on February 10th!

More later —

Type Americana

Getting ready for my talk on November 12th at Type Americana in Seattle.

I’ll be speaking about Linn Boyd Benton at this conference, and Juliet Shen will talk about Morris Fuller Benton.

Yesterday I went in to the Cary Collection at RIT to look through my Benton files once more. I found an old xerox copy of a photograph of Boyd Benton (as he was called) at the age of 20, but it didn’t have the sparkle of the photograph we used on the Type Americana website (see below). One of the things I want to discuss in Seattle  is how happy Linn Boyd Benton was at his type foundry in Milwaukee. It’s a conjecture on my part, perhaps, but one that has been corroborated by (and in fact suggested to me by) Benton’s great-grandson. Benton invented the punch engraving machine there, in order to more quickly produce fonts of his other new invention, the so-called self-spacing types. He had been working on a different invention, a justifying machine, but when the type he designed for it appeared to be marketable in itself, he switched gears and poured all of his efforts into getting his self-spacing types to market as quickly as possible. It must have been an exciting time.

Boyd Benton had a rich, full life in Milwaukee. He was very happily married, and although his son Morris was a sickly child, the family took good care of him and eventually he overcame the after-effects of the scarlet fever and other illnesses he had had as a young boy. Boyd had a fine baritone voice, and sang as a soloist in St. James and St. Paul Episcopal Churches in Milwaukee. He and his wife also belonged to a singing society, and took part in a number of Gilbert and Sullivan and other light operas.

I also want to share several anecdotes about Boyd Benton’s childhood at the conference, because they reveal his unusual character. More later . . .

A Modest Man

I’m happy to report that my book about Linn Boyd Benton and Morris Fuller Benton is currently in the design phase at the RIT Press.

During the course of my most recent research for editing the book, I found an anonymous June 1893 Inland Printer article entitled “L. B. Benton,” which gives a brief summary of his life up to that point and a description of his famous punch cutter. One sentence in the article jumped out at me: “Mr. Benton is, like most men who have accomplished much, modest in discussing his achievements.” This succinct and eloquent description of Benton’s temperament is discussed at some length in my book. Linn Boyd Benton has been called a mechanical genius: “He was one of those people who could see with his hands.”[1] But despite this gift, modesty and humility were perhaps the salient characteristics of both Linn Boyd and his son, Morris Fuller Benton, endearing them to their associates but frustrating more than one writer who was trying to tell their story.

That 1893 Inland Printer sentence reminded me of a Greek proverb that my mother-in-law, who also doesn’t like to boast, has often repeated: Τό καλό φαίνετε (Toh kaló fénete), which she translates as, “The good shows.”

Recently I was talking with an RIT student who was raised in Japan. She told me that one of her favorite Japanese proverbs conveyed a similar sentiment. In Japanese it’s written like this:  能ある鷹は爪を隠す。(Nou aru taka wa tsume o kakusu.) A loose translation: “An eagle who knows how to use them well hides its talons.”

After thinking about the Bentons for more than 25 years, I have to say that I’m most impressed by this disposition of theirs. Even from the stories of Linn Boyd Benton’s exceptional childhood, told to me by his granddaughter Caroline Benton Gregg, I got the sense that not only was he a precocious child, but that as a child he was also already beginning to learn humility from his experiences. It may not be considered by many people an essential character trait these days, but St. Augustine wrote that, of all the virtues, the three most important were humility, humility, and humility.

[1] Theo Rehak, in conversation with Linn Boyd Benton’s granddaughter Elizabeth Benton Swain, October 1987.