Uncovering new information for a Wayzgoose Talk

 

WAYZGOOSE 2019 header graphic-A2AC (1)

For the past couple months I’ve enjoyed preparing to give a talk on October 11, 2019 about the Bentons, at the University of Michigan’s Clark Library, for the Ann Arbor Wayzgoose and Printing Festival.

Doing research is like detective work, like trying to put together a giant puzzle, but you have no idea what the final outcome will be. I added a lot of new material to this talk. For example, did you know that Linn Boyd Benton got a patent for a needle used to attach price tags to cloth?!

Researching the Bentons introduced me to very interesting people, some of whom became lifelong friends. In 1984 I spent hours listening to Morris Benton’s delightful daughter Caroline tell stories about her father and grandfather at her home in Milwaukee. Her son, Larry Gregg, corresponded with me for years, and attended the book opening here in Rochester. He still has some of Morris Benton’s magic tricks.

Just about two weeks ago I found some recent rebuttals to Beatrice Warde’s story about Garamond,  and posted a new story about Morris Benton’s Hobo, thanks to Peter Zelchenko’s amazing essay, linked below. (I heartily disagree with Zelchenko’s analysis of Morris Benton’s character!)

Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City” gives the perfect backdrop for a Benton factoid: Linn Boyd Benton’s punch-cutting machine was judged to be the most perfect mechanical exhibit in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. That detail didn’t make it into Larson’s book, but it’s on page 69 in the Benton book.

 

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Morris Benton’s Hobo type

 

Figure17-37

Hobo (1912) is one of the starred typefaces on the partial list of Morris Benton type designs, compiled by him in 1936, and sent as an internal memo to ATF’s sales promotion department. Benton explained that, “The ones with a * could be selected for a shorter list if the whole list is considered too long for the article.”

So it’s obvious that Hobo is Benton’s own work, not a collaboration. Benton was a master at reviving types, and he also designed a wide range of gothics. He designed Broadway, which was quickly copied by Sol Hess for Monotype, and is still used to evoke the Roaring Twenties era. These few examples establish Benton’s chops as a type designer.

But perhaps it’s still legitimate to ask: Where did the idea for Hobo originate? One possible answer comes from Peter Zelchenko, a computer expert, formerly of Chicago and now living in Japan, who emailed me a few years ago with his idea. Zelchenko’s long explanation of Hobo’s origins is excerpted below, but before reading it, be aware that:

18-4 cropped

Morris Benton was a heavy smoker. It’s possible that, like every other “hobby” Morris Benton pursued, his taste in tobacco encompassed a wide variety of brands. In 1906, Morris and his family moved to Plainfield, New Jersey, where they lived for the rest of their lives. Morris and his father took the 7:20 a.m. Jersey Central train every morning to ATF’s Jersey City plant, about 20 miles away.  He owned cars, but drove them for pleasure, not to commute to work. So where did he buy his tobacco? At a corner store on the way to ATF? On Saturdays (half work-days at ATF), when he was out driving around with his family? Anybody’s guess, but it has been well-established that he was adventurous by nature. He may have bought his tobacco anywhere. He would have been interested in printed advertisements for tobacco, too.

Why bring up smoking? Zelchenko suggests that Morris Benton must have seen the Russian, hand-lettered, four-by-five-foot Art Nouveau advertising poster for Duchess Tobacco that Zelchenko found by chance in a Russian poster art book.  At the top of the poster is the word HOBO, the Cyrillic spelling of the word Novo (“New!”).  I agree with Zelchenko, that this hand lettering likely inspired the typeface. Frankly, the name Hobo is too unusual to be explained any other way.

Zelchenko states: “Perhaps [Morris Benton] was somehow reluctant to admit that the source of his inspiration came from outside his famously insecure mind.” Famously insecure? Where did that come from? Here, I totally disagree with Zelchenko. It’s exactly the opposite. Morris Benton was extremely secure, which is why he didn’t go around boasting or explaining his every action.   

Several writers have mischaracterized Morris Benton in the same way. He was a private person, that’s all. Did he owe anyone an explanation of where Hobo came from? No. And even if he did explain it, to Henry Lewis Bullen, for example, that may have been where the conversation ended. I guess my conversations with Morris Benton’s daughters and grandson have given me a different view of who he really was.            –PC


Hobo left hand page cropped

Here’s an excerpt from Peter Zelchenko’s essay:

Morris Fuller Benton was the contented son of Linn Boyd Benton, the latter one of the most influential figures of all time in the graphic arts, arguably ranking somewhere near the pantheon among Gutenberg and Bi Sheng. Through the 19th century, the Wyeths did painting, the Brontës did writing—and the Bentons did type. Every industry in every age has its salon powerhouses, those titans whose magic could rub off on you if you could only get near enough. But of course unless you actually were family, often nothing was bound to happen. Grandpa Benton, as it happens, owned the Milwaukee Daily News and also became a congressmen, and his father in turn was a prominent East Coast physician. In fact, Grandpa was under consideration as a presidential candidate but lost out to Stephen Douglas. Patricia Cost wrote a wonderful history about the Benton family that tells even more. But, nepotism aside, Morris Fuller became quite a prolific and celebrated type designer in his own right, surpassed by only a few others in the number of iconic font designs to his name.

The two main stories behind the naming of Hobo are both probably apocryphal. The first is that the bow-legged shape of the letters suggested the legs of a hobo. The second is more creative, but it too lacks much support. According to one writer, Emil Klumpp of ATF gave a talk at the APA Wayzgoose conference in 1977 and mentioned the origin of the name. In his 1993 book American Metal Typefaces of the Twentieth Century, historian Mac McGrew apparently summarizes Klumpp’s report:

“One story is that it was drawn in the early 1900s [when Art Nouveau was still in fashion] and sent to the foundry without a name…but further work on it was continually pushed aside, until it became known as ‘that old hobo’ because it hung around so long without results.”

* * *

McGrew died a few years ago, as did Emil Klumpp, but I wish they were still alive so that we could debate these facts. Both were born long after the font. There is absolutely no evidence that the font’s design was begun earlier than 1910; that speculation may well owe itself only to its convenience to the story itself. Something just doesn’t seem to add up. We have, however, harder facts.

The quintessential nerd, James “Kibo” Parry worked on the Atari 2600 design team. He became a household name on the early Internet by haunting Usenet newsgroups and contriving numerous online larks to amuse the digital populace, which at the time did not yet number 50,000 or so worldwide. Kibo once had a two-page feature all to himself in Wired magazine. He had a religion called Kibology named after himself, with a bizarrely popular online discussion group of thousands of subscribers.

Kibo was even immortalized in the Geek Code, an early Internet fad that one would put in the signature of one’s e-mails and online posts to indicate level of geekiness and hence high-tech social status. There were several indicators, such as how well you knew the C language, or whether you were Unix (good) or MS-DOS (bad). The number of pluses after a letter code indicates the level of accomplishment. C is, predictably, C, and the Unix/Windows letter codes are U and w.

There is even a flag for how close one is to Kibo. At the top end, it included: “K++++ I’ve met Kibo,” “K+++++ I’ve had sex with Kibo,” and “K++++++ I am Kibo.” At the bottom are several negative indicators, such as “K–” I dislike Kibo. I have the dubious distinction of being somewhere close to the K+++++ category, because technically I’ve, uh, slept with Kibo—well, at least I’ve shared his bedroom. Here is Kibo’s own e-mail signature which, although over 1,000 lines long, does not include a Geek Code. But it does give you an idea of the strange humor that is Kibo.

Apart from all of this, Kibo is also a lover of type, and very knowledgeable about it. He and I were wandering around downtown Boston sometime around 1992, the morning after a rather snooty ATypI wine-tasting event hosted by David Berlow’s Font Bureau, celebrating Matthew Carter. Seeing the well-dressed and well-paid scions chatting and sipping red wine, it was impossible to picture us really fitting in there. And, of course, nobody paid the least attention to us.

Another time, in 1994 in San Francisco, ATypI met, and the pushy, competitive nature of the nascent PostScript font industry took a more direct form. The Dutch youth, Erik van Blokland, Luc de Groot, and brothers Just and Guido van Rossum, had crossed the pond. There was a kind of technical mosh pit established as a playground for us 15 or so “youngsters” in which to create the show daily.

This playground was billed as a social collaborative activity. But I recall the four Dutchmen muscling over this and other activities with equal, shall we say, zeal. A couple of less pushy participants raised a stink to the elders and yet the rebellion was discreetly put down. As is the case in such societies, most of us budding young craftsmen were hoping for some attention, but we were not nearly as forward about it as these tough Europeans. To be sure, they had talent. But we, at least, were aware that our eyes and minds and skills were as ready as theirs. I recall Luc de Groot simply drawing the nameplate for the publication, without any discussion from anyone else. An arguably enviable post that he had simply arrogated to himself. My recollection is that his skills were not much up to the task that day and I was pretty certain that I could have done better. Again, that year, nobody paid any attention to us.

Kibo and I were bored out of our skulls that morning after the Font Bureau affair in Boston, and probably a bit hung over and cynical. Presumably, we were already heading toward failure in the type world. Kibo lived right across from the Commons, in a cockroach-infested flat dotted with empty carry-out containers. I had slept on the floor. Walking somberly through the streets of old Boston, Kibo showed me how to pick locks with the metal bristle from a street-cleaning truck’s brushes, which bristles, to my amazement, can be found near the curb of almost any street in the world. We shared work horror stories. We sneered at the cult of personality that was the typographic design world in those high-flying days. Frankly, we were probably a bit jealous. And of course we showed off by pointing at signs and identifying many fonts. We also stopped in at several bookshops.

At one particularly cozy little shop, I was flipping through a Russian poster art book, surveying a nice Art Nouveau poster for Duchess Tobacco. Kibo, looking over my shoulder, asked me what the poster said. I said it was for the “new and wonderful” Duchess Tobacco, 1/4 pound for 40 kopecks, from tobacconists Kolobova and Bobrova of St. Petersburg.

I think Kibo said something like, “Huh. Why does it say ‘Hobo’ at the top? Those guys don’t look like hobos.” Indeed, the two characters pictured helping themselves to a box of the Eastern-style cigarettes known as papirosi were young Russian gentlemen. But I explained to Kibo that HOBO was the Cyrillic spelling of the word novo (“New!”). It was then that we both noticed that the poster was drawn in something very like the font Hobo. Of course, this was hand-lettered, but it was certainly in that Art Nouveau splayed style. That led to speculation that Benton could have seen this poster or one like it in a Russian neighborhood. Certainly the four-by-five–foot poster in a window of a Russian tobacco shop or grocer would have been amusing to non-Russians seeing the word “HOBO!” at the top, and it could very well have inspired any talented type designer to throw together a font in its honor.

The Russian word “Chudno” (above) means “wondrous.” What’s really wondrous is the unique similarity of Benton’s majuscule O and the one drawn at the poster’s extreme right. The shape of the letters in the word “HOBO!” don’t hurt the argument, and of course the name buttresses it. To me, the striking coincidence of this single “O” letterform crowns the argument and should lay to rest the mystery of Hobo. This evidence shows that Morris Fuller Benton must have seen this poster somewhere. Perhaps he was somehow reluctant to admit that the source of his inspiration came from outside his famously insecure mind?

In fact, the “O” in the word “Чудно!” at the far right side of the poster looks as if it could have been traced by Benton as the model for his Hobo majuscule O. In fact, it is so close that it would arguably be more of a coincidence if this were not the case.

The characters “HOBO” at the top of the poster, their general design formula, and the identical shape of that O, I feel, lay to rest the hundred-year mystery of the source of both the font’s name and design formula. There was also motive, method, and opportunity. This is far better substantiation than what we have from the two chief theories that have circulated all these decades.

Moreover, what this suggests is that the original inspiration for Hobo probably was not Benton’s own mind, but the pen of an unknown graphic artist at the world-renowned Wefers lithographic press in St. Petersburg. It is not some great scandal that Benton failed to mention this, but it is true that Benton was famously insecure. Admitting that the source of the design of this font was something so pedestrian was not, and is still not, a common part of the ethical standard of the creative industry. It’s one thing for Carol Twombly (who once admitted to me that she didn’t know one end of a flat brush from the other) to acknowledge, even revere, the origins of Trajan. This is another thing entirely. In this case, you would think with such a cute origin, Benton would have been sharing the anecdotal pun with his pals at ATF. Perhaps he did and that history has been lost. Finally, if we believe the connection of the Hobo font to this Russian poster, then Benton’s naming of the font was very deliberately tied to Benton’s use of the poster as his exemplar.

I bought the book and gave it to my uncle Boris and aunt Tanya in Boston, and they probably still have it. The poster included details on the date, but I recall it was around 1903 or 1905, and that agrees with the design style.

As David Berlow has remarked, Morris Benton and his father often lived together and over the years would commute between home and the various locations of the ATF foundry in New York, later in Jersey City, and still later in Elizabeth. In fact, the northeastern New Jersey area where the Bentons lived, worked, and presumably played at the time had over 300,000 Russian Jews. We also know that at that time corner stores literally were at almost every street corner.

I don’t know for certain whether the Bentons’ travels went through any of the Russian neighborhoods. It seems that for the period in question they were probably living in Plainfield and commuting more than 20 miles, probably by car, to Jersey City. They may well have seen this poster at some point. Possibly they saw it in another place. Or perhaps Morris Fuller might have taken a trip to Russia around that time. That part is speculation. Perhaps Benton historian Patricia Cost could illuminate a bit.

In any event, while the type snobs were sipping fine wine, slapping one another on the back, and tooling around Boston in their nice cars, all paid by typography, a couple of bums momentarily came from out of nowhere, and went nowhere in particular. While there, they quietly and unceremoniously found a plausible solution to a celebrated typographic mystery, that of the origin of the Hobo font.

 

Tour of the Bixler Press & Letterfoundry

Preliminary talk

On Thursday, October 22, 2015, twenty participants from the American Printing History Association’s annual conference took a bus to Skaneateles, New York, to tour the Bixler Press & Letterfoundry. Some people decided to attend this year’s APHA conference because it would give them this opportunity.

The Bixlers have the most extensive collection of classic English Monotype book faces in the United States, including over 7,000 accented matrices. Michael Bixler casts fonts of type on commission. He and his wife Winifred design, set, and print books and ephemera directly from their cast metal type on a variety of Vandercook and Heidelberg cylinder presses.

Michael and Winifred gave us an overview of their work and answered our questions before welcoming us to walk through the shop. Examples of printed books and broadsides were available for us to see, and we marveled at how clean and orderly everything was. Winifred gave us some tips in her immaculate composing area. Michael showed us how the type casting machines worked and set some ornaments for us to take home.

Thank you, Michael and Winnie, for a fantastic tour!

A view of the composing roomThe Declaration of IndependenceExamples of printed booksspacing materialMichael at the Monotype casting machineadjusting the type casterCasting typeWinnie in the composing areaMichael and Winifred

New Book on Letterpress Printing

Next week the American Printing History Association (APHA) will hold its annual conference at RIT. This year’s theme is “Printing on the Handpress & Beyond,” and the lineup of speakers and workshops looks great.

It will also be the perfect place to debut my new children’s book about letterpress printing, Amelia Prints a Greeting Card. With photographs and simple language, the book follows Amelia Hugill-Fontanel through the process of printing last year’s RIT Cary Collection holiday card. While the language is very basic, all the correct letterpress terms are used, so it can also serve as an introduction for someone of any age who is new to letterpress printing.

Now that the presses are all cleaned up and ready for workshop participants, Amelia is gearing up for the more academic side of the conference. Tomorrow I’m going in to RIT to help her “stuff bags” for attendees. Sounds like fun!

A photo for blog

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.