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.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s