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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

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.

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 —

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.

More on optical scaling

My last post (4/23) explained that some digital type designers today are interested in the way Morris Benton’s fonts, and indeed all the metal types produced by the American Type Foundry in the early 1900s, were optically scaled. Optical scaling was easily accomplished at ATF by adjusting certain settings on Linn Boyd Benton’s matrix engraving machine. Linn Boyd Benton explained in an essay he wrote in about 1906:

The adjustments are such that the operator is enabled to engrave the letter proportionately more extended or condensed, and lighter or heavier in face, than the pattern. All these variations are necessary for the production of a properly graded modern series containing the usual sizes. In fact, on account of the laws of optics, which cannot be gone into here, only one size of a series is cut in absolutely exact proportion to the patterns.

The illustration of optical scaling reproduced below was made in 1989 by ATF’s successor, the Kingsley/ATF Type Corporation. At the time, Kingsley/ATF was embarking on a program of digitizing typefaces, including the optical scaling characteristics of the original metal types. Ultimately, the company went bankrupt in the early 1990s, but that’s another story.

The illustration uses the capital M from Morris Benton’s Wedding Text, designed in about 1901. In the earlier “metal type” days at ATF, the set of Wedding Text patterns, one image for each letter (these particular patterns, by the way, are now part of RIT’s Benton Collection), were used to produce matrices for every type size. According to the handwritten “daybook” of general engraving machine settings for cutting the matrices for 228 ATF typefaces, no size of Wedding Text was cut exactly proportional to the pattern. Instead, the matrices for each type size were either condensed or expanded in relation to the pattern. (In most other typefaces, one size, usually somewhere in the middle of the range of sizes for that face, was “normal,” i.e., the letters were cut exactly proportional to the images on the patterns, not condensed or expanded.)

To generate this illustration, Kingsley/ATF photographically enlarged these three sizes of a Wedding Text capital M to a uniform height, so that customers could then easily compare them. Notice that the smaller the size, the more expanded the character. This is necessary simply for legibility, although in the days of metal type mechanical parameters also dictated that smaller sizes be expanded.

In addition to the expansion or condensation of the letter, the “set width” of letters in different sizes also had to be adjusted for good optical scaling. The set width is the total amount of horizontal space (width) on a piece of metal type. In order for the eye to be able to read very small type, more white space is needed around each letter, so the type needs to be relatively wide.

Kingsley/ATF produced the following illustration, also in 1989, to show its customers this aspect of optical scaling. Because enlarging this sample will perhaps also distort it, I’ve left it at its original size; I apologize for the very small 6-point example. But hopefully it is understandable. I’ve re-typed the Kingsley/ATF caption to this illustration below it in case the original caption is too small to decipher.

Kingsley/ATF’s original caption: “Notice the difference between a true 6-point type enlarged to 24 points and a true 24-point type. The true sizes were created using Optical Scaling. Typeface: Wedding Text”

More later …

The invention of coated paper

The other day I noticed that I needed to add a footnote to my book about the Bentons, in order to substantiate the fact that Theodore Low De Vinne commissioned the S. D. Warren Paper Company to make a coated paper for his printing press. This came up because I wanted to show several examples of De Vinne’s propensity to act as a catalyst in a new venture or invention. (In about 1893 or 1894 De Vinne asked the American Type Founders Company, and Linn Boyd Benton in particular, to help him design and cut a new typeface for his Century magazine, because he was not satisfied with the types he was using.) I found the reference in Eugene Ettenberg’s Type for Books and Advertising (1947) and added it to the text. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I dug a little deeper.

In 2005, David R. Godine published a book by Irene Tichenor entitled No Art Without Craft: The Life of Theodore Low De Vinne, Printer. Tichenor writes that “Charles M. Gage, the actual inventor, made it clear that he had invented paper coated on both sides in Massachusetts in late 1874 or early 1875 at the specific request of De Vinne … who needed it for a catalogue with colored wood-engraved illustrations.” (page 114; Tichenor’s book is on Google Books.)

De Vinne’s desire and subsequent request to Charles Gage profoundly affected the future of the printing industry. Who doesn’t handle several if not tens or even hundreds of coated printed pages every day? Apparently De Vinne later decided that he didn’t like the paper at all, and “although he had been a pioneer in the use of dry paper to meet the exigencies of speed, he admitted to a ‘returning kindliness for damp paper.'”

The advent of coated paper in the 1870s came out of one person’s idea, desire, and drive. No doubt it would have been invented later on if De Vinne hadn’t pursued it at that time. But that desire, at that time, unpredictably brought forth something that quickly changed the direction of the paper industry, the printing industry, and even the way we are presented with information today. It reminds me of chaos theory. And it reminds me of the Bentons, too.

I go on at some length in my book about the other pantographic engraving machines that were being used to engrave matrices (not very successfully) at the same time that it was dawning on Linn Boyd Benton that the best way to produce his new ‘self-spacing type’ would be with a pantographic machine that cut the models for electrotyping matrices. (This was around 1882.) Ultimately it was Benton who succeeded in building a machine that could do the job easily and well, which in turn (within a matter of just a few years) enabled another machine, the Linotype, to become viable, and to gradually replace most of the foundry type in the world with machine-set type– in effect, eroding the business that Linn Boyd Benton’s machine was invented for! Without Benton’s ambition, Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine might have never been successful, and we might have taken a completely different route to where we are today, or to somewhere else we can’t imagine.

Mergenthaler too had a lot of desire, an almost manic drive to make something that would work. His story takes up many pages in my book about the Bentons.

When I started revising the Benton manuscript a few years ago, I thought that the process would take maybe three to five months. How wrong I was. At the moment I’ve put on the brakes, and now am trying strictly to clean up the loose ends and finish the illustrations. But it is fascinating to think about all the other stories that pop up.

More later …