Tag Archives: American Type Founders Company

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

A trip to see an original Benton matrix-engraving machine

This Saturday I’m going to visit Theo Rehak in Howell, New Jersey, to see his two working pantographic matrix-engraving machines, invented by Linn Boyd Benton. I think one of them dates all the way back to Benton’s Milwaukee type foundry, from about 1886. Theo and I have been corresponding for years, at least since 1993 when he read and edited an article I wrote for the American Printing History Association Journal about Linn Boyd Benton and his son Morris Fuller Benton.

At that time, I didn’t have a clear, detailed photograph of a Benton engraver for the article, so I traced one from a nine-year-old photocopy of a magazine article about how the American Type Founders Company (ATF) made type in the early 1900s using the “Benton system.” The article had appeared in the American Machinist magazine for December 16, 1909. I couldn’t find an original copy of that magazine anywhere in my home town of Rochester, New York. I had even traveled to the Syracuse University science library to photograph its copy of the article, only to find that those exact pages had been cut out of the bound volume of American Machinists from 1909!

So I struggled with a very dark photocopy of a picture of the Benton engraver, and later found out that Theo didn’t like my tracing! Maybe I left out some important part of the machine. I’ll ask him about that.

I had actually visited the old ATF headquarters in Elizabeth, New Jersey in November 1984 with Richard Marder, the grandson of one of the founders of ATF. He spent the better part of a day explaining many things to me, which I recorded in a notebook that I still have. Mr. Marder helped me to understand how the Benton engraver worked and told me what he remembered about Morris Benton. At the time I was researching the Bentons for my master’s thesis in Printing Technology from RIT.

The day I visited ATF, Theo Rehak was there working, although we didn’t meet each other. The company was struggling to stay in business; it was now a tenant in the building it had formerly owned. Mr. Marder introduced me to George Gasparik, who gave me a tour of the facility. We had to move the plastic off of several Benton machines so that I could photograph them—only one or two were actually being used. The photographs I took weren’t particularly detailed.

In 1984 I didn’t get to see how the Benton machine was adjusted for optically scaling the letter patterns it used to produce matrices for different sizes of type, but this Saturday I will. I’m bringing along copies of about ten or so pages of the ATF “Day Book,” which gives instructions for adjusting the machine for the various sizes of specific fonts. I’ll also take copies of the “cutting slips” for Morris Benton’s Freehand that Theo donated to the Benton collection at RIT’s Cary Library.

Mr. Marder read my completed thesis in the summer of 1986 and made a cassette tape of comments about it for me, which was very helpful for revising the manuscript. My expanded story of the Bentons, with many illustrations, is going to be published by the RIT Press. I’ve modified the original thesis considerably so that it will be understandable to readers who have no background in type.

This has been a very long process for me, and I guess I’ve been preparing for this trip for years. I’ve invited my two sons to come along on Saturday and see something they’ve been aware of their whole lives (one is 22 and the other is 19). Luckily they both live near Theo’s type foundry, Roger in Manhattan and Gus in the Bronx as a student at Fordham, so it will be an interesting diversion for them (I hope). In any case, Theo has mentioned several times that we’ll “do lunch,” which sounds good to me.

Tomorrow, Friday, I’m going to see Jan Siegel, the Rare Book Librarian in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University. Columbia inherited ATF’s extensive type library the first time the company went bankrupt (in 1936), and so all of the original type specimens and books that Morris Fuller Benton studied for his type revivals and legibility studies should be there. This ATF Collection has an original copy of the American Machinist article, as well as several other original documents I want to photograph. Actually, the main reason for my going to Columbia is to show Jane the 21 references I’ve made to Columbia in my book, to make sure they are properly documented.

More to come …