The Daily


Typographic Sanity

October 1, 2014 | by


“The Blue Streak Comet,” a Linotype machine.

There’s a post over at Print Magazine about Frank Romano’s new book, History of the Linotype Company, which chronicles the rise and decline of the Linotype, a “glorious contraption” that was not so very long ago the industry standard for printing newspapers, magazines, catalogs, you name it. I’d be lying if I said I knew how it worked—to look at it is to imagine it taking your hand off—but fortunately there’s Wikipedia, which explains:

The linotype machine operator enters text on a ninety-character keyboard. The machine assembles matrices, which are molds for the letter forms, in a line. The assembled line is then cast as a single piece, called a slug, of type metal in a process known as “hot metal” typesetting. The matrices are then returned to the type magazine from which they came, to be reused later. This allows much faster typesetting and composition than original hand composition in which operators place down one pre-cast metal letter, punctuation mark or space at a time.

The machine was invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German immigrant who set up shop in Brooklyn. At the height of its powers, it was used in eighty-six countries and in 850 languages. And the public domain is teeming with miscellany from the Mergenthaler Company, which produced an endless succession of handbooks, manuals, brochures, and pamphlets, among them Linotype’s Shining Lines, a sort of trade magazine with impeccably designed cover art:


The best publication I found is probably The Legibility of Type, a design fetishist’s vade mecum published by Mergenthaler in 1935; it opens with “Type Was Made to Read,” a kind of Lord’s Prayer for printers and typographers, as dictated by a foreman with an irritating tendency to speak in rhymed couplets:

Type Was Made to Read

“Type,” said the Foreman, “was made to read,
And that is a maxim it’s well to heed,
For the printer frequently gets a start
With a craze for ‘beauty,’ a bug for ‘art,’
Which holds him fast in a fearful gripe
And keeps him trying mad stunts with type,
With seventeen fonts and seventy styles
And borders by thousands and rules by miles.

“Type,” said the Foreman, “was made to read,
But the printer, oftentimes, in his greed
For novel features and ‘class’ and ‘tone,’
Forgets this fact he has always known
And sends out work that is fine to see
And ‘smart’ and ‘natty’ as it can be,
A job with a swagger and high-bred look,
But hard to read as a Chinese book!

 “Type,” said the Foreman, “was made to read,
And that should serve as the printer’s creed,
For work on the Linotype machine
Or hand-set jobs should be clear and clean,
Not ornamental, obscure, bizarre,
Composed of all of the fonts there are,
But simple, legible, quiet, plain,
A joy alike to the eye and brain!

“For art in printing is not the way
Of wild extravagance, weird display,
But rather the unobtrusive thrall
Of type that gives you no shock at all,
But draws your eyes to the page with zest
And holds your mind to the thought expressed;
We must keep ourselves to this simple creed,
Type was made—and is meant—to READ!”

The same pamphlet offers “Typographic Sanity,” a bombastic plea for order in the increasingly chaotic world of typesetting. It’s impressively solemn, for a piece of writing about fonts:

As the cold gray dawn breaks upon the morning after an orgy of tangled type design, a weary printing industry shakes its aching head and asks, “Whither are we bound?”

The descent was easy; from black to blacker, from fanciful to grotesque, from freaky to freakier, but when we have plumbed the depths, when the tastes of printer, of reader, are all thoroughly debauched, when we have achieved the ultimate in blackness, in illegibility, in riotous disorder—then to seek the return to the brighter regions of calm and ordered sanity; to reaccustom our ink-sated and jazz-jaded senses to a normal scale of values—this is labor, and this is the path that still lies ahead of the users of type.

The wave of reaction against the excesses of the last few years has been inevitable. Throughout the whole mad era, the Linotype organization has pleaded for moderation; for the guiding hand of good taste and good sense in the laudable quest for freshness of expression. In the face of insistent demands from many of its customers for surrender to the vagaries of the moment, it has striven to maintain its policy of typographic sincerity and to issue only typefaces of lasting worth. It would be a simple matter for the Company to design and cut matrices that would sell.

It took far more vision to refuse to issue worthless types merely for profit, and instead to present only those faces which are fundamentally sound in design and character and which will be a credit to the publisher who uses them.

The policy is not new with Linotype. It goes back to the very beginning of the Company’s typographic activity. This principle has been stated, restated and reiterated. It seems sound and sensible now, because it was sound and sensible when it was announced, and common sense doesn’t change with passing years.

“Ink-sated and jazz-jaded”—this is the work of a copywriter who clearly dabbles in poetry.

If you’re looking to kill a few more hours, I can also recommend a 1951 brochure advertising Corona, a Linotype-designed typeface “tested to provide top-level performance in newspapers and catalogs”:



For sport, you can try various lines from it at cocktail parties—see how far “Probably at no other period in newspaper history has there been a need for printing news at such materially stepped-up speeds as were required during the recent hectic war years” gets you.



  1. Mark David Dietz | October 2, 2014 at 8:51 am

    In book collecting, a strange and esoteric field called, simply, “books on books,” exists that goes largely unnoticed by the general book-buying public. If the secondhand book seller knows of their existence, he will hide them away in a shadowy corner of his store, because he knows that the book collector with such interests likes to feel he has had to ferret them out, to discover them, to believe that the bookseller knew nothing of them and dropped them into this odd out of the way corner in frustration that they would not fit under any other head.

    If you are a true bibliophile, not a collector of modern firsts, not the sort who waits avidly for the next best seller, nor a genre maven, but a true collector of old and dusty books — one who shakes one’s head at the fake ribs on the spines of “collectible” books, or who will say it is Eric Gill’s book designs that are most notable — his under-embellished drawings, though curiously beautiful, are but a pleasant extra — then, no doubt, you will have a small portion of your own collection where these treasures reside — treasures you cannot share with your non-book collector friends, because never would they appreciate a book of exquisitely laid out images of book page designs, histories of fonts, or old book seller catalogs.

    Your collection of esoterica may contain, perhaps, a memorial to Bruce Rogers (American book designer); several issues of Elmer Adler’s Colophon; a handful of publishers’ catalogs, advertising brochures, and other ephemera; a few printers’ “look-what-we-can-do” books printed on various papers, with beautiful layouts, tipped in plates, and unique signatures with deckle edges; a copy of Ronald Searle’s “Slightly Foxed but Still Desirable” (which you will swear is the funniest book on books ever published); an arm full of Bibliographies (including authors you cannot afford to collect in the original — but we all can dream, can’t we?); biographies of great publishers and histories of great publishing houses; several Oak Knoll books (purchased at remainder prices); odd small press items easily overlooked by the pricers in second hand bookshops; histories of the printing press and the book trade; and other quiddities too miscellaneous to mention, but in which the marketing matter of the Linotype Company would not at all be out of place.

    This is the world our Paris Review author seems to have fallen into, but not by accident, I suspect. His “isn’t-this-delightfully-quirky?” smirk strikes me as disingenuous. He knows what these books are, and knows all too well why the true book collector salivates over them.

  2. Evan Williams | October 2, 2014 at 10:35 am

    Three observations. The contraption has a terrific steampunk quality to it. But it also reminds me of the creature from the Alien movies. Lastly, while the machine greatly automatized the setting of type, after the slug was made the pieces of type still had to be returned by hand.

  3. Robert Hutchison | March 3, 2015 at 11:26 am

    The Linotype has a lot of memories for me as I grew up in a newspaper owned by my father and eventually learned to operate one!

  4. Ross | March 4, 2016 at 4:15 am

    In 1979 I visited a publishing house in El Salvador that used these machines. It was weird and fascinating. Surrounded with lush greenery was this large room almost all grays and black roaring and clattering with these antiquities.

  5. Wide Spacer | March 8, 2016 at 10:45 am

    The poem was attributed to Berton Braley when it appeared in the March 1915 Linotype Bulletin.

  6. Brian Lawler | May 12, 2016 at 7:05 am

    Evan Williams’ comment above is incorrect. The most glorious feature of the Linotype machine is that it returns the matrices to the magazine automatically, making them available for use again a few moments after each slug is cast.

    I am the faculty advisor to the Shakespeare Press Museum at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, California. I recently restored a 1941 Linotype machine to working condition. We use it regularly to teach the history of typesetting technology, and to make working type for printing in our museum.

    Prof. Frank Romano, whose book you are reviewing, is a guest lecturer at our university every other year. His contributions to the restoration of the Linotype machine were important to getting it running again.

    I was trained as a young man to be a Linotype operator. I ran one of these machines in my undergraduate days. Now that I am running one again, it is both fun and fascinating to see how the technology endures.

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