About Specimen Books

In the heyday of movable type there were hundreds of type-foundries, and they were engaged in a very competitive—some would say ‘cut-throat’— business1. And every one of them published some sort of advertising, showing off their offerings: type & typography. Some of these printed specimens were single-sheet broadsides, some were pamphlets, and some were thousand-page tomes. They listed everything from the tiniest letters to the largest cuts, and machinery & supplies.

These specimen books may, at first glance, seem like dry offerings of gibberish. However, they offer the student of history an incredible record of the dominant form of communication for centuries: the printing press. Obviously, we get a first-hand glimpse of the evolution of lettering. But more than that, these catalogues also show us just how the designers of the day intended for their products to be used. And when we compare the specimens from different eras, we get a rich view of the changing world of printed communication.

A Glimpse of History

What we, as lovers of the merging of graphic art and the printed word, find intriguing are the use of ornaments within the text block. Where printer’s ornaments began (around 1500 CE)as simple grape leaves, they evolved into wood-cuts, and then into the ridiculously ornate Victorian engravings. The Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th century then turned printing on it’s head, like so many other disciplines, and returned to simple, elegant designs. And all of this is documented in painstaking detail in these specimen books.

Enjoying a Good Story

Another benefit of having a collection of specimen books is in researching the type we actually have on hand.

In the 1980s, as computers delivered the coup-de-grace to the movable type industry, thousands of tons of printing equipment and type went to the scrap-yard. However, for those who know where to look, some scraps of this once-mighty industry can still be had.

In browsing through these old specimen books, we sometimes come across the very type or ornament we have on hand here in our shop. This gives us a huge amount of information, including it’s age, place of origin, the style of setting the designer had in mind, and what sorts of other ornaments were meant to accompany it. More than once we have discovered that certain unusual ornaments we have puzzled over actually belong to a border set, or were designed to complement a specific type face.

When we can document this information, we can pass this information on to you, our customers. When we know the story behind a printer’s ornament or cut, it shows that a card or broadside is not just another mass-produced piece of paper. It is a piece of history, crafted today with the same care taken a century ago. And the smile on the face of someone receiving your card is likely the same as the one that shone when your great-grandmother sent her cards.

If I Had a Million Dollars…

Up until recently, browsing old specimen books required either thousands of dollars, or a long afternoon at a university library. However, a saving grace of the digital age is the availability of information, and this is one good example. Rare specimen books, the vast majority of which are in the public domain, are available in free digital editions. As a result, anyone interested in amassing a collection of these valuable books can do so, with the click of a button.

We are happy to present here some specimen books we have found to be useful, and which we may refer to as references in connection with our work. All are fully in the public domain, and so are free from even the most stringent of copyright laws. We are proud to provide them free of charge, as a public service.

Note: We enter this project ambitiously: with a single, large, offering. Others, although maybe not so impressive, will follow.