During the Victorian era, there was an explosion of elaborate typefaces, as foundries outdid themselves to keep up with the demand from printers for novel, splashy type.
The number and variety of imaginative typefaces generated from, say, 1870 to 1900 is astonishing. Many of them—most would agree—went too far, as type designers strove for innovation above all.
Many period fonts are difficult to decipher; some are virtually unreadable.
Wood type letter “E” from an advertisement in the October 20, 1883 issue of the newspaper, Weekly Drug News and American Pharmacist.
Engraved trade card ( Sheaff collection)
But those foundry offerings are not what concerns me here. Rather, I’ve been digging through the shoeboxes looking for examples of quirky, radical, idiosyncratic type usages, constructions (mostly) built by hand.
I’m looking at examples of extreme typography prior to 1900 or so . . . rather than at (equally interesting) later things like Russian Constructivism, Haight-Ashbury or Herb Lubalin.
Here, too, will be found some examples of type-only design solutions.
Guess what English language letter is intended by the red initial cap above (no, it is not in Yiddish)?
When the phrase “San Francisco rock posters” is uttered in certain circles, most people picture bold blocks of psychedelicized Art Nouveau lettering, a skeleton crowned by a garland of roses, shimmering collisions of equiluminant colors, and a flying eyeball peering through a burning ring of fire.
That describes the most iconic work of the so-called Big Five poster artists—Wes Wilson, Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, and Rick Griffin.
But as good as those artists were (in the case of the late Griffin and Kelley) and are (in the case of the rest), it took more than just five artists to create all the posters and handbills required to publicize all the concerts produced during these years.
In addition, if it weren’t for the career pressmen at companies such as Bindweed Press, Cal Litho, West Coast Litho, and Tea Lautrec Litho, the drug-fueled dreams of some of these artists might never have seen the light of day.
“One of the best pressmen in the business was Levon Mosgofian, who owned and operated Tea Lautrec Litho.”
Recently, I was invited to curate an exhibition of San Francisco Bay Area rock posters at the San Francisco International Airport, whose SFO Museum produces more than 50 shows a year across 25 exhibition spaces for the 44 million travelers who pass through the airport annually.
My qualifications for this incredible honor are essentially a love of rock posters since I was a kid, membership on the board of The Rock Poster Society as an adult, and a collection of maybe 400 pieces, which is paltry compared to the holdings of most of the collectors who supplied posters to the show.
Thanks to their generosity, I was able to organize “When Art Rocked: San Francisco Music Posters, 1966-1971,” which features about 160 posters, along with another 100 or so postcards, handbills, tickets, and other scraps of ephemera from the era.
A smaller companion exhibit of 1960s fashion and design, curated by SFO’s Nicole Mullen, is located conveniently nearby.
In 1973, New Jersey’s favorite son, Bruce Springsteen, used a linen Tichnor postcard (although with a more generic, and boring, background) for the cover of his first album, making it the most recognized large-letter postcard out there.
From the 1930s through the 1950s, tourists taking their first road trips in their newfangled automobiles would frequently stop along the way to pick up a few colorful postcards to mail to the folks back home.
The most popular form of eat-your-heart-out greeting was the large-letter postcard, which had been around since the first part of the 20th century but whose heyday was during what we know today as the linen-postcard era.
Made of textured paper rather than actual cloth, linen postcards were printed by companies such as Curt Teich & Company of Chicago, Tichnor Brothers and Colourpicture of Boston, E.C. Kropp of Milwaukee, Beals Litho & Printing of Des Moines, and Dexter Press of Pearl River, New York, among many others.
Their souvenir postcards for states, cities, military bases, and tourist attractions were usually heralded at the top by the words “Greetings From,” below which were large, blocky, dimensional letters filled in with illustrations or photographs of the destination’s most scenic or noteworthy sights.
Radiations of color was a popular background treatment on many large-letter postcards. This Fargo card was printed by Curt Teich in 1942.
Since 2009, the primary resource for fans of this popular postcard genre has been “Large Letter Postcards: The Definitive Guide, 1930s to 1950s,” written by Fred Tenney and Kevin Hilbert. Published by Schiffer, “Large Letter Postcards” features more than 2,200 examples, from several dozen versions of Atlantic City cards (Curt Teich’s first linen large-letter) to cards for Coney Island, Niagara Falls, and Death Valley.
Also included are several examples of how large-letter postcards were created, from the card’s initial sketch to its final design, courtesy of materials loaned to the authors by the Curt Teich Postcard Archives.
Hannibal, Missouri, is the birthplace of Samuel Clemens, who can be seen within the letter A. Printed by Curt Teich, 1944.
Cultures have enjoyed sharing written New Year’s greetings for centuries. The English-speaking ritual of sending holiday cards, however, dates back only to the middle of the 19th century.
Some sources say it originated with Thomas Shorrock, of Leith, Scotland, who, in the 1840s, produced cards showing a jolly face with the caption “A Gude Year to Ye.” a Guid New Year
Credit more commonly goes to Sir Henry Cole, who would later become the first director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
He commissioned an artist to create 1,000 engraved holiday cards in 1843. Cole’s greeting featured a prosperous-looking family toasting the holidays, flanked on both sides by images of kindly souls engaging in acts of charity.
A caption along the bottom read, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”
The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843
With advances in printing technology and mail service, the practice of sending commercially produced Christmas cards caught on.
By the 1880s, it was an integral part of the holiday season for many American families as well. In “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship,” Yale anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo explains that the practice thrived amid postbellum industrialization and the demise of the family farm.
As relatives spread out geographically, women assumed responsibility for “the work of kinship” and became caretakers of extended family connections. Christmas cards were a convenient way for them to nurture relationships among their husbands, children, and distant relatives.
As the Christmas card habit took hold, manufacturers rushed to meet demand. Best known was German emigrant Louis Prang, who produced attractive and reasonably priced chromolithographed cards for the mass market. He is often referred to as the father of the American Christmas card.
Not all manufacturers were as concerned with quality. Many of them relied on trite and overly sentimental images to decorate their greetings.
In 1885, The Decorator and Furnisher magazine criticized the industry for its ubiquitous imaginings of “pantaletted young ones” singing in snowstorms and “angels floating in mid-air bearing a baby.
Such tiresome subjects, the article lamented, created “no agreeable sensations.” Also troublesome were the poor production values.
That same year, The Art Amateur magazine faulted a British manufacturer for offering a card that featured the image of a cherub whose head was “too intangibly connected with her body even for a disembodied spirit.”
Industry critics predicted that the American public would soon tire of Christmas cards. But then, in the early 1900s, improvements in image reproduction technology allowed the greeting-card market to surge to new heights.
In 1900, The British Medical Journal applauded a new series of Christmas cards with “platino-panel reproductions” that resembled photographic prints. The variety of subjects featured on the new cards also increased—sporting themes, landscapes, and patriotic drawings of men in regimental uniforms.