Yale Thesis

This thesis submitted in candidacy for the degree of Master of Fine Arts at Yale University School of the Fine Arts 1952 by Norman Seaton Ives


The lack of specific reference material covering the subject of this paper has made necessary the inclusion of brief idealogical backgrounds of the two contributing factors, architecture and letter design. The unification of the two has, therefore, required more deduction than documentation.

The term “Brown Decades”, borrowed from Lewis Mumford, refers to the thirty-year period in America from 1865 to 1895 — a period of consistent disunity in the arts.

The lesson of the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851

Transitional periods are complex. Divergent streams of ideas issuing from the disintegration of a unified culture are difficult to trace. The Victorian attitude toward the combination of architecture and letter forms was quite unique in history and the results, though vigorous in some cases, and half good in most cases, were decidedly transitory.

The significant fact of the transition period was the “Victorian Compromise” of the arts. This compromise basically constituted a division of labor, borrowed from science and industry: the architect was divorced from the engineer; the typographer from the printer; the artist from the artisan. This compromise caused the confused and inconsistent condition of architectural lettering during the Brown Decades in America.

The ugliness created by industrialism and commercialism in its early stages of uncontrolled growth antagonized the visual and intellectual sensibilities of the artist. The romantic poet reacted by creating beauty in the form of the medieval Knight, the Noble Greek and the Virtuous Roman, and longed for the stability and order of the cultures that produced these venerated inventions. Despairing of his century, the artist turned to the past.

This was a period in which the industrialists, self-made men for the most part, reacted with associational criteria toward the arts. They received no training in the visual criteria that conditioned the architect. Even the architect, as the period progressed, abandoned visual aesthetic for historical research — a research made easy by eighteenth century categorizers who “had explored for fun certain out of the way architectural idioms.”1

The artist “did not see that the industrial revolution, while destroying an accepted order and an accepted standard of beauty, created opportunities for a new kind of beauty and order.”2 He did not learn the lesson of the Crystal Palace.

The Exhibition of 1851 in England provided excellent symbolism for the “Victorian Compromise” in the arts. Paxton’s functional glass and iron structure (fig. 1) took advantage of the industrial possibilities in building techniques, though Ruskin, the rising architectural critic recognized the palace as an engineering feat “just so long as they made no attempt whatsoever to enter the sacred realm of ‘Architecture’.”3 Under this magnificent structure was housed the largest assemblage of brummagem wares in the history of art — all of it manifesting ideals of one sort or another through untutored interpretations of the Revivalists. It represented the taste of the educated. It represented the source of a world-wide influence in all fields of the major and minor arts, and was soon to be absorbed by American tastes. The great drawing power of the exhibit that attracted over six million people from all parts of the world was the mid-century “thirst for information, faith in commerce and industry, inventiveness and technical daring, energy and tenacity, and a tendency to mix up religion with visible success…”4 The major design phenomena of the exhibit joined unsatisfactorily two antithetical ideas: the simulation of period ornament with machine tools; a church screen made by Jordan’s Patent Carving Machine; Tomkins’ ornamental iron bedstead. Not recognizing the machine  as Paxton did in the Crystal Palace structure, the artisans tried to justify it to the pleasure of the critical leaders. They disguised the machines themselves in period costume (fig. 2).

Architectural Ideology

The architect is dependent on society; he cannot exert his genius in the solitude of the attic like the painter and poet. The pressure on the architect of the Brown Decades, due to his own choices and attitudes, demanded a variety of historical styles, “because associational values were the only values in architecture accessible to the new ruling class.”5 Although the client of the architect could not apply aesthetic criteria to commissioned building, he could easily check the historical exactitude. Thus, A. W. Pugin and his followers studied and documented the medieval structures, and Ruskin, in his Seven Lamps of Architecture, justified and documented their ideals: “He pleaded for the universal acceptance of one style as the only remedy against the chaotic condition of con-temporary architecture, and added that this universally accepted style should not be new. ‘The forms of architecture already known to us are good enough for us.’”

Hence, by the mid-nineteenth century a multitude of stylisms appeared on the architectural scene: Classical, Gothic, Italianate, Old English, Tudor, French Renaissance, Venetian Renaissance, etc. The styles came and went and came. Although Pugin equated the Gothic with Christianity and morals, architecture proceeded according to the taste of the client. In compliance with the “Victorian Compromise”, “Architects learnt in the offices of older architects and in schools of architecture…. Engineers were trained in special university faculties or special technical universities.”7

Lettering Ideology

The division of labor in lettering and printing had similar elements of the associational values. In his monumental Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament, Pugin presented versions of two different Gothic alphabets (figs. 3 & 14) which provided the basis for a school of illuminators “who issued a whole series of books decorated with borders and miniatures in imitation of the work of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.”8 The monotony and evenness of the alphabets of

Pugin and his followers lacked all the vigor of the chosen prototypes. Owen Jones’ letter design for the Song of Solomon was not only derivative, but perpendicularly unreadable. The nature of individual letters was lost entirely.

Before 1847, only one Gothic letter form (aside from the familiar eighteenth century black letter, such as Caxton black, which continued in use through nineteenth century printing) had found its way into specimen books and manuals. Soon after the publication of Pugin’s alphabets in the Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament in 1844 and the popularization of it by Owen Jones and others, numerous Gothic forms were to be found in the specimen books: black elongated, 1843; Manuscript, 1847; Tudoresque, 1847; Anglo-Saxon (Condensed Old English), 1847; Elizabethan or Church Text, 1849, etc.9 These were all of medieval English inscriptional derivation, since the revivalist movement soon linked itself with the new commercial nationalism arising in all of the countries associated with the industrial revolution. “For here was an art contrary to all .Classical regulations, a vernacular art, a memorial of national history, and as various and capricious as nature herself.”10 The most popular form of the nationalist letter revival was the uniquely English Gothic called Elizabethan or Church Text which was immediately used by the type cutters (only it is made sharp, angular and spiky…The splendid magnificence of the letter is lost, forgotten by the punch-cutter in his enjoyment of the precision of his points.”11 Other sources for the quest of national Gothic letter forms were the tombs in West-minster; ancient sepulchral monuments, Scottish inscriptions, bell inscriptions, brasses and furniture.12 But, like the Elizabethan text, by the time this form reached the manuals of the architects and painters, it became stereotyped and dull. E. F. Strange, who praised the letter forms of Pugin, Jones, and Morris, thought Bodoni Type to be “very legible, but almost devoid of artistic merit, so wearyingly commonplace is it in its regularity. The italic accompanying it is inferior, and badly composed…undeniably monotonous and uninteresting.”13 Today, Bodoni’s influence in both commercial and fine printing has far surpassed all of the leaders of the Brown Decades.

William Morris with his vigorous personality practiced the theory of the day. He recognized the dangers of the “Victorian Compromise”, but still would not recognize the possibilities of the machine. He would “steep himself in the atmosphere and aesthetic principles of the Middle Ages, and then create something new with a similar flavor and on similar principles.”14 This was certainly a better approach than the direct intellectual copying, but the resulting letter forms, at least, were not visually satisfactory. His Chaucer and Troy types had the same over-ripe quality of Pugin’s forms, and were far removed from the magnificent letter forms created for the commercial and industrial world by the type-founders.

This typographical dichotomy had important overtones, for each in functioning without the other carried its own burdens to ridiculous extremes. It is a pity that Morris’ great driving power could not have been directed to the union of these two great facets of typography, instead of broadening the distance between them and making it so distinct that it has not been until today that the two — commercial and fine printing — are becoming synonymous. Morris did have an interest in the commercial world, and in his romantic brand of socialism “he desired with great desire to see the life of workmen improved by being made more like his own, rather than to get nearer the workmen’s point of view…”15 Wielding immense influence, Morris’ typography was “not for ordinary readers — nor, for the matter of that, for ordinary purses — but only for a certain fortunate group of his own tine.”16 There is no denying  his sensible and tasteful point of view that the beauty of typography and letter forms was a result of their unassuming simplicity, but by attaching this important functional viewpoint to revivalism, instead of to the needs of the contemporary jobbing printers and printers of the ordinary run-of-the-mill books, his influence was felt only by persons, mainly individual printers, of similar viewpoints. Also, his typographical practice denied his aesthetic theory: e.g., his edition of Chaucer, for which he designed the self-conscious Chaucer type face.

Contribution of Nineteenth Century English Type Designers 

The fat face, Egyptian, and sans-serif type faces and their derivatives were the great contribution to nineteenth century industrialism and commercialism. They were neither designed, nor used, by the famous typographers but appeared in the type founders’ specimen books and were used by uncelebrated commercial printers. Variety was nothing new. The German calligraphy of the sixteenth century achieved it — not by inventing new forms of letters, but by distorting the old ones. They were the first to break whole lines of letters in their centers, an effect used by the cutters of exotic types. The French, Spanish, and Italian calligraphers of the sixteenth century also invented and distorted. The discovery of engraving made possible the delicate open-faced letters, besides a variety of shading effects (fig. 5). The introduction of  lithography to the reproductive media made possible fantastic distortions by the ease with which the letters could be drawn on the stone. English writing masters of the mid-nineteenth century “fell upon the ‘open letter’: they filled it with ignorant shading and ridiculous diapers. It was conceived as a solid, in order that it should possess a meaningless shadow; and drawn in reputed perspective, that it might have the appearance of not belonging to its proper place.”17 Strange includes among the “worst specimens” of “fancy types”, the fat face bold sans serif and Egyptian of Thorne and Thorogood.

The fat face (fig. 6), a development of the Roman letter form, is the first of the modern display types to make its appearance. Nicolette Gray defines it “as a large letter, with (a.) vertical shading, (b.) abrupt modeling, so exaggerated that the thick stroke is nearly half as wide as the letter is high, and (c.) certain characteristic forms, all tending to emphasize roundness in the letters.”18 Theater posters, which always search for the novel in letter forms, are among the first to popularize this face. It is said to have been invented by Robert Thorne about 1815 and from this time on, the specimen books carry it in increasing numbers and increasingly different forms (fig. 6). Fat face is not a romantic letter in any sense of the word; it is very anti-sentimental in its grossness. Symbolic of the new commercialism, it was avoided by the “limited edition” typographers.

The Egyptian letter form (fig. 7) is considered by Miss Gray to be “the most brilliant typographical invention of the century.” The dominant features of this face are “evenness of line and thick slab serifs.” The latter characteristic is supposedly reminiscent of the solid square slabs of Egyptian architecture. It makes an appearance in 1815, in the specimen books of Vincent Figgins, in a delightful form quite adaptable to relief work in stone (fig. 5) and carved wood letters. A beautiful and vigorous example of the latter can still be found in New York on the Corn Exchange Bank in Chatham Square (fig. 8); and a painted version, c. 1880, also in New York (fig. 9). The popularity of the letter brought many variations of its essential form. The Grecian is a compressed Egyptian in which the curves are replaced by straight lines and beveled corners (fig. 10); and a diluted form popularly known as Clarendon in which the square serif is bracketed. Another variety of Egyptian, very popular for commercial printing in the Brown Decades, is one called French Antique (fig. 7). In this letter the horizontal lines are double the width of the vertical lines. Vincent Figgins, as early as 1832, cut a bold sans serif. Specimen books that followed exhibited outline, shadow, elongated, expanded, and compressed versions, and not until Figgins’ specimen of 1847 is there a normal form of the sans serif (fig. 11). By 1860, it can be found in all specimen books. This letter form constituted a break with all styles of the past and is truly representative of the industrial age. It speaks simply and directly, and represented to typography what the Crystal Palace did to architecture. The sans serifs from the beginning found popularity in the commercial world. Its essentially simple construction, as compared to the Roman, made it the most widely used of the letter forms for signs and architectural lettering.

Part II: The American Expression of the “Victorian Compromise” in Architecture and Letter Forms.

The Architect

The machine that changed the dignified cultural unity of eighteenth century America into a factory economy forced society into a period of transition, referred to as the economically prosperous and artistically meager “Brown Decades”. The inevitability of an urban and mechanized society forced its members into diverse reactions. Two main streams of thought claimed their followers: “A decadent Federalistic culture that occupied the seats of authority in New England and wherever New England opinion was respected;…and the vigorous individualism of the frontier that bit so deeply into the psychology of the age.”19

“When the Civil War broke, architecture in America had been sinking steadily for a generation, Order, fitness, comeliness, pro-portion, were words that could no longer be applied to it: construction was submerged in that morass of jerry-building, tedious archaism, and spurious romanticism that made up the architectural achievement of the nineteenth century.”20

The professional American architects of the Brown Decades, with the impetus of English ideas, joined the authoritarians. Their choice offered the least resistance to their profession, both economically and aesthetically. Those in a position to build most lavishly, the new-rich manufacturer, respected the traditional and varying representations of wealth which revivalist architecture offered. “With the steady growth of European travel among the richer classes, the acquisitive spirit throve; and presently the most fashionable architect of the Gilded Age, R. M. Hunt, was building French Chateaux on Fifth Avenue, while less eminent rivals were designing Rhine Castles for brewers, or weird combinations of architectural souvenirs — an eclecticism that reached its climax in a brilliant design, unfortunately not executed, for a building exhibiting a different historical style on every story.”21 The architects solved the problem of the increasing demand for commercial structures by “confining Gothic architecture to churches and schools, to use classic or Renaissance motifs on public buildings, and to turn over structures like factories, offices, and railroad stations to engineers and contractors who had no particular concern with beauty.”22 This insular attitude of the men most qualified to offer a solution to the architecture of the day was responsible for the melange of urban building.

The “Victorian Compromise” is visually unmistakable. The practiced hand of the architect, by his choice of pleasing a wealthy and educated client who had made the European tour and knew what he wanted, was clearly visible in his styles of architecture and letter forms. For the classical building, the Trajan letter always had the virtue and vice of being in good taste. Some form of this dignified letter appeared on most of the eclectic classical buildings and monuments. Appropriate for the Gothic Church or college Gothic, were the Pugin distillations from the Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament. Or, a venturesome architect might follow the advice in one of the standard American lettering books of the Brown Decades, which stated that the medieval alphabet “might, perhaps, be employed for an old established book store, antiquarian society, library, etc.; but it is principally used for nomograms and on church walls and tablets.”23

A great variety of lettering books flooded the market, both British and American; of English books, particularly those of Henry Shaw,24 W. R. Tymms and F. G. Delamotte influenced, almost letter for letter, the popular American books. They were aimed at the architect, as their title pages tell us, as well as the sign painter. Though these books are full of specimens of the sans serif and square serif forms, the architects avoided them for the most part. They had no architectural counterparts in the revivalist or traditional styles, although these letter forms are quite adaptable to the many styles. Visually, they suggest the ancient Greek letter forms and by their simplicity and directness easily associate themselves with classic architecture. If the sans serif is thickened or compressed, it works well with the massiveness of the medieval or Egyptianesque structure.

Occasionally, architects used it on their architectural resurrections. Compare the three different letter forms on similar architectural styles in figs. 10 and 13: Grace Memorial House (fig. 13) used the standard diluted form of the medieval alphabet of Pugin (see fig. 3). This is the letter used on the majority of college Gothic structures. The Dry Dock Savings Bank (fig. 10) combined Roman, on the facade, and square serif carved in relief over the arch. The difference is apparent: the elegantly spaced Roman letter has no relation to the very un-Roman building either in feeling or placement. The square serif, on the other hand, is perfectly appropriate; it states its message vigorously by its boldness; and by its placement is effective as ornament. Another Gothic structure, the Grover and Baker Sewing Machine Company (fig. 14), used still another style of letter — the Ecclesiastical Gothic. Pugin designates this form for use only inside the church either for banners or altar cloths. Brown’s Architectural  Drawing and Lettering (1913), which devotes most of the section on lettering on architectural plans, includes three inscriptional letter forma for buildings: the Roman, and the two Gothic forms of Pugin.

The semi-medieval Corn Exchange Bank in Park Row, New York, (fig. 15) placed to a good advantage wood-carved sans serif letters along the circular form of the facade, completely visible despite the overpowering mass of the elevated twenty feet away. The lettering, in gold leaf, serves an ornamental as well as identifying purpose on the otherwise unadorned tower. Along one side of this building (fig. 8), a square serif was used with equal success: its boldness and vigor are a refreshing visual antidote to the usual hackneyed treatment of bank lettering. Similarly, the relief sans serif letter of Delmonico’s Restaurant (fig. 16) effectively follows the entrance facade, which is in the classic style — a pleasant mixture.

Choice items for the professional architects were the monuments to the dead on Which the use of lettering as a design element was excellent. The importance of the inscription itself, more obvious than in larger buildings, might be the reason for their effectiveness; or the relatively small scale of graveyard architecture could be mentally and visually encompassed by the architect with more attention to detail than would be possible in buildings on a larger scale. Stereotyped as the letter forms are, the overall effect of them as seen in the designs of the Morosini Mausoleum (fig. 17) by Jardine, Kent and Jardine, and the Goldenburg Mausoleum (fig. 18) by Brunner and Tryon, indicate a careful planning of the lettering in relation to the architecture and a careful execution of it. Another fine example, Louis Sullivan’s design for the Ryerson Tomb, was more experimental than the majority. With the solid Egyptian structure, he used an incised sans serif. A similar use of the sans serif with small scale architecture was on the Grove Street Cemetery entrance (fig. 19). The restrained even-weight letters were incised deeply enough into the stone to be read clearly, and facing south, the sunlight aided the legibility. A more vigorous use of the element of sunlight in lettering is the extremely raised (about 5 inches) bold, block sans serif on the Custom House Block Building in Boston, a medieval, massive affair with a castellated rim around the top of the building. The letter forms were boldly raised to three dimensions to reflect the castellation. The combination is ingenuous. In fig. 20, the sans serif is legible by its use in reverse on the only unrelieved section of the facade.

Attempts at the ornamental in lettering by professional architects were mostly pedestrian, e.g., the Morris Building (fig. 21), or simply unsuccessful, such as the raised inscription in stone forming a floating ribbon of identification over the entrance to the 15th Street Romanesque young Women’s Christian Association by R. H. Robertson. The architect of the Brown Decades sometimes achieved a successful letter design and sometimes successfully integrated it with the archi-tecture. But, he was at his best in the use of these two elements, con-structing tombs in the classic idiom. A good symbol for the architect of the “Victorian Compromise” is the Medical College of Virginia at Richmond, which is a foreboding Egyptian Temple, with its name painted in a delicate, flowing Italian script on the surface above the columns.

The Individualists: Engineer and Sign Painter

The London Exhibit of 1851 provided a frame of reference for the tastes of all classes in America, the group which had not yet solved the aesthetic problems which the machine presented. New York sponsored its own Crystal Palace exhibition, since, in a statement issued by the board of directors, “the London exhibit was crowned with the most triumphant

results…If we effect our object we shall have raised higher the standard of taste.”25 Directly from the London Exhibit and, according to Horace Greely, “the gem…of the entire exhibition, and beyond question the finest display of workmanship over made in this country…was Owen Jones’ The Alhambra.”26 This edition was one of the first “limited editions” using Pugin’s ideal of handicraft by the use of the mechanical unreadable Gothic letter. The Alhambra, and later Morris’ Chaucer, provided inspiration for the numerous “limited edition” typographers, such as Elbert, Hubbard with his Roycrofters, Updike, Bruce Rogers, etc.

Mechanization with its snowballing demand for printed matter, forced professional type designers and printers to focus their ideals. The immense appeal of England’s intellectualizations against the machine proved stronger than the great commercial needs. This was the age of unbridled commercialism versus professional designers of “limited editions of attractive little books of poems or essays printed on hand-made paper, with initials and bordered title pages…”27 but this kind of printing, as Mr. Updike admits, “is so much in earnest that it charms too wisely rather than too well, and fails in the purpose for which all types and books exist.”28 These men remained either revivalist or survivalist, while the “rugged individualists” confronted the mass of commercial typography in which “competition was stiff and the need to be different was exhilarating.”29

The great number of ornamented types that began to blossom in American type and letter books had no specific designer. They were designed by the anonymous type cutters themselves, who vied with each other in their associational and originality values learned from Ruskin and Pugin. Each face had its own particular name and “like Chinese pots, now represent each a different attribute, mood, historical suggestion.”30 The vigor of the designs fulfilled a definite growing need for the commercial printers left entirely blank by the professional designers and printers. The cult of originality reached its peak in the 80’s and 90’s, aided by Morris Benton’s punch cutters “which made it possible for those unskilled in the intricacies of type making to provide the basic designs for type.”31 Before 1875, if the designer received a single letter of an ornamented alphabet, he could reconstruct the whole alphabet on the basis of that letter. But after this, “the designers start playing with the letters themselves. The R may have its leg nulled out (fig. 12) and rolled up, the S may be transfixed by its own serif, the M may turn runic and its diagonal lines cross one another. Each letter has its own identity and the charm of the specimen cones to lie in the combination of a row of different personalities, all dressed alike.”32

The results of the search for historical precedents in the “limited edition” school of typography found their way onto the revivalist architecture, while the more characteristically nineteenth century letter designs made up most of the signs on urban buildings.

The engineers, left to their own devices in the design of commercial and industrial building, copied their eclectic brothers. Theirs was a more complicated problem than that of the architect. The latter could plan a building in its entirety and be reasonably sure of how it would look. The urban engineer was faced with the mushrooming of the city block. A critic of the period presented the situation:

“It is quite true that the problem presented by a twelve story building only fifty feet wide in a block-front of buildings of five stories, is very difficult. Quite possibly it is insoluble–that is to say, it is impossible in such conditions to produce a merely inoffensive ensemble while the building remains provisional, when the flanks of it are left unfinished, because there is no telling when the next owner may avail him-self of his right to put up a building twelve stories high, or, for that matter twenty-four. When he does that he will nullify not only whatever pains you may have taken to make the flank of your building presentable but whatever pains you may have taken to secure light and air.”33

The engineers vied with each other for originality of design: “the main notion of each has been to secure the visibility of his own work. Each one has cried aloud, and spared not…”34 Criticism was great, but to no avail.

Nonetheless, the prosperous sign painters, taking advantage of their prosperity could afford to be arbiters of taste for the host of new urbanites. There were many standards to follow, supplied by the numerous manuals and special books that were springing up on the subject. Standardization took place as quickly as the typical urban commercial building.

Fowler’s Publicity applauded the standardized sign that would cover any man’s taste and cover any portion of a building: “Ey far the richest anal most effective sign, and the most economical in the long run, is the one showing gold lettering upon a rough black background…This kind of sign is seen everywhere and sometimes lasts as long as the store. Is always in good taste.”35 Fowler appealed to the majority by labeling as “good taste” those things in common usage by the majority. This gave them needed faith in themselves in a confusing atmosphere of industrialism,

and the confidence to continue on a path that led to nothing but further confusion. The rows upon rows of these gold-lettered on black background signs in figs. 26 and 27 gave some indication of their standard value. There was nothing in the past applicable to a standard of taste, no tradition, nothing to revive. Fowler takes his place with Pugin and Morris as an arbiter of taste. “The old gold appearance” on these signs, he continues, “stands for durability” — the appeal to tradition. “Painting the firm name upon the woodwork or the bricks is a cheap method, makes the building look ungainly, and does not reflect good taste” — the appeal to snobbism, rampant in the age of quick fortunes.

Boyce’s Art of Lettering revealed the finer points of taste:

“Good taste requires that the words should be equally distant from each other, and this is what is meant by spacing. The importance of careful spacing cannot be overstated; it is the sign painter’s saving grace. A well spaced sign, even if it be poorly lettered will make a rood appearance, and be accepted, nine times out of ten; while precisely the reverse is true of a sign well lettered but poorly spaced; the timed labor spent in careful spacing will be found to be well repaid.”35

Though the numerous lettering manuals emphasized the construction and spacing of the letter forms on the sign, these signs were always regarded as entities in themselves. Never was the relation of the sign to the structure on which it was to be placed considered.

They compensated by technique for this lack of any point of view toward the architectural placement. The architect, engineer, typographer, and sign painter of the Brown Decades — each had his own community of belief, none recognizing the other.

The sign painter, perhaps through the apparent visual demands of his art, was the only one not affected primarily by associational criteria. Within his own domain of letters he was sensible:

“Thus, if it were required to put on a sign the following: Brown & Black, Wholesale Dealers in Fish, and important that the word Fish should be made as distinct as possible, by putting Brown & Black in Roman letter, Wholesale Dealers in lower-case, and fish in large Egyptian, the word fish would look more prominent than any other line on the sign, and would be the first to catch the eye.”36

This certainly speaks a visual functionalism lacking in the revivalist tradition. In the mass, the genteel usages by the architects of letter forma, while usually in good taste, was utterly lacking in the virility of the urban sign painter, whose work was good, if not in good taste. The mass of routine sans serif, square serif, or fat face lettering was simple, well-formed, well-spaced and legible: they served their purpose.

The standard of taste was not valid for those firms with the many environmental hazards urban development demanded. The sidewalk elevator shaft in front of Shildmacher and Co. (fig. 22) insisted that a more eyecatching sign be erected in the event that the elevator doors were open. Red paint was used and an application of another of Boyce’s rules in his lettering manual: “On pages 33 and 34 will be found several designs intended to convey an idea of the form and arrangement of fancy signs. In signs of this kind it is best to avoid straight lines as much as possible, especially of those words required to be made prominent. Easy, graceful curves and sweeping lines are most desirable, particularly when a rood variety can be introduced.”37 The International Studio, a monument to the “Victorian Compromise”, and representing the William `’orris influence in its worst extreme, criticizes soundly this type of sign, but in such an inane and innocuous manner as to render the criticism useless:

“Please do not review the losses and gains of Art in 1896,” said the Journalist.

“Indeed I will not,” replied the Lay Figure. “Art needs no annual balancing of profit and loss, fallow years often prepare for fat seasons. No, for the moment the permanent poster pleases me.”

“Permanent posters,” said the Journalist; “would not that imply permanent hoardings? It seems self-contradictory, like permanent novelties.”

“I mean,” said the Lay Figure, “sign-boards and notices on warehouses, or over shop windows—the sort of things that at present make hideous the bird’s -eye of a city.”

“I dislike chiefly the scale of these advertisements,” said the Man with a Quiet Voice. “I am told that in certain Continental cities no inscriptions are allowed in letters over a prescribed size. Surely a clear sentence in plain Roman capitals not over two feet high could be read as far off as the London atmosphere permits anything to be deciphered.”

“But that would render sky signs impossible,” said the Journalist.

“So much the better,” he replied. “I fool that no one has a right to deface your view of a sunset, or ever-shifting miracles of the clouds.”

“You would not object to the other inscriptions and pictures,” said the Lay Figure,”if they were discreet and well-designed, would you?”

“No; I think all sign-boards and notices might easily be offensive, and some actually delightful,” said the Quiet Voice.

“In short, you want advertisements to be decorative and obscure,” the Journalist broke in. “0, foolish Lay Figure, who hath bewildered you? What advantage would advertisers reap by effacing themselves to make a city decorative?”

“I do not see that advertisements need fail to attract attention in better ways,” the Lay Figure said, “Look at the possibilities of mosaic, graffito work, or coloured bas-reliefs turned to this purpose. We have seen even a poster not less a poster because it was a fairly beautiful placard.”

“I think that sign-boards might be revived—swinging things I mean,” the Journalist said. “That would be quite charming,” the Decadent Poet babbled. “I like the dear little squeak of a swaying sign-board crooning its cradle song; always endlessly rocking.”

“Heaven forbid a gamut of squeaking signs added to other street noises,” said the Quiet Voice. “Besides, you must remember that the average tradesman’s idea of an effective sign would be a gigantic model, gilded by preference, of something he deals in. A chimney-pot, a coffee-pot or a ham resplendent in gold, all like ‘properties’ in the giant’s kitchen of a pantomime. Please do not suggest permanent pantomimes as well as permanent posters, unless we all adopt openly the profession of clowning as the most serious Art.”

“I do not want to suggest the impossible,” the Lay Figure said. “But to abolish all gigantic lettering and to insist that all inscriptions should be in orthodox alphabets placed in horizontal lines ought not to be beyond the scope of a local authority. After all, neat level lines are far more readable than grotesque characters squirming about, or uncomfortably festooned as pleated ribbons. “The advertiser adores eccentric letters,” the ,quiet Voice said. “I doubt if anything short of legal restraint would prevent his debasing the currency of the alphabet. I think that the gable ends of factories and such places would afford capital spaces for rood decorative schemes in bold flat colours. “But who would you choose to execute the decorations?” said the Lay Figure, “Architects and designers, no painters,” the Quiet Voice said firmly.” Etc. Etc. 38

The moral at the end of this bit of criticism ist “If everybody tried to impress tradespeople with the profitable value of good design, a great deal might be done to mend things.”

But there was no stopping urban growth. The sign painter was entering a new visual world in which individual recognition was the first requirement. Advertising had begun in earnest. Many commercial structures rejected the canons of taste offered by the sign painter; their identifying trademarks or labels, designed by jobbing printers, crept on their structures. Thus, the Poland Water Co. of South Poland, Maine, could afford its five stories on Broadway and 28th Street (fig. 23) and have its name incised in the top of the facade and over the entrance, using the same pseudo Tuscan as that on their bottle label. And Litholin Waterproofed Linen could use their trademark over twenty feet of empty wall space, until the Oliver Typewriter Co. in the adjacent building decided to add on to their one storey (fig. 24 & 25). Advertising had begun in earnest, and was open to the criticism of the architects: Broadway was “an architectural Babel, a confusion of tongues. The present development of it corresponds to the latest phase of immigration, as attested by the names on the signs which still farther variegate and vulgarize its architecture, and bespeak not only an Anglo-Saxon and a Celtic and a Teutonic, but a Semitic and a Slavonic population.”39

The competitive spirit between shop-owners was keen and the basis for competition was in the shop sign. If a store had one type of lettering, the one above it, under it, next to it, or across from it, had to have a different, more exciting one. The result had the opposite effect of that desired. The proximity of the varied letter forms brought visual confusion(fig. 26), especially when coupled with as many styles of architecture (fig. 27). Advertising signs began to cover every available space on urban building (fig. 28) and carrying their ideas further, began to cover the architecture itself (fig. 29 & 30). First floor shop windows were enlarged and so crar.:•.ed with their wares that larger shop signs were required to retain their share of attention (figs. 31 & 32), which was often achieved, instead, by duplication and reemphasis of smaller ones (figs. 33 & 34).

Not only was the competition among sign painters themselves carried to ridiculous extremes, but there were other visual hazards of the city to contend with. The elevated trains demanded that similar signs be placed below it for the pedestrians and above for those who would pass by in the trains. A more serious contender, the telegraph pole, sprouted indiscriminately.

Important events in the eighteenth century required only a sign nailed up on the city hall or some public building to bring the event to public attention. In the Brown Decades, it was necessary to string banners over the streets in order that the information be noticed (fig. 36(; even with this advantage, they felt that using many different letter forms would be taking less chance. “In fact,” recorded one critic of Broadway:

“the contrasts of this street are as diverting as its indoor shows are intended to be, whether it be the shops of its money makers, commonly known as sky-scrapers, that point toward heaven but seldom look that way, the scurrying push of men at the bottom of the great canyon, or of women, where those who deal in women’s gear display their wares, or the theatre and hotel stretch where the money and the goods of the districts further south are on parade, a parade that puts Solomon and all his glory in eclipse….until finally the road glides down hill to the bottom lands and we are among the wild flowers and real estate signs.”110 (figs. 37 & 38)

The desire for originality inspired the sign painter, as it did the type cutter, but not to so great an extent, since signs had to be  read from a distance and from the great heights the skyscraper was taking them. There was endless experimentation with the form of the letter: it was made ridiculously thick, and similarly thin; extended and tom-pressed; expanded and condensed; bifurcated and splayed. As they grew surer of themselves, the greater was the deformation of the letter; the greater the break with tradition.

The theaters were especially experimental; they used electric light letters (figs. 39 & 40). Daly’s Theater (fig. 41) daringly used a letter form suggestive of Italian script with its horizontal stress.

When all the available space on the facade of a building was used, letters appeared on windows (fig. 42). Letters assumed a frank three dimensions to attract attention (figs. 43 & 44). Many ornamented type faces made their appearance on the signs. Japanesque (figs. 45 & 46) represented the more exotic dealers in “fancy waistcoats” and “oriental carpets and silks.” Fowler discourages this approach: “The use of Fancy letters for sign painting is never Justifiable.” In the case of the Japanesque, Fowler’s standard of taste is good. Boyce’s lettering book, on the other hand, is not so reticent about the fancy letters: “The ornamental letter may be made entirely according to the fancy of the painter…Points, pearls, eccentric lines, leaves, and vines may be added, according to the characters of the design or the taste of the painter.”41 Optimo Cigar Stores mushroomed on many corners using a  chunky splayed serif letter which underwent variations and refinements with each store (fig. 47), also a motif, though more imaginatively handled, on the New York Trolleys (fig. 48). 

Overwhelming as the industrial enthusiasm was, as reflected by the letter forms of the sign painters, and although seen against their architectural backdrops, do not add up to much, the vigor and imagination in the letter forms themselves, out of the architectural context, has never been surpassed. The great typographical gifts of the nineteenth century were the fat face Romans, the square serifs, and the sans serifs. Certainly the need for these letter forms was great in both printing and letter-ing on architecture; the letters were functional in that they served a definite visual purpose for the people for whom they were created.

Though spaced effectively, as on the classical Hardman Piano Building (fig. 49), the pedestrian Roman letter of the eighteenth century lingered on into the Brown Decades as a symbol of taste and refinement. The style and treatment of the letters in figs. 50, 51, & 52, became bolder (fig. 53), condensed (fig. 54), and at times very imaginative as on the Imperial Hotel sign (fig. 55). Fowler advised that “sign-board lettering should be in the extreme brevity and of the most pronounced boldness…The passerby has little time to study the sign and a single glance must take in its entirety.”

A simple sans serif combined well with the Roman in many signs (fig. 53). This typical, condensed sans serif (fig. 56), prominently displayed in the lettering manuals, was especially favored by the smaller urban communities of the East, which found it in good taste. It found a universal use in this period because “it admits of being made very much higher than any other letter in the same space.”42

The essential simplicity of the nineteenth century sans serif seems more contemporary than the modernistic twentieth century distortions. Compare the straightforward sans serif in fig. 57 with the twentieth century version in fig. 58. The latter loses its effect by the self—conscious curves in the WI and “E”. In fig. 59, the nineteenth century square serif wood letters make the twentieth century painted simulation of the earlier three—dimensional letter suffer by comparison. Modern attempts at the ornamented letter (fig. 60), besides being diluted forms, generally have no reason for their existence.


As a result of the “Victorian Compromise”, architectural lettering in the Brown Decades had no unified direction. The professional architects used letter forms on their structures more effectively than the others dealing with the same problem. By their choice of designing only churches,  public buildings and schools, the lettering was permanent and was incised onto the structure itself, which, by its nature required planning. On the whole, the architect was most at home, as in his choice of architectural styles, with traditional letter forms used in traditional ways. He avoided the great letter forms of the nineteenth century, often at the aesthetic expense of the structure itself.

Uncontrolled urban growth required the services of numerous sign makers. Buildings were erected before their functions were manifest. Therefore, innumerable small merchants required identifying signs on the facades of their shops. The individual sign makers provided them quickly. The great demand standardized the signs, and made impossible a harmonious relationship with the architecture. Considering the numerous stylisms of architecture in a city block, an appropriate letter form on each would have been equa ly confusing. Out of their architectural context, the letter forms on the signs were the significant contribution of the Brown Decades. The anonymous designers used simple, legible forms. They served their visual function well. Also, they appealed to the merchant, who reacted only to associational criteria, by the names attached to the letters — Egyptian, Grecian, etc. Each specimen book interchanged the names with amazing facility.

The twentieth century reaction against the Brown Decades resulted in labelling as bad, everything the period produced including its letter forms. The fat face, square serif and sans serif were refined into tasteful nonentities which made their appearance on all the shop fronts. Not until today has there been a re-evaluation of the old forms, and the essential simplicity of the nineteenth century square serif and sans serif is appreciated as being in harmony with the new architectural styles. And not until today has the importance of lettering as a part of the architectural design been recognized.


1 Nikolaus Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), P. 197.

2 Ibid., p. 207.

3 H. R. Hitchcock, The Crystal Palace, 2nd ed. (Northampton: Smith College Museum of Art, 1952), p. 28.

4 Nikolaus Pevsner, High Victorian Design (London: Architectural Press, 1951), p. 20.

5 Nikolaus Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture (Now York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948) p. 197.

6  ____________, High Victorian Design (London: Architectural Press, 1951), p. 56. 7 Nikolaus Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948) p. 206.

8 Edward F. Strange, Alphabets (London: George Boll and Sons, 1895), p. 192.

9 Nicolette Gray, XIXth Century Ornamented Types and Title Pages (London: Faber and Faber, 1938).

10 Frank P. Chambers, The History of Taste (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932),
p. 202.

11 Nicolette Gray, XIXth Century Ornamented Types and Title Pages (London: Faber and Faber, 1938), p. 56.

12 Edward F. Strange, Alphabets (London: George Bell and Sons, 1895),

13 Ibid., p. 178.

14 Nikolaus Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948) p. 207.

15 Daniel Berkeley Updike, Printing Types, Vol. II (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pg. 202.

16 Ibid., p. 203

17 Edward F. Strange, Alphabets (London: George Bell and Sons, 1895), p. 195.

18 Nicolette Gray, XIXth Century Ornamented Types and Title Pages (London: Faber and Faber, 1938) p. 22.

19 Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1927), pp. 49-50

20 Lewis Mumford, The Brown Decades (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1931), p. 109.

21 Ibid., p. 111.

22 Ibid., p. 119.

23 A.P. Boyce, The Art of Lettering (Boston: A. Williams and Co., 1878). p. 39.

24 Pugin, himself, in the Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament in the section dealing with thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth century church lettering and inscriptions tells that “a work treating especially of alphabets is now being published by Mr. H. Shaw, which will contain many beautiful examples of every date.” (p. 162)

25,26 Horace Greely (ed.), Art and Industry as Represented in the  Exhibition at the Crystal Palace – New York 1853-4, from the New York Tribune (New York: E. Redfield, 1853).

27 Beilenson, Peter (ed.), Updike: American Printer (New York: The American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1947), p. 103.

28 Daniel Berkeley Updike, Printing Types – Vol. II (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), p. 219.

29 Russell Lynes, “Age of Taste,” Harper’s, October, 1950

30 Nicolette Gray, XIXth Century Ornamented Types and Title Pages (London, Faber and Faber, 1938), pg. 66

31 Carl P. Rollins, American Type Designers and their Work (Chicago: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 1947-48).

32 Nicolette Gray, XIXth Century Ornamented Types and Title Pages (London: Faber and Faber, 1938), p. 66.

33 The Architectural Record (New York: Record and Guide, November, 1897).

34 Ibid.

35 Fowlers Publicity (New York: Nathaniel Fowler Publicity Publishing company, 1897).

36 A. P. Boyce, The Art of Lettering (Boston: A. Williams and Company, 1878), p. 40.

37 A. P. Boyce, The Art of Lettering (Boston: A. Williams and Company, 1878) p. 41.

38 The International Studio, Vol. I, No. 1, (New York Offices of the International Studio, 1897), p. 68.

39 The Architectural Record (New York: Record and Guide, November, 1897).

40 G. B. Hines, Broadway, N. Y. (Private collection of photographs from 1870-1906 — New York Historical Society).

41 A. P. Boyce, The Art of Lettering(Boston: A. Williams and Co, 1878). p.41.

42 A. P. Boyce, The Art of Lettering (Boston: A. Williams and Co., 1878), p. 35.



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