This is the second installment of Mike Parker’s Story of Type, a continuation of the first chapter, I. Roots of Western Letterforms & Typography. In the previous installment, we started in Mesopotamia to add context for the development of the alphabet, and then on to Constantinople where we saw the beginnings of the characters we use today. Now we leap to the 15th century, with Gutenberg’s invention of movable type.
Blackletter: Johann Gutenberg (German, 1394–1468)
Gutenberg (originally Gensfleich) is credited with the invention of the typefounders’ mold between 1440 and 1450. The Bible printed circa 1455 by Gutenberg with Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer was the first complete book printed in the first effective typeface to be cast in metal — the start of the medium that limited, then broke, the dominance of the church and opened the door to the modern commercial world.
The first typefaces appeared in forms of blackletter, the letterform of the church, all but illegible to our present-day eyes. The elements of lettering that distinguish blackletter characters from each other are the same elements that repeat and hold the roman form together, and vice versa. Fifteen years were to pass before the beginnings of our present roman and italic first appeared in Venice.
A single example of the simplest form of typefounders’ mold, a reflection of Gutenberg’s invention, survives with a set of 15th-century Parisian blackletter matrices in a case at the Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp, Belgium. The museum, comprising an entire city block, preserves intact the leading press of the 16th century with all of its gear, records, and library, all open to the public. It should be visited when possible by anyone with a concern for the history and development of our trade.
The dominant sighting of blackletter in the U.S. is in its prevalence among newspaper mastheads, from the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times to smaller publications, such as St. Petersburg Times and The Virginian-Pilot. Font Bureau has worked with these and many other publications on the typography of their redesigns, including custom typeface design; but we go directly to the expert when it comes to redesigning newspaper mastheads: Jim Parkinson of Parkinson Type Design.
According to Parkinson:
Blackletter was first used for a newspaper nameplate in England in about 1680. It was probably adapted as an easily accessible way to distinguish the name of the newspaper from the text, which was commonly set in roman type. The first ornamented blackletter nameplate (an inlined letter) was introduced by the British printer John Bell in 1787.
Blackletter still has connotations of formality, authority, dignity, and tradition; and for those reasons, it continues to be used for many newspaper nameplates to this day.
My professional experience with nameplates suggests that about half are blackletter and half roman. This is not a formal poll, but merely an accounting of the nameplates that have crossed my desk.