The Paper That Changed Type Design

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John Baskerville is known best as the man who, in the mid-18th century, created a new typeface that now bears his name. It was finer, more delicate, and lighter on the page than all that went before it, and it opened the door to a new genre of type designs: the so-called modern faces, including Bodoni and Didot. As such, Baskerville and faces like it are commonly referred to as transitionals, the bridges between oldstyle and modern. Figure 1 shows the before, the transition, and the after.

Figure 1: The types of William Caslon were already lighter than those of their oldstyle predecessors, but Baskerville’s work took character refinement to a new level, as is clearly visible here. Note the delicacy of the Baskerville serifs, the fine crossbar of the t, the wispy tail of the a, and the overall greater contrast between the thicks and thins. By the end of the 18th century, modern types—exemplified by the Bodoni here—had taken these refinements to extremes.

But Baskerville’s innovative types—and those that followed—could only have existed because of his arguably more important innovation: a new papermaking technique that yielded sheets whose smoother surface could reproduce much finer detail in both type and graphics, including etchings and engravings.

In Baskerville’s day, paper was still made by hand, one sheet at a time. The process was much the same as that invented in China some 1600 years before: a flat sieve called a mould (see Figure 2) was drawn through a slurry of well masticated plant fibers to capture them in a rectangular form. After the water drained, with the excess squeezed out under pressure, the fibers bonded solidly with each other. Once dried, it was a sheet of paper.

Figure 2: An oriental papermaking mould consists of flexible mat of thin, rounded bamboo slivers woven in place with silk thread. This is then held in a rigid wooden frame that’s scooped into a tub of water/fiber slurry.

The sieving surface of European papermaking moulds was a brass version of the bamboo ones used by the Chinese. Thin brass rods laid on the frame of the mould (giving the name “laid” to this kind of mould) and sewed in place by fine brass wires in a closely spaced parallel array, which was supported underneath by a series of ribs that kept this woven surface perfectly flat. The gaps between the rods were fine enough to trap the paper fibers but wide enough to let the water pass through. A piece of this brass “fabric” is shown in Figure 3. A removable picture frame–like deckle was fitted over this sieving surface to create a shallow reservoir that permitted the slurry to be scooped up.

Figure 3: This close up photo of a laid papermaking mould surface shows the horizontal brass bars held in places by “chain” wires.

It was a clever and durable tool, but the surface left its imprint on the paper made with it. The ridges caused by the rods—so-called laid lines—gave the paper a mildly washboard-like surface. This can be glimpsed from the light-table view of a piece of laid handmade paper in Figure 4. To get type to print evenly and well on such a laid surface mandated a sturdy character shape because fine details didn’t render well, and delicate character elements of the cast metal type were apt to snap off or wear prematurely under the pressure it took to make a good impression.

Figure 4: A light table betrays the alternating thick and thin texture of a sheet of laid paper. To get consistently inked type on such a surface meant heavy pressure during printing.

Enter John Baskerville, with a better idea, thanks to a fruit of the industrial revolution. Baskerville replaced the laid surface with one consisting of a fine brass screen composed of wires running in both directions, not unlike a modern window screen. An example is shown in Figure 5. This new “wove” mould yielded a much smoother paper surface, one that could reproduce finer printed detail with less pressure.

Figure 5: The surface of this wove mould shows none of the telltale lines of the older laid moulds. Its screen surface yielded a paper with a consistent surface texture in all directions.

Not content even with this surface, though, Baskerville took the extra step of hot-pressing his paper between plates of heated copper, which gave the paper a much smoother—even glossy—finish. Here was a surface that rivaled the so-called Japan papers of the day: fine, smooth papers from Asia that were laboriously (and expensively) made using fibers from the inner bark of mulberry trees instead of the cotton rags used by European paper mills. With this, Baskerville created a printing surface that revolutionized type design, enabling all that followed.

As with most revolutions, not everyone was pleased. The American Benjamin Franklin—himself a printer—wrote the following letter to Baskerville after having visited his Birmingham, England, print works

Craven Street, London, 1760.

Dear Sir,

Let me give you a pleasant Instance of the Prejudice some have entertained against your Work. Soon after I returned, discoursing with a Gentleman concerning the Artists of Birmingham, he said you would [be] a Means of blinding all the Readers in the Nation; for the Strokes of your Letters, being too thin and narrow, hurt the Eye, and he could never read a Line of them without Pain. “I thought,” said I, “you were going to complain of the Gloss of the Paper, some object to.” “No, no,” says he, “I have heard that mentioned, but it is not that; it Is in the Form and Cut of the Letters themselves; they have not that Height and Thickness of the Stroke, which make the common Printing so much more comfortable to the Eye.” You see this Gentleman was a Connoisseur. In vain I endeavoured to support your character against the Charge; he knew what he felt, and could see the Reason of it, and several other Gentlemen among his friends had made the same Observation, &c.

Yesterday he called to visit me, when, mischievously bent to try his Judgment, I stept into my Closet, tore off the Top of Mr. Caslon’s specimen, and produced it to him as yours, brought with me from Birmingham; saying, I had been examining it, since he spoke to me, and could not for my Life perceive the Disproportion he mentioned, desiring him to point it out to me. He readily undertook it, and went over several of the Founts, showing me everywhere what he thought Instances of that Disproportion; and declared, that he could not then read the Specimen, without feeling very strongly the Pain he had mentioned to me. I spared him that Time the Confusion of being told, that these were the Types he had been reading all his life, with so much Ease to his Eyes; the Types his adored Newton is printed with, on which he has pored not a little; nay, the very Types his own Book is printed with, (for he is himself an Author,) and yet never discovered this painful Disproportion in them, till he thought they were yours. I am, &c.

B. Franklin

This is a wonderful commentary not just on human nature but also on the conservative attitudes of readers and the natural brakes that are nearly always set against typographic innovation. Misplaced—and in this case blind—prejudice aside, when it comes to reading, we like what we know and tend to resist change. That the change is good or bad is not always the issue; if something looks wrong, there’s a strong argument to be made that it is wrong.

To put Franklin’s commentary in perspective, though, it should be noted that not all of his own typographic preferences were exactly revolutionary, as you can see in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Here’s a portion of Franklin’s letter to Baskerville as the author might have preferred to have seen it set. Franklin bemoaned the abandonment of italics for running text and railed against the lost popularity of the medial s, as well as the trend against capitalizing nouns, as is still done in German.

Over time, the brightness of modern faces lost favor (one 19th century American type historian went so far as to call them “effeminate”), especially in the book trade, and by the turn of the 20th century, oldstyle faces were making a comeback, as well as revivals and advances in the transitional tradition, such as the so-called Scotch faces. It could be said that Baskerville gave the type-design pendulum a push, and having swung to its extreme with modern designs, he—or rather the style he created—was still there waiting when the pendulum swung back to the center.

We’ve inherited other typeface characteristics that are the direct result of various technical advances (or constraints) as well as commercial pressures, but this is grist for another column. In the meantime, reflect on John Baskerville’s other gift to type: a better surface on which to serve it up to readers.

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