Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Field Notes: Getting close to history

Our readings this week on William Morris and the American Type Founders Company reminded me of a previous class field trip to the San Francisco Library last April where we actually got to see a copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer.  It is one thing to see this beautiful work in our textbook, and whole other thing to be standing a foot away from the actual thing.

My friend Evan looks over the Kelmscott
Chaucer during a visit to the
San Francisco Library's Rare Book Collection
The first thing that you notice is that the textbook just doesn't do justice to the size of the work!  It's a huge book, as the above picture testifies.  The illustrations are large and the ornamentation on the pages and in the frames of the illustration are just as lushly detailed as the rest of the book.  We are very lucky to have one in a local library, and just as lucky that (a) people through the years have valued this work, taken good care of it and donated it to our library and (b) that we have a Rare Book Collection where such works are held, especially with the budget cuts in recent years.  Some more pictures of the inside of the book:

Two page spread of the Chaucer

Detail from one illustration in the Chaucer

One of the other books that we were shown was a Specimen Book from The American Type Founders Company.  This book would be sent out to printers so they could see what fonts ATF had and order them.  Basically, this was an advertisement for type, albeit one that was a little larger than a big city phone book!

ATF and William Morris were rivals, and Morris would not license his fonts to the ATF Co.  But Morris' designs were extremely popular, and ATF wasn't going to let a little thing like licensing get in the way of a huge profit.  So ATF would just create "look-alike" fonts and embellishments for their clients to order. Being British, Morris had no claim on the American reproductions although he wrote them scathing letters and did contact his barristers.  Even back then, "knock offs" existed.

The ATF Co. Specimen book 
Detail of the inside of the ATF Specimen Book,
featuring Wm. Morris "look alike" fonts
and embellishments

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