Behind the scenes of a new cover design by David Shields for a reissue of "American Wood Type"
Thirty-three years after its most recent printing, Rob Roy Kelly‘s seminal book on wood type, American Wood Type: 1828–1900, will finally be offered in newly printed form. The 350-page tome is being republished in paperback form by Matt Kelsey at the Liber Apertus Press in Saratoga, California. Kelsey informs me that the book is being printed digitally, on-demand, from high-resolution scans of the original 1969 hardcover edition. It will be made available starting March 31 for a retail price of $29.95.
The news will come as a relief to many students and others who have not been able to afford the prices which are usually asked for second-hand copies of the book. Both previously available editions — a 1969 hardcover by Van Nostrand Reinhold and a 1977 paperback by Da Capo Press — have been increasingly difficult to find at affordable prices. For example, at the time of writing this, only two copies are currently available on Amazon.com, both with price tags of at least $750. Thrifty buyers have been able to get the book for much cheaper (I lucked out on a first-edition hardcover on eBay for $95 last October), but such deals have become few and far between.
1964 precursor folio of "American Wood Type"
This newest reissue features a short foreword by David Shields, caretaker of the Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection, in which he gives a brief history of the book and explains the impact it continues to have on designers and printers (myself included). Shields has also designed a new cover with types from the collection, inspired by the cover of Kelly’s 1964 folio precursor to the book.
In all other regards the book will be printed as a facsimile and, as such, will retain various typos and historical inaccuracies which David Shields and others have uncovered since the book’s first publication more than 40 years ago. While this is less than ideal, a proper follow-up would undoubtedly require much more work, time, and money; essentially it would be a different project. Shields’ foreword addresses these issues, referring readers to the Kelly Collection website for more current information (at least for the types in the collection).
One of the many reasons a reissue of the book has taken so long is related to the complexities and uncertainties surrounding its copyright information. The original 1969 publisher (Van Nostrand Reinhold) and copyright holder (Reinhold Book Corporation) were split and merged with other corporations several times over the years, with the rights to the book being moved around, licensed on a temporary basis (for the 1977 Da Capo Press reissue), and generally changing hands on numerous occasions. Despite, and perhaps because of this, the original publishing agreements cannot be found.
With the help of Rob Roy Kelly’s widow, Mary Helen, Kelsey researched and contacted all of the known corporate successors who acquired all or portions of the Van Nostrand Reinhold assets, and all have stated that they do not control the rights to the book. Kelsey’s conclusion — based on provisions that were common in agreements for scholarly works at that time — is that the rights have reverted to the author’s estate after the book went out of print. Under this belief, Mary Helen Kelly has granted a license to Liber Apertus Press for a reissue. For the first time the author’s family will receive royalties from sales of the book.
For those who are curious as to why a reissue of American Wood Type isn’t being carried out by a more notable or relevant organization — like Oak Knoll Press, RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press, Harry Ransom Center, or the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum — the main reason that I can see is that Kelsey is the first to go to the trouble of researching and contacting all the possible copyright owners. Also, as a smaller on-demand publisher, Kelsey avoids higher investment costs that other publishers might have to put up for traditional printing and binding processes.
Adding another generation to the production process by scanning from a print will likely have some affect on the fidelity of the book’s reproduction, but I doubt it will be anything that would make the book worth anything less than $30. Indeed, the difference may be imperceptible. I’ve heard rumors that the original film negatives used to print the first edition still exist somewhere at Yale, which would be ideal for the purposes of reproduction (a proper digital scan of the negatives may even yield a better print than the 1969 edition), but I haven’t personally seen or heard anything concrete to that effect.
Liber Apertus previously took on a similar reprinting of the letterpress printing guide, General Printing, and plans to continue the series by reissuing other such books like American Wood Type that are in demand but out of print.
I must admit that my first gut reaction to the news that the book was being digitally reprinted, as a direct facsimile, using less-than-superior paper and binding, by a relatively tiny and unknown publisher, was something along the lines of skepticism. However, after remembering the shady lengths I went to in order to acquire my first copy of American Wood Type when I was a student (don’t ask), I ultimately think that having Kelly’s amazing book widely available again in any form is a good thing.
It’s getting to be a bit late for holiday gift suggestion lists, but I figured I’d do one of wood type / decorative lettering wares. Many of these items have been shown elsewhere, and the list is nowhere near complete, but it’s a good starting point. With that said, here are a few suggestions…
Greeting cards from RIT
I’ll start with a topic very close to my heart: the book Specimens of Chromatic Wood Type, Borders, &c., Manufactured by Wm. H. Page & Co… This mind-blowing object, published in 1874, is something that I have much, much, much, more to talk about than I will go in to now. Instead, in the interest of time, I’ll just note a great set of greeting cards published by the RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press that feature scaled-down reproductions from the book.
Also available are similar cards featuring reproductions from a great French lettering manual, Nouvel Album de Letters Peintes.
You might as well check out all the cool stuff that the press sells related to printing history. It’s a great source of cheap but awesome gifts.
Both sets of 4.25″ × 6″ cards are sold in packs of 8 — 2 each of 4 designs, with envelopes. I’ve purchased several batches myself over the past few years.
There are tons of products available online that are printed using wood type (I’ll show some more below). The thing I personally like about this set of coasters from Marquand Books is that the type isn’t intentionally “distressed”, as is so common with many similar products. Instead, the letters are printed cleanly in solid black.
I can’t say that I would ever really use my own set of hand-printed coasters; but whatever, it’s wood type!
They also offer some wood type doorknob hangers, but I like the coasters much better myself.
The 3.5″ square coasters come in a nice little packaged set of 9 — 3 each of 3 colors (orange, green, and blue).
Similar to the cards show above, this bag from Blue Q reproduces alphabets from beautifully colored French chromolithograph lettering samples. Unfortunately it’s sold without any proper credit to the original source, but I think it might be from Modeles de Lettres, 1884.
This calendar was printed by Allen Stump at his a Mano Press. Calendars are great for end-of-year gifts, but they’re ten times better if printed with the same wood type collection I encountered on my visit with Allen over the summer.
There are other worthy items from the a Mano Press available on their Etsy shop.
The wirebound caledars are 12½″ square, printed in multiple colors on a pair of Vandercooks.
House Industries has been doing some great stuff with the prestigious library of Photo-Lettering Inc since they acquired the materials in 2003. One highlight of such work is this silkscreen-printed poster featuring a chromatic glyph from PLINC’s Eventide alphabet, originally designed by Paul Carlyle, digitized by Jeremy Mickel, and printed on this poster by hand with metallic inks by David Dodde.
The hand-numbered 26″ × 20″ poster is printed on 130# acid-free cover weight paper. I picked up a copy for myself when House was selling them at the TDC recently.
For people looking for kid-related gifts, this poster from Richard Ardagh and New North Press shows three variations of the traditional nursery rhyme, each set in a variety of 19th-century display type styles.
They made a video showing the process of printing the posters, accompanied with an endearingly British singsong take on the rhyme.
There are a few other prints offered from the same collaboration that are worth checking out too.
The 560 mm × 760 mm (≈22″ × 30″) poster was hand-set and printed in an edition of 200.
We enter a higher price bracket with these large-scale lighted marquee letters from Urban Outfitters. I promote this item somewhat begrudgingly since I’m not particularly a fan of some of the practices of Urban Outfitters. However, these letters are too cool to leave out and I couldn’t find any info about how to get them otherwise.
The particular shape of serifs used for these letters designate them as being of a “mansard” style. William Page patented and sold wood fonts of this style in 1879 as “№ 121″, but a thorough history requires more details than I’ll go in to here.
The metal letters vary in width from character to character, but are all 24″ high × 4″ deep.
I don’t have any expectation that anyone will actually buy this after reading about it here, but I include it for the sake of relevance. The top of this table from Crate & Barrel is composed of wood type — or, actually, a solid piece of wood that’s been carved, painted, and finished to make it look like wood type. According to the product description, the table was designed by “a London graphic designer with a penchant for, and a large personal collection of, antique printers’ blocks”. I can’t say I know who that is, but if I don’t know them already, they sound like someone I could have a good conversation with.
The table has a steel base and glass top that covers the letters; it measures 36″ wide × 36″ deep × 17″ high.
Also in the realm of things I know people will think is cool but won’t actually ever buy is this big chest of wood type inspired drawers from Kent & London. In fact, there’s a good chance you may have already seen this on design and type blogs already, but I’m including it here for its notable relevance.
The letter style used on the front of each drawer approximates one offered in wood type by a huge number of manufacturers, most of them calling it, simply, “Gothic“. Similar to the “mansard” mentioned above, a whole article could be written about this style, but I’ll refrain for now.
The solid oak chest measures 800 mm high × 1200 mm wide × 300mm deep (≈32″ × 47″ × 12″)
Coming back to the real world… if conspicuous consumption and material possessions aren’t your thing, you can always take the charity route and support this deserving organization on someone else’s behalf.
Membership to the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum is available on a number of levels which include things that you can wrap and give to people if you want, like digital fonts, printed specimen sheets, books, shirts, etc. Members also get reduced studio rental cost incentives.
Another charity gift option is to help fund the restoration of Lou Dorfsman‘s amazing wall of lettering. I won’t go in to much detail describing it here (I’m hoping to do a related report at some point in the future), but this piece of wood type-ish design is more than worthy of the care and restoration that the Center for Design Study is working towards giving it.
This short interview with Dorfsman gives a good idea about what you’d be helping to preserve.
I’ll end this list of gift ideas with the items I’d like the most… This series of 3 specimen posters (1, 2, 3) was printed by Yee-Haw Industries and features a huge variety of wood type faces. I saw all 3 of the prints at Yee-Haw’s Chelea market show in October, and have been wanting them ever since. They definitely aren’t cheap, but after having printed a similar specimen poster myself over the summer, I can fully appreciate the amount of work it takes to produce something like this. These images definitely don’t do the prints proper justice, but I’ll show them all regardless.
Yee-Haw has tons of other wood type stuff in their Etsy store (18 pages worth!), so definitely check that out as well.
Also, if you’re in the New York City area this month, Yee-Haw will be up from their home in Knoxville to sell stuff at a bunch of different craft fairs, flea markets, etc, including a pop-up shop at Chelsea Market (where their show is still up). Instead of repeating all the details, I’ll just direct you to their official announcement.
The color posters above are printed 2-color on 30″ × 42″ archival acid-free 100% cotton paper with deckled edges.
I could keep going with more suggestions, but this list is already too long. If you’re left still wanting more, try a search on Etsy for “wood type” and you’re bound to find something good. Please feel free to share any other suggestions you might have in the comments.