From the Archives no. 2—Photo-lettering

While looking through issues of The American Printer for material relating to W.A. Dwiggins I noticed that during the years 1939 to 1941 there was a rash of notices of “new” methods for creating type photographically.

February 1939, pp. 38–39 “Rubber Type Via the Camera” by Irving B. Simon. Simon profiled the Weber Process invented by Martin J. Weber of New York City. Weber took repro proofs of assembled metal type—his exemplar was ATF Garamond Bold—photographed them. He boasted of his ability to manipulate the letters in many ways: condensation, expansion, curvature, twisting, and so on. The final result was either a line engraving or an offset plate.

March 1940, pp. 30–31 “Bernhard Headliners” described “Photo Magnetic Lettering” available from Photo Magnetic Lettering Service run by Lucian Bernhard and his sons. The lettering was all done by the elder Bernhard—well known for his sachlichkeit posters as well as his typefaces for Bauer and American Type Founders—in a dazzling variety of styles (including a schaftstiefelgrotesk). His master alphabets were used to create display lines which were then photographed and either negative or positive prints were furnished to the client for reproduction via letterpress (using photo-engraving) or offset. The process could curve lines. When asked what “Photo Magnetic” meant, Bernhard said that it was a secret.

March 1940, p. 50 Edwin W. Krauter of Chicago-based Lettering, Inc. announced his patented Photo-Ray process in which a photographic print was made of assembled pattern letters, taken from alphabets made by letterers such as Ray DaBoll. The process was described as flexible: “letters may be widely spaced, scripts made to connect exactly, letters condensed, expanded, italicized or arranged in other positions.” The company offered 26 scripts and 120 romans and claimed that from them 12,000 different lettering styles were possible.

May 1940, p. 52 Louis Grodin trumpeted his Reprotype. His method was to compose letters on a “composing board” and then photograph the result. The client was given a glossy photostat. This was accomplished by a “magazine” that combined the letter fonts, composing board and camera together. Reprotype claimed it could set letters in sizes from 18 pt to 144 pt and that type could be curved, slanted, staggered or made wavy. Kerning—in the original sense of the word—could also be done.

September 1940, p. 40 American Blue Print Co. of New York announced its Camera Compositon technique after five years of development. They were eager to meet the increased demand for “flexible lettering”. Thirty alphabets had been designed by leading letterers including Warren Chappell, Gustav Jensen, Max Kaufmann and Albert Cavanagh. (The designers retained all rights to the designs and were promised royalties of 10%.) Lines were set up from these master alphabets and then photographed. The result was a glossy photostat. The Camera Composition technique was able to set lines diagonally or on a curve. Letters could be expanded or condensed; and scripts could be neatly joined.

February 1941, p. 42 The Flexo-Lettering Co. jumped into the fray with Flexo-Lettering. The process was not described but it was capable of a range of variations, including “stunt effects”: expanding, condensing, sloping and curving as well as perspective, outlines, shadows and screens.

All of these processes seem virtually identical in concept and ability. The only ones illustrated in The American Printer are the Weber Process and Photo Magnetic Lettering, both of which deviate a little bit from the model. The Weber Process relies on existing metal type rather than original handlettered alphabets. Bernhard offered decorative options in his alphabets instead of the outline and perspective. These processes followed the pioneering efforts of Ed Rondthaler and Harold Horman, who established Photo-Lettering in 1936.

Design historians should be aware that much of what appears to be handlettering in the posters, bookjackets, magazines, packaging and other graphic design of the late 1930s and early 1940s may, in fact, be “type”.