From the Archives no. 8: The New Typography Hits a Speed Bump in the United States

This editorial from Vanity Fair is a small but telling indication of the difficulty that the new typography had in gaining a toe-hold in America in the late 1920s and 1930s. When the anonymous author refers to the “new typography” he is probably speaking of die neue Typographie of Jan Tschichold et al in mind, but it is not entirely clear since he mentions it as having started c.1920 and associates it with advertising. Many design observers in the late 1920s and early 1930s used the terms “modern typography” and “new typography” to refer more to Art Deco experiments in France than to the theories emerging from Germany and Eastern Europe.

The subtitle of the article is repeated three times to show the various options available typographically.

Vanity Fair

March 1930

“in VANITY FAIR; a note on typography / A NOTE ON TYPOGRAPHY / A Note on Typography”

p. 31

Vanity Fair presents the case pro and con capital letters in titles, writing finis to an experiment

Vanity Fair has for the past several months omitted capital letters in the titles and sub-titles of its articles and illustrations. The hawk-eyed reader will note that this issue of Vanity Fair returns to capital letters. Posterity anyway will be grateful for a review of the considerations that have led Vanity Fair, first to dispense with capital letters in its headings and now, after a trial period of five issues, to return to them.

Typography without capital letters was introduced in Europe soon after the Great War and has been working westward ever since. It has not been used so much in text, but in all situations where the value of display is paramount it has been extremely popular. Thus, the intense competition of advertising, where the least optical advantage makes itself felt at once, has already made the modern typography familiar to Americans.

[paragraph 3 explains how capitals derive from the Romans and small letters from the time of Charlemagne and how the two were fused together in the Renaissance as part of the revival of classical learning, and then adopted by punchcutters] It would now seem illogical to continue to submit to what was simply an historical accident, a symbol for the conceit the Renaissance felt in its newly acquired sophistication in the culture of Rome. Probably, as a matter of fact, the mere omission of a capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence or a title is the least significant or permanent item in the program of the new typography.

Any art, particularly any art with a function as utilitarian as that of typography, consciously or unconsciously conforms itself to the peculiar temper of the living and contemporary civilization.

The realization of this end takes the form of the arrangement of pictures on the page, of various kinds of type, of new methods of photography, of decorative treatment, of the massing of type on the page, and so forth. And incidentally the omission of capital letters in titles. All this is really compulsory for any magazine that pretends at all to a place in the modern parade. Nothing would amuse and shock the reader more than to pick up a current magazine composed in the fussy and dignified convention of the magazines of the 1880’s.

The eye and the mind can adapt themselves to new forms with surprising ease. An innovation stands out at first like a sore thumb but before it has passed its infancy it has become invisible to the conscious eye. The unconscious eye, however, is another matter. It is vaguely dulled by the stale and hackneyed, it is antagonized by the tasteless and inept, and it is completely stopped by the involved and illegible. The unconscious eye is a remorseless critic of all art forms, it awards the final fame and the final oblivion. Thus, the conscious eye may endorse at the very moment that the unconscious eye is absolutely condemning. And, on the other hand, the conscious eye may continue to complain irascibly of innovations for some time after the unconscious eye has given them its final approval.

In using, and continuing to use, the new typography, Vanity Fair believes that it knows very well what it is doing. In modifying one of the conventions of the new typography by returning to the use of capital letters in titles, it is obeying considerations that outlast any mere ‘revolution in style.’

Three main factors dominate typography: first, appropriateness, as affected by the time, the place and the function of the material; second, attractiveness, ingratiating the eye and so the mind; and finally and most importantly, legibility. The page may look as handsome as you please but if there is to be any authority in words and ideas the page must be read. A title set entirely in small letters is unquestionably more attractive than one beginning with a capital or with every word beginning with a capital, but, at the present time, it is also unquestionably harder to read because the eye of the reader is not yet educated to it. The issue is thus one between attractiveness and legibility, or between form and content, and Vanity Fair, not wishing to undertake a campaign of education, casts its vote by returning to the use of capital letters in titles, to legibility, and to the cause of content above form.

It may be said here that Vanity Fair has always and will always cast its vote in that way. While it has tried to perfect its appearance, it has continued to believe that to refuse to be a Magazine of Opinion is not necessarily to be frivolous. Better things are said in one moment of even-tempered gaiety than in a lifetime of spleen.

The notes on this page are not alone to announce a change in typographic style, an event sufficiently self-evident and hardly worth announcing. They are even more particularly to re-affirm some old pledges of Vanity Fair and to submit to the final tribunal of its readers the credo of present policies. The assumption of its readers’ interest may be naive but Vanity Fair rests in the belief that it is not unwarranted and subscribes itself, your very obedient servant.


[The article is set in ATF Bodoni for the text and Futura for the headline and subhead. The art director, M.F. Agha, was presumably responsible for the no-capitals title experiment. And it was most likely the editorial side of the magazine that put a halt to it.]