From the Archives no. 25—Bradbury Thompson and the Monalphabet

Westvaco Inspirations for Printers 145 (1944)

Bradbury Thompson (1911–1995) was a longtime proponent of a single alphabet, what he called the monalphabet. The evolution of his thinking on this subject is outlined in “The Monalphabet: Towards a graphically logical and consistent alphabet” in his book The Art of Graphic Design (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988), pp. 37–41. I recently came across issue 145 of Westvaco Inspirations for Printers, the paper company promotional magazine that Thompson art directed from 1939 to 1962. At the back is a “note on the typography”, the beginning of his obsession with the monalphabet. It is set, as is the entire issue, in lowercase letters. The type is Futura Medium. (The text is in Futura Demibold while credits and captions are in Futura Medium and headings in Futura Medium Condensed.) Here is his text in its entirety.

a note on the typography

the use of the small-letter or lower-case alphabet exclusive of capital letters throughout this issue is motivated by an interest in a more practical typography, rather than the desire to create a unique effect, as might be the reader’s conclusion upon first observation.

this usage is based upon the reasoning that one alphabet is not only sufficient but that it simplifies writing, typewriting, editing, layout and typesetting, as well as the elementary teaching of spelling and composition.

historically, the use of two alphabets came about because the roman capital letters, which are the basis for all present-day roman letters, were insufficiently functional for purposes of manuscript writing. they were too angular and they lacked the free-flowing form necessary for pen work, as they were designed originally to be cut in stone rather than written.

thus, in simplifying typography to one alphabet, the lowe case letters offer a more practical choice than the capitals because the former are identical or similar to handwritten letters; and, in addition, it is commonly accepted that they are more readable due to greater variation in shape.

although use of the one-letter alphabet may seem. and ideed is, a radical departure from traditional usage, there are some historical precedents to indicate that the change might logically evolve out of functional merit alone. one instance is that of roman numerals, which in the early centuries of printing were used more commonly than the arabic, but which were gradually displaced by the more readable numbers in use today.

another precedent is to be found in english printing: germanic blackface letters were used exclusively by british typographers for nearly a century, but were gradually superseded by the simpler roman letters that originated in italy.

suggestion of a one-alphabet typography is not original with this magazine. various designers and writers, here and abroad, have described and illustrated the possibilities for over two decades.

Thompson is paleographically wrong about the angularity of the Roman capitals. Whether designed or not to be cut in stone, they were written with a broad-edged brush first in a fluid manner. This has been amply argued and demonstrated by Father E.M. Catich. The real problem with the Roman capitals was their carefully balanced form and fine details, which were not suited for rapid writing with a reed pen on papyrus at much smaller sizes. The Romans solved this with the creation of other capital styles, rustic and uncial, as well as cursive forms.

Thompson’s example of the shift from Roman numerals to Arabic ones implies that the change occurred due to the better readability of the latter. But the real driving force was the place-value system associated with Arabic numerals which revolutionized Western mathematics and accounting.

Finally, the shift from blackletter to roman letters in England was not due solely to the greater “simplicity” of the latter, but involved issues of language, religion and politics. Thompson’s argument rests on some faulty history.