From the Bookcase no. 3—Benjamin Sherbow

Title page, Making Type Work

Making Type Work
Benjamin Sherbow
New York: The Century Co., 1916

When I posted From the Archives no. 16 about Fred Farrar and Gilbert Farrar and From the Bookcase no. 2 about E.R. Currier and Samuel A. Bartels Matthew Carter emailed me and asked why I had overlooked Benjamin Sherbow. I had not meant to do so. I just did not have a copy of any of his books to hand at the time. Now I do.

Benjamin Sherbow is as shadowy a figure as Fred Singleton and the Farrars*. A small obituary in the 7 September 1922 issue of Printers’ Ink (p. 12) notes that he was 44 years old when he died, indicating that he was born in 1878. It goes on to say that he was born in Germany of Russian parents and that he immigrated to the United States in 1886. Sherbow was employed by the Curtis Publishing Company—the same place that Currier worked at one time—when he was hired away by Earnest Elmo Calkins (1868–1964) to be a copywriter at his advertising agency, Calkins and Holden. “Mr. Sherbow is said to have been probably the first person to occupy the position of typographer in an advertising agency,” the obituary says. This claim probably derives from one that Calkins made that Sherbow was the first person to style himself a typographer, whether in advertising or any other branch of printing and the graphic arts. This occurred c. 1907. Certainly Sherbow was already famous enough that the young W.A. Dwiggins, in passing through New York in 1908, made sure to visit him.

Sherbow left Calkins & Holden sometime in the 1910s and set himself up as a typographic consultant. One of his most famous consultations was with the New York Tribune. His restyling of the newspaper in 1917 was considered a landmark in American newspaper typography by Allen Hutt, author of The Changing Newspaper: Typographic Trends in Britain and America 1622–1972 (London: Gordon Fraser, 1973). He writes, “The Sherbow ‘free’ upper- and lower-case style was a direct challenge to the established formalism of American headlining, with its stiff opening decks in condensed capitals…. Ben Sherbow’s Bodoni lower-case restyling of the Tribune was not only revolutionary, but long-lived.” What Sherbow had done was to advise the newspaper to shift from headlines in all caps to upper-and-lower case; and to use ATF Bodoni. This revolution, as Hutt styled it, caught on with other American newspapers, albeit slowly, and eventually became the norm. He says that it was made possible by the fact that Morris Fuller Benton and American Type Founders were issuing excellent display typefaces by this time. (However, the December 3, 1918 front page of the New York Tribune reproduced on p. 96 of Hutt’s book does not show ATF Bodoni used for the main head, only for the subheads. Instead, the typeface is a chunky oldstyle italic in the Cheltenham vein. What it is exactly I do not know as there is nothing like it in McGrew. It might be Foster Italic, if such a design existed. McGrew only shows Foster roman.)

New York Tribune front page (December 3, 1918) after restyling by Sherbow

For a physical description of Sherbow, Hutt quotes John E. Allen of Mergenthaler Linotype, “That experimenting typographer, a wide-hipped little man with a high-pitched voice, usually had a curved-stem pipe going full blast and a cloud of tobacco smoke about his head as he worked away on his unconventional newspaper pages.” (p. 95). Sherbow may have been seen as an “experimenting typographer” by people in the newspaper business, but his views on advertising typography were decidedly conservative. Printers’ Ink said of him: “Mr. Sherbow’s strong forte was simplicity. In all his work he steadily contended that readableness should come before frills in advertising typography.” This assessment is borne out by his views in Making Type Work, probably his most influential book. (His other principal works are the four volumes of Sherbow’s Type Charts (1917), which were apparently a staple in advertising agencies for several decades, and Effective Type Use for Advertising (1922).)

Making Type Work is not a pretty book. It is a pragmatic, rather than theoretical, approach to typography. Its focus is on advertising typography, though Sherbow takes many of his precepts from Theodore Low DeVinne. (By advertising, Sherbow essentially meant graphic design as he includes booklets, catalogues, brochures, mailers, envelope stuffers, testimonial letters, and other items.) Sherbow’s method is to show examples of bad typography followed by his improved versions. He constantly changes the typography of his book to make clear his views on type size, letter spacing, word spacing, line spacing, etc. In this regard, much of Making Type Work anticipates Erik Spiekermann’s renowned Rhyme and Reason: A Typographic Novel (1987). What follows are some extracts from the book to give a flavor of Sherbow’s typographic thinking.

“Since there is always more than one good way of arranging any given piece of text, I shall try to avoid laying down rigid rules.” p. 1 [this is pure Spiekermann in attitude]

Making Type Work, pp. 48–49

“Print depends for its proper effect, first of all, upon various qualities in the face of type selected: its readability, color, distinction of design. Print depends for its effect not alone upon the face of type selected, but also upon its size; not alone upon the type itself, but also upon its spacing, its arrangement, its combination with other types.” p. 1; [the factors are vitally dependent upon each other p. 2]

Making Type Work, pp. 80–81

Making Type Work, pp. 82–83

Making Type Work, pp. 84–95

Making Type Work, pp. 86–87

“Advertising print to do its job must:
“1 command attention
“2 get itself read
“3 get itself understood
“4 get itself acted upon” p. 2

“Any willful eccentricity of arrangement that hinders the clear flow of the text injures the chances of the advertisement to get itself read and understood.” p. 7

“Begin with the copy.
“Many books are begun with a pretty dummy. Copy and illustrations are patted, squeezed or stretched to fit the curves and twists of the dummy until the real purpose of the book—the advertising of a product or service—is lost in the making of something ‘artistic.’
“Begin with the copy.” p. 11

“Use decoration frugally. Don’t bedizen your book.” p. 12

“…consider the size of the book from the standpoint of convenient mailing, reading, reference, filing. The tendency should be toward compactness without cramping.” p. 12 [<I>Making Type Work</I> lives up to this credo. It is 5 x 7.5 inches in size.]

“Select the right size of type for your book first. That’s the logical way to begin with type. Do not try by main force to squeeze type and cuts into an arbitrarily determined number of pages.” p. 13

“The initial should be set as an integral part of the text, closely tied up to it. It should not be set as a lonesome letter floating in space….” p. 38

“Break by sense in arrangement of display lines.” p. 40

Making Type Work, pp. 40–41

“Bold display type is not the only way of being emphatic in print. In a newspaper or magazine advertisement you may sometimes get a good deal more emphasis by the use of a large amount of white space, than by bold display.” p. 53

“Printed matter must be more than readable—it must be easy to read.” p. 86

“The reason we put words into type is to have them read.” p. 87 [do not take easy readability for granted]

“Spacing is probably the most difficult problem in type arrangement. It is the last thing anyone ever learns to do well.” p. 88

“By spacing I mean the placing of pieces of type metal of varying degrees of thickness between single letters of type, between words, between lines and between paragraphs.” p. 88

[better to fill out a line by putting space between words than between letters; only small capitals should be letterspaced] p. 89

[capitals in display can be letterspaced, but it should be done with discretion] “A word should look like a word and not like a collection of single letters.” p. 89

“There is no real need for the usual wide space before the beginning of a new sentence.” p. 92

“There is no fixed rule about the proper amount of space to place between lines. It depends on the type face and the size you are using. Less leading for small types; more leading for large types. More leading for black-face types than for those of lighter face.” p. 95

[there is no need to indent the first paragraph of a chapter since there is white space above it to indicate the break in thought] p. 98

“The common-sense use of spacing in advertising print means to place together ideas closely related in thought and to keep apart ideas not closely related in thought.” p. 100

Making Type Work, pp. 64–65

Sherbow argued for white space, saying that it was more important than making type bolder. But he was against an equal distribution of white space within a design, stressing that it was crucial to mass the white space to achieve impact. (See p. 58 and the examples on pp. 64–65.) As modern as Sherbow can seem in moments like this, there are others where he is clearly a product of his time. One is the section (pp. 68–69) where he discusses the differing personalities that typefaces can have using such clichéd notions as feminity, strength, dignity, etc.

Making Type Work, pp. 68–69

Disappointingly, Making Type Work ends abruptly once Sherbow has discussed how to typographically design extracts and testimonial letters. There is no summary or concluding remarks.

*Steven Heller briefly mentions Sherbow in his article “Commercial Modern: American Design Style 1925–1933” (p. 62) in Print magazine, but he gets the dates wrong.  The March 1935 issue of PM magazine has an article on Sherbow which I have not seen.