Tag Archives: book arts

Spelling Alphabets

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Writing manuals of the 16th century were created as illustrated training books as one of the earliest forms of distance learning. They were made to instruct literate students the specific hands and practices required to be a commercial scribe or secretary. They were often designed to be advertisements for the writing master as well, and as such, beautiful books in their own right.
The 17th, 18th and 19th centuries expanded the scope and audience of writing books. Books concerned with teaching a wider audience the tools of literacy and communication became common. By the 19th century, British and American books, as well as toys, were being manufactured to address younger students. I wanted to concentrate on early writing manuals, but kept an eye out for material that fell outside of the 3R’s of standardized education. My experience with the Joseph SeavyWriter’s Assistant (more to come) had heightened my interest in the unusual, even if it wasn’t strictly a writing manual. Education expands one’s mind and horizons, just as this trip enlarged my understanding.
Every time I visit a library, I take a trip. Often it’s far away from the present into some distant past. I’m transported to another landscape, another mind, another experience. The librarians I encounter are the custodians of these worlds. I enter through the portal of the reading room. Like any traveler, I consider myself a guest, trying to abide by local custom, leaving my assumptions behind. What passes as an acceptable practice in one library is verboten in another. What is the rarest of treasures here may be a commonplace rare book elsewhere.
At the Firestone, I  called up material from the Rare Books Division, Graphic Arts collection, and the Cotsen Children’s Library. All the material is accessed through the online catalog. The person paging items brings the material to the desk, and the desk attendant (sometimes a librarian) brings the material to the desk. Princeton allows more than one item on the table at a time, making it easy to either scan material or do a comparative review.
The Cotsen Children’s Library holds a number of spelling alphabets in various forms. These are small, hand-held disks or rectangles where the letter is engraved into the surface and colored to show the letterform.
The ivory disks offset the colored letter, making me want to pick them up and hold them. There’s a satisfyingly organic connection when handling them which delighted me. In this particular set, the obverse of each disk had a 3 letter word accompanied by an illustration engraved and painted.
At the same time, I called up “Alphabet of bone letters” which is housed in “wooden box in the shape of a book with sliding lid.” These little letters and their box were fun to play with and arrange. Cotsen’s librarian, Andrea Immel comments about cut out letters and dating from typographic evidence in this post. when I spoke to her about these objects, she was quite helpful in answering questions about this type of educational realia.
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Bone alphabet letter box; carved box in shape of book
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Bone alphabet letters in box
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Bone alphabet letters laid out
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Bone alphabet letters in box
Going back in time, this German 16th century disk appears to be a teaching aid as well.
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German bronze alphabet
Realia designed to teach the rudiments of the alphabet and spelling (and reading) aren’t writing manuals, but I had to spend time with these materials because they do relate to scribal practice.
On February 3 – 6, I will be presenting a bit of realia and typography at CODEX VII, a biannual book fair held in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have traced and modified letters from Giovann FrancescoCresci’swriting manual.   Entitled Percussive Roman, the typeface is 100pt. type laser engraved by Magnolia Editions on maple dowels.
These are meant to be inked one at a time, then placed on the paper, with the impression being made by a  blow from a mallet. While the typeface plays with reversed ground/figure relationships in type, the thinner, right-reading chip is part of a set of 53 characters in the Spelling Alphabet. I have added an ampersand to the set of upper and lower case letters. These are a direct outgrowth of the material I found in the Cotsen Collection.
Next post, I’ll write about the rest of the writing manuals and primers I viewed at the Firestone Library.

Palatino’s: Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere… 1545

Library of Congress Jefferson Bldg.
Library of Congress Jefferson Bldg.

I found my way to the Library of Congress from Chicago after a few adventures on the road, but I’m going to leave those stories for another post.

The Rare Books & Manuscripts division is in the Jefferson Bldg. They have a few nice books there & I got to see more than just two.

However, it was a treat to look at two different copies of the 1545 Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere that they hold. One is the Rosenwald copy and the other is the Fabyan copy.

Palatino's Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere Z43.A3 P3 1545 Fabyan in a Carolingian vellum leaf Rosenwald in an early binding
Palatino’s Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere
Z43.A3
P3
1545
Fabyan in a Carolingian vellum leaf
Rosenwald in an early binding

The 1545 copy is a reprint from the 1540 publication. I haven’t looked at two copies of the same title of any writing manual from the same issue date. At Iowa I’d taken a look at 3 Bickhams from different years and the production variations were evident. I thought it might be fun to see what kind of variations there would be in two books from the same publication date and presumed that they were from different printings of the same year.

Palatino's Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere Z43.A3 P3 1545 Fabyan (top) Rosenwald (bottom)
Palatino’s Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere
Z43.A3
P3
1545
Fabyan (top)
Rosenwald (bottom)

The Rosenwald copy isn’t trimmed as tight as the Fabyan. There are more generous margins on the Rosenwald book.

The paper looked the same as I started to go through it and the printing was comparable in terms of coverage. Inking on the reverse blocks varies but that’s to be expected.

Palatino Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere Z43.A3 P3 1545 Fabyan (top) Rosenwald (bottom)
Palatino
Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere
Z43.A3
P3
1545
Fabyan (top)
Rosenwald (bottom)

I kept looking for a variation in block formatting or change in something as I went through the books.

Palatino Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere Z43.A3 P3 1545 Fabyan (top) Rosenwald (bottom)
Palatino
Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere
Z43.A3
P3
1545
Fabyan (top)
Rosenwald (bottom)

The imposition of blocks was the same throughout the books. As I was going through them, I noticed a variation in the signature marks at Cii – not surprising if they were printed at different times.

Palatino Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere Z43.A3 P3 1545 Fabyan
Palatino
Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere
Z43.A3
P3
1545
Fabyan
Palatino Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere Z43.A3 P3 1545 Rosenwald
Palatino
Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere
Z43.A3
P3
1545
Rosenwald

When I went through the books a second time, I got a little excited because I hadn’t seen any other variation i the printing order or blocks. The rest of the letterpress was all the same.

Palatino Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere Z43.A3 P3 1545 Fabyan (top) Rosenwald (bottom)
Palatino
Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere
Z43.A3
P3
1545
Fabyan (top)
Rosenwald (bottom)

Then I went through them again and looked at how the blocks lined up and looked for obvious variations in the show-through and found so much similarity in impression and inking and paper that I suspect they were printed in the same press run.

Palatino Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere Z43.A3 P3 1545 Fabyan (top) Rosenwald (bottom)
Palatino
Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere
Z43.A3
P3
1545
Fabyan (top)
Rosenwald (bottom)

The Fabyan copy has an owner’s practice on the verso of the last page.

Palatino Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere Z43.A3 P3 1545 Fabyan (top) Rosenwald (bottom)
Palatino
Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere
Z43.A3
P3
1545
Fabyan (top)
Rosenwald (bottom)
Practice lettering Palatino Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere Z43.A3 P3 1545 Fabyan
Practice lettering
Palatino
Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere
Z43.A3
P3
1545
Fabyan

I mentioned this possibility to Mark Dimunation and he seemed interested. When I return, I’ll gather more information and see if my theory holds up to greater scrutiny.

University of Iowa Center for the Book

At the Paper Lab of the University of Iowa's Center for the Book
At the Paper Lab of the University of Iowa’s Center for the Book

Last week I rode into Iowa City on Tuesday morning. The ride up from Texas had been really hot and I was in light pants and a t-shirt under my riding suit. I’d left the back vent open and was chilled to the bone an hour after starting at 6:30 that morning. I had to stop, drink coffee and eat to thaw. The temperature was in the 60s but I’d been riding in the 90s and 100s previously and I wasn’t prepared for such cool weather.

After that, it was a pleasant 200 mile ride to the Paper Lab in Coralville, just a few miles from the main campus. Tim Barrett, director of the Center for the Book, paper scholar and master papermaker was expecting me. I stowed my motorcycle gear, donned my tennis shoes and headed into Iowa City to have lunch with Cheryl Jacobsen, a very talented calligrapher and instructor at the Center for the Book. I was invited to speak at the start of Cheryl’s beginning calligraphy class that evening and we had a pleasant talk about what I’m trying to do. Cheryl’s classes are well attended and it’s gratifying to see that calligraphy and lettering are getting the attention of students today.

The Conservation lab at the University of Iowa Library is tucked away in the Government Docs section on the 5th floor
The Conservation lab at the University of Iowa Library

After lunch, I visited the conservation lab at the library. My good friend, Giselle Simon has been at the library for 3 years after working at the Newberry Library in Chicago. This is a small world and people I’ve known at one place often end up somewhere else. This phenomenon will repeat itself as I continue to travel East. Giselle’s a talented conservator and book artist and runs a pretty happy department at Iowa. I was fortunate to meet a few of the technicians and learn of their own skills and interests. A conservation lab often has talented technicians that work every day at the bench to conserve and preserve the library’s material. I enjoy seeing how people use their work skills in their own efforts.

Papermaking classroom at the University of Iowa Center for the Book
Papermaking classroom at the University of Iowa Center for the Book
Paper and mould
Paper and mould at UICB
Standing Press in the paper classroom at the UICB
Standing Press in the paper classroom at the UICB

Tim Barrett is a thoughtful and meticulous craftsman with a strong interest in the aesthetics of historic paper. He has spent quite a few years making papers that emulate Renaissance era paper. Two videos from 2013 and 2014, document the UICB paper lab’s attempts at making 2,000 sheets in a day. One of the things they learned that old rags are more porous and allow for better drainage than fresh material. And a paper mill had support staff beyond the three people at the vat. It took a team of 11 or more people to produce 2,000 sheets in a day.

Writing about historic craft processes is often done without the experience of doing that craft and approaching duplication of materials, techniques and conditions present in the period being studied. Tim and his team took the time and effort to investigate the question by doing. This kind of research is useful as it tests theories with experience.

Portrait of Scalzini. Note the surface of the paper
Portrait of Scalzini. Note the surface of the paper

As you may have guessed from this long post, I’m interested in paper. Was the paper used in writing manuals different than printed books of the same period and locale? What qualities are needed to get a good impression from a woodblock or a copperplate? Did the printmaking process require a different tooth or surface? More sizing or none?

I asked Tim these questions as a means of developing some sensibility to the substrate that writing manuals were recorded. I’ve been photographing paper surfaces and looking at smooth/rough and thin/thick papers to gather information. I’ll report back later after I’ve seen quite a few more books.

Many Thanks!

Many Thanks!
Many Thanks

Thanks to all who contributed  to Motoscribendi!

The final count was $6,579 and this will allow me to print and make all the Perks (they will begin going out next week) and then allow me at least 45 days on the road. While 45 days isn’t a long time to travel 12,000 miles and visit almost 20 libraries (yes, the number has increased since I started this!) I will still spend a few days at each institution and gather information, look at the books and work with librarians to develop the Census.

Below are some shots Jennie Hinchcliff took at a presentation I made at the Letterform Archive.

Motoscribendi smacky prints
Motoscribendi smacky prints
Bookcase at the Letterform Archive
Bookcase at the Letterform Archive
Pointing out a manuscript exemplar at the Letterform Archive
Pointing out a manuscript exemplar at the Letterform Archive
Van de Velde & copy
Van de Velde & copy
Pairings from bamboo pens cut by Ward Dunham
Parings from bamboo pens cut by Ward Dunham

I owe a ton of thanks to a number of people who encouraged me as well as helped organize the project. Next week I’ll get things organized enough to do a proper thank you as I have been scrambling to get all the artwork completed, sent to printers: T-shirt, sticker and offset printers.

I will be on the road by Wednesday night, August 5th. And I’ll probably leave at 8:00 pm and make all of 100 miles before I stop! I’ll continue the blog from the road.

Finding Libraries with Writing Manuals

What is a Writing Manual?

Writing manuals teach a student how to form letters and write a particular style of writing or hand. Often, a writing manual discussed ink recipes, paper selection, how to cut a quill into a pen and how to hold it. They came into widespread use in the first quarter of the 16th century as a way to teach students how to be scribes. The first writing book to be published was written by Ludovico degli Arrighi’s La Operina and was printed from a text cut in wood.

Books with text cut in wood had been available prior to the invention of moveable type, but those books were meant to be read for the text only. With metal type, there was no way to illustrate how to form letters, and Arrighi had his text engraved in wood and printed from these blocks of text. Writing manuals quickly became Renaissance best sellers. Writing manuals were popular books because they showed how to write specific styles and they were designed to be beautiful books.

Because the text was cut in wood (later engraved in copper), the blocks were saved for later printing and often printed by different printers. Their useful life could extend beyond a century. This gave rise to a dizzying number of variants and titles.

Giovanni Batista Palatino composed and published Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivener  in 1540. As you can see from the title, the advertiser’s favorite “New and Improved” marketing technique was born. Julie L. Melby at Princeton’s Graphic Arts collection does a fine job of writing about these books in Palatino’s Tools of Writing.

The Bancroft Library’s copy Compendio del gran volvme dell’art del bene & leggiadramente scriuere tutte le forti di lettere e caratteri… from 1588, shows a previous owner’s attempt at writing out the text in the margin.

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1588 Palatino @Bancroft Library. Student has copied part of the text in the lower margin.

Where are these books located & how do I find them?

The heavyweights in the history of writing have written about these books for a century. People like Stanley Morison, Alfred Fairbank, James Wardrop and Nicholas Barker dove deep into this subject. These guys were interested in how handwriting influenced type design and how these books were made and printed because they were primarily illustrated books about letterforms. Illustrated in wood or metal, the text might be all cut (therefore illustrated, not typeset) or an admixture of typographic and xylographic (woodcut) or copperplate. If you’re really interested in this, you can get lost in the subject and never even see one of the actual books. There is so much literature in both books and journals that you could spend a year reading and know only a little.

Because I have spent a lot of time looking at these books all over the US, I’m familiar with their location and know where the major collections are. Making a census of books by location will assist scholars in their research. Without this type of finding aid, it is difficult to know what is in an institution since items are not cataloged in a way that they can be found online.

I invite readers to suggest institutions with writing manuals and copybooks that I may have missed.

Map it!

I am drawing a map that will give you a view of where I’ll be headed – and loosely, when. Then you can follow along, and if I discover more institutions along the way I can visit them. The trip will begin in the Bay Area and head in a counter-clockwise direction around the US and into Canada.

Leaving the locals till last, I’ll give you a quick highlight: Huntington Library, Harry Ransom Center, UTAustin, Library of Congress, Folger Shakespreare Library, Scranton, Philadelphia, Princeton, New York Public Library, Columbia University, Yale, American Antiquarian Society, Harvard, Toronto, Chicago, Iowa City, and home to the target-rich environment of the Bay Area.

Amphiareo, 1580. Letterform Archive. First horizontal writing book.
Amphiareo, 1580. Letterform Archive.
First horizontal writing book.

Locally, the Bancroft Library at UCBerkeley has a number of items, San Francisco Public Library, Stanford and the Letterform Archive. You’ll be hearing about this new institution as my friend Rob Saunders has turned his private collection of material about letterforms into a nonprofit organization that offers digital images of the collection as well as on-site study for type designers, calligraphers, lettering artists and historians.

I’ve got a few things to prepare for my Indiegogo launch on June 19, and will be back in a day or two with more.

Here’s a few woodblock items I’ve done and printed letterpress.

Woodblock, on press with print pulled away from block.
Woodblock, on press with print pulled away from block.
Woodblock alphabet, cut in reverse. Printed letterpress.
Woodblock alphabet, cut in reverse. Printed letterpress.
Woodblock printed letterpress
Woodblock printed letterpress

Motoscribendi: Libraries, Historic Calligraphy Manuals, Book People and Motorcycles

Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library
Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library

Motoscribendi

My name is Nicholas Yeager, I’m a scholar, librarian, motorcyclist and scribe.

You know what the first three are, but what’s a scribe? Every time you write something with a pen, you are inscribing the paper (or other substrate) with your handwriting. A scribe may be called lettering artist or calligrapher these days but there was a time when the only way to record information was by writing it down. And the people that did that were called scribes.

Motoscribendi will chronicle my travels – yes, by motorcycle – to major collections of old writing manuals, copybooks and lettering instruction manuals at libraries across North America. These visits will enable me to develop a catalog of representative writing manuals that will help people locate these scattered resources. (Despite a resurgence in type design and lettering art, there’s still no centralized way to find them.)  The trip will also help me produce a modern writing manual that pays homage to this type of book.

A Little History

If Gutenberg were trying to destroy the scribal industry by inventing printing back in the 15th century, he blew it. Because one of the unintended consequences of printing was to establish a permanent place for calligraphers and scribes. Printing didn’t eliminate scribes, it created even more need for scribes to record legal, commercial, theological and medical correspondence. And printing allowed writing masters a method of recording their exact lettering instructions to teach students far from their writing schools.

How to hold the quill pen
How to hold the quill pen

My Story

Thirty-nine years ago I began to study calligraphy and the history of the book. With Patti Downing, I began a manuscript study group at the Newberry Library in Chicago. We studied various hands and book design, early printing and the large collection of writing manuals that are housed at the Newberry.

My interest in these books stayed with me and I continued to study them at the Harry Ransom Center, Columbia University’s Rare Book Room and as a librarian at New York Public Library.

Horfei's Roman Capital A
Horfei’s Roman Capital A at the Harry Ransom Center

Along with this I practiced calligraphy and graphic design, wrote about and edited calligraphic and book art publications and studied descriptive bibliography and the history of printing. I teach calligraphy and lettering and make pieces for shows and for sale.

Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library
Juan Yciar 1564 Bancroft Library

While I moved around the country, I rode motorcycles for most of that  time, having begun riding when I was 13. My love of long-distance motorcycling didn’t have an opportunity to develop until I was in my 40s and has since been a major component of my life. I have traveled to library trade shows, exhibitions and workshops on my motorcycle. Riding lets me discover what lies between the major cities I travel to – and to be fully present in all those places. It gives me the same feeling of immersion and discovery I get from studying a writing manual. In both cases, a lot of the most interesting stuff is hidden in the finest details. It needs to be experienced up close and in person.

Stroke sequence

My trip will start in mid July. I hope you’ll come along  especially if you’re new to these books and their history. I’ll discuss their design, printing and collecting history as well as my talks with historians, librarians, printers and other book arts practitioners across North America.