This Was Updike, Eminent Historian Of Printing Types—2
Herein is the second part of a review of Daniel B. Updike’s Printing Types.
In spite of the conservatism of its proprietor, as noted in the preceding part of this review, the Merrymount Press was one of the great printing establishments during the first four decades of this century, producing a volume of work the quality of which is virtually unsurpassed by any other American printing office.
But Updike was not impervious to the concept of reviving the Renaissance types. For example, he praised the Doves type, cut for T.J. Cobden-Sanderson’s Doves Press, calling. it “a very beautiful type.” But he also entertained reservations as to its legibility.
Of Centaur, that splendid revival of a classic type, Updike was positively lavish in his approbation.
“It appears to me,” he wrote, “one of the best roman fonts yet designed in America—and of its kind the best anywhere.”
Unfortunately he did not choose to define his italicized word. I suspect that he simply did not take kindly to the modem procedures by which the originally hand-cut types were prepared for printers of his own time.
There is not much doubt that in his later years he succumbed primarily because of the influence of his great and good friend Stanley Morison, who seemed to happily combine a love of the classic typographic forms with a respect for their adaptation to the implacable demands of modem type setting technology.
While Daniel B. Updike is unquestionably the finest American typographic historian, he was not the first. Theodore Low DeVinne (1828–1914) was a practical printer who became excited about the origins of printing types at an early age. He made himself an authority and wrote numerous books and articles on the subject. His The Invention of Printing, published in 1876 (currently available in reprint), remains an excellent technical treatise on the subject.
In 1885 the Grolier Club, of which he was a founder, published a lecture he gave at the club, titled Historic Printing Types, that represented the best American work of typographic scholarship up to that time.
This was followed, in 1900, by a practical manual Plain Printing Types, a volume in the four-part series The Practice of Typography. It is still one of the best sources of technical information on type making as an essential part of the printer’s craft.
Updike, while mentioning Devine several times in his own book. does not credit the New York printer as a possible source of inspiration. He of course knew DeVinne, personally and by reputation.
In fact, DeVinne had been the actual printer of one of Updike’s early ventures in bookmaking, the revision of The Book of Common Prayer of 1892. Apparently Updike was commissioned as member of a committee to design this book, a reluctant task on his part.
He later referred to DeVinne print ins’ as “chilled but workmanlike,” an indication of less than warm regard, but since he later chose to become involved in a history of printing type he was undoubtedly influenced by DeVinne’s earlier contribution in the same field.
Updike’s approach to typographical history was to be exceedingly different from that of DeVinne. Whereas the New Yorker had come to eminence through the small town printing apprenticeship typical of the 19th century, Updike’s career began with employment in the office of a prestigious Boston publisher, Houghton, Mifflin.
When he later formed his own company, Updike naturally turned to book printing and relished the associations formed in that specialty. The Merrymount Press was eminently successful and Updike’s reputation as a fine printer followed in due course.
While there is no record that he ever stood at the case, composing stick in hand, or fed a press, his establishment was small enough to assure his thorough awareness of the craftsmanship necessary in the production of first rate work. In 1933 he wrote that some 14,000 pieces of printing had passed through his shop, most of which had been personally examined.
He gave his first lecture on typography before the Club of Odd Volumes in Boston in 1912. It is quite possible that his performance resulted in his invitation to give a series of lectures on the Technique of Printing to the Graduate School of Business of Harvard University.
Never happy on the lecture platform, Updike nevertheless persevered with the series. It is to be wondered what the grad students in his classes thought when they were faced with such an involved esthetic approach to what they had imagined to be simply a survey course in the techniques of printing.
The artist and book designer Rudolph Ruzicka attended one of the sessions and later said of Updike that “he showed no assurance whatever of manner, however well he controlled the matter.”
It was these lectures which were to form, after much revision, the bulk of Printing Types. Its author, lacking the technical proficiency of DeVinne, agonized over the writing of the first three chapters covering the practical development of the craft, but once he reached the discussion of the work produced by the historic printers he became enthusiastic.
He had for many years been accumulating a splendid library of examples of which he was enormously well-informed. From this collection came the bulk of the illustrations, many of which had never before been reproduced.
Updike’s writing style has been described as urbane and witty, and this book supports the observation. It is filled with side remarks which are especially welcome when the text becomes burdened with names of obscure printers and titles of books in several languages, all necessary in a serious historic treatise.
An example occurs in the chapter on English Types: 1800–1844: “The Rev. John Anastasius Freylinghausen was author of a somewhat dreary book entitled An Abstract of the Whole Doctrine of the Christian Religion, which he was able to present in two hundred and sixteen pages—quite a feat when one stops to think about it!”
The most annoying—and regrettable—flaw in this great work, particularly from the standpoint of present-day practitioners, is Updike’s failure to include the types which resulted from the industrialization of printing that began early in the 19th century.
Those commercialized types which we Americans call gothics and the Europeans call grotesques are completely ignored, along with the square serif and Clarendon styles so beloved of the early jobbing printers. Also included in the ban are the decorated letters which emerged in such profusion during the last half of the century.
Updike abhorred such dereliction from earlier standards, and never accepted what he believed to be the vulgarization of the craft. In his favor, it will be recalled that he subtitled his book “A Study in Survivals,” and thus felt that the exorable commercial types did not qualify for inclusion.
In his concluding remarks in the final chapter Updike attempted to explain his attitude in this respect, writing:
“All the greater printers had a conception of what they wanted to do. They did not permit themselves to be overwhelmed by trade conditions, by so-called considerations; by ‘good business,’ or the hundred and one excuses which printers make for being too ignorant, too unimaginative, or too cowardly to do what the older men did. . . .
“In every period there have been better or worse types employed in better or worse ways. The better types employed in better ways have been used by the educated printer acquainted with the standards and history, directed by taste and the fitness of things, and facing the industrial conditions and needs of his time. Such men have made of printing an art.”
Not a bad philosophy for anyone coming to typography today, and one which can help to sustain those anxious to satisfy the broadening technological requirements of their jobs, and to maintain a solid and sympathetic understanding of how five centuries of effort have brought us all to this point.
This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the September 1981 issue of Printing Impressions.