William Caslon’s Typographic ABC (1991) Marie Dern Double-sided leporello. H11 x W14 mm. 28 panels. Edition of 55, of which this is #1. Acquired from Bromer’s, 5 February 2023. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
One of the most common precursors to the codex, the leporello, accordion or concertina structure suits this celebration of what is considered the first original English typeface, designed by William Caslon (1692–1766), used to set both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and so dominant a font since the 18th century that it prompted its own dicta: “When in doubt, use Caslon”. In Marie Dern’s hands, though, the accordion structure is anything but common. Rather than zigzag folding a long strip of paper, she has attached her panels to two parallel strips of linen tape and left just enough space between the pairs of panels to have the hinged leporello fold down into a precise oblong shape.
Caslon has featured in such outstanding books as Oliver Byrne’s The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid: In Which Coloured Diagrams and Symbols Are Used Instead of Letters (1847), nearly an artist’s book in its own right. Dern might have been more immediately inspired, however, by Chris Van Allsburg’s whimsical children’s book The Z was Zapped: A Play in Twenty-six Acts, Performed by the Caslon Players (1987). From the start, bending the alphabet full circle to the ampersand, Dern’s own whimsy extends beyond the letters themselves.
L: from Byrne’s The First Six Books. Typeroom, 23 January 2020. Accessed 8 March 2023. R: from Van Allsburg’s The Z was Zapped. Photo: Books On Books Collection.
Given its age and dignity, Caslon attracted a fair amount of rock throwing from designers (especially in the 20th century). While Dern may have her own whimsical fun with Caslon, she doesn’t let the rock-throwers off scot free. Her Caslon’s G puts Frederic Goudy on notice that size does matter, and the Caslon S reminds Eric Gill of the emperor’s new clothes.
Other alphabetical typeface celebrations in the Books On Books Collection include Nicolas McDowall’s A Bodoni Charade (1995), Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich’s Bembo’s Zoo (2000) and Sharon Werner & Sharon Forss’ Alphabeasties and Other Amazing Types (2009).
Morison, Stanley. 1999. A Tally of Types New ed. [3rd ed.] ed. Boston: D.R. Godine. Caslon is not even included in Morison’s “tally” of seventeen typefaces. It appears on pages 24-27 in his introduction “revised & amplified” by Phyllis M. Handover. Even there they enlist Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker and William Morris to chuck additional rocks in Caslon’s direction on pages 37-38.
From Hornbook to ABC Picture Book was organized by four members of the Corps 8 collective. They issued it with the financial backing of the Zeeuwse Nederland Bibliotheek and under the auspices of Drukwerk in de Marge (Printing in the Margin), a foundation established in 1975 by likeminded amateur printers and publishers. Drukwerk in de Marge recalls The Typophiles, a similar group founded in the 1930s in New York that attracted great talents like Frederic Goudy, Bruce Rogers and Beatrice Warde. Like Drukwerk in de Marge, The Typophiles stimulated quirky publications. One of them — Diggings of Many Ampersandhogs (almost the last word on the ampersand) — resides in the Books On Books Collection and, until now, lacked an appropriate partner covering the preceding twenty-six characters of the alphabet.
Van Hornbook includes four brief essays. Following in the footsteps of Andrew White Tuer’s History of the Horn-Book, the first two — “Van Hornbook & Haneboek” / “Of Hornbook & Handbook” and “Van Beeldalfabet & ABC-Prentenboek” / “Of Picture Alphabet & ABC Picture Book” –provide historical context for the format and its successors. Only four hornbooks have survived in the Netherlands, dating from the eighteenth century, so like Tuer, Van Hornbook‘s essayists rely on images from popular historical prints to show the hornbook’s appearance and handling. To the three hundred illustrations of History of the Horn-Book, the Nederlanders add this:
So, Master Jordje! With AB boardje And cane on high. Your earnest weening Leaves children keening As school draws nigh!
The print dates to 1785. The Dutch collective’s undertaking and their contributors’ offerings for the leporello are all the more notable for such a narrow historical margin on which to build.
The work’s four editors have the last say with “Verantwoording” / “Explanation”, which is an extended run-up to the colophon. The leporello is printed on 180 gms Antik Gerippt Bütten by Hahnemühle, and the essays are on 130 gms. The heavier weight of the leporello’s panels must have been an open invitation for the contributors to show off. Aside from the constraint of print area, the “Hornbook preparation group” seems to have imposed only one other layout requirement: that each double-panel spread display the same horn-book shape on its left-hand panel. As the images below show, this was just the right touch of uniformity to spark rather than impede the contributors’ creativity and individuality.
In English, the text beneath the two images here reads “A is an Augustin, the standard size in letterpress. An Augustin is equal to a cicero and has twelve points. Two Augustins and 2.5 points equal one centimeter.” Under the image of the shoe, Silvia Zwaaneveldt (De Baaierd, Leiden) converts into points the traditional measure for the “foot”: a foot would equal the size of the king’s foot, which eventually was standardized to twelve inches, which — to save us from chasing after Willem-Alexander or Charles III with a pica stick — is 72 Augustins.
In their contribution for the letter B, Dick Wessels and Ferrie van Ramele invent a fictitious typeface Barbaar, named to allow them an extended joke about the outsider (or barbarian) status of Margedrukkers among traditional printers. If the Dutch reader misses the tongue-in-cheekiness of the entry, the colophon gives away the game:
Realisatie: BYpers, een gelegenheidsinitiatief van Dick Wessels en Ferrie van Ramele. Letters: Barbaar en Yplex (beleg) en Lectura (brood). / “Realization: BYpers, an occasional initiative of Dick Wessels and Ferrie van Ramble. Letters: Barbaar and Yplex (icing) and Lectura (cake).”
Elze ter Harkel (De Vier Seizoenen, Groningen) concocts two panels of verbal and visual puns on the letter C. The alliterative wordplay in the doggerel of “Confetti” is too Dutch and deliberately nonsensical for a satisfactory replica in English, but its reference to cellulose is a clue to the visual papermaking pun in the C’s bubbling up from the pulp vat next to it. Also referring to paper, the panels’ best pun hides in the last altered word of Cicero’s saying “Charta non erubescit“. This is usually translated as “Documents don’t blush”, meaning you can express opinions in print you might blush to express in person, but charta also means “paper”. With the “e” changed to a “c” in the last word, the Latin now means “crumble”. So, it’s “Paper doesn’t crumble”, which ought to make the winking punster blush a little.
Antje Veldstra (Antje Veldstra Grafiek, Groningen) is an award-winning woodcut artist. Almost all of the X-words in her couplet are the Latin names for trees: Taxodium distichum (Bald Cypress), Larix (Larch), Quercus Ilex (Holm Oak), Taxus (Yew) and Salix caprea (Goat Willow). The first two words, however, — xeno and xylo — are prefixes. The first means “alien,” “strange” or “guest” as in xenophobia (“fear of foreigners”). The second means “wood” as in xylography (“the art of engraving on wood or of printing from woodblocks”). But what is so strange or alien about these trees? The clue is in the background (lower left) of the birch print. Those are runes, the ancient marks of mystery and secret language. The most easily distinguished are ᚷ (called Gebo, associated with gift and fortuitous outcome) and ᛖ (called Ehwaz, associated with horse and movement). In her craft, Veldstra, however, does not leave us with the ancients. The last entry — en bovenal Russisch berkentriplex — is Russian birch plywood, commonly used for engraving.
If there remains any doubt about the tone of the entry for B by Dick Wessels and Ferrie van Ramele, consider their entry for Y.
Y is a special case. Eccentric and rare, barely good for a few pages in the dictionary: it owes its survival perhaps mainly to the strength of conventions and the cultural-historical significance of the alphabet as a whole. Without this support, the Y might have already been killed off, on the advice of a government committee that concluded that we could very well make do with the IJ. Economical and transparent, entirely in keeping with contemporary principles.
But so balanced in form, standing firmly on one foot and evoking thoughts of a glass of sparkling red wine, a vase of roses, arms raised to heaven…. Such a letter deserves to be preserved and added with its own name to the ever-expanding stage of letter designs! The Yplex represents the strength and beauty of the marginal figures among the letters of the alphabet, a few of which we still find in this hornbook.
Although still a marginal appearance, that will soon change after the publication of this hornbook. In the register of the new edition of Groenendaal’s Printing Letters, the Yplex will be the only one shining under the Y. Stand by for the Yplex!”
The last letter of the alphabet bedevils abecedarians in every language. Sjaklien Euwals settles on zetduiveltje: “typesetter’s or printer’s little devil”. Word for word in English, the caption reads “Z is the typesetter’s little devil that will not let me loose”. The image rules out the English expression “printer’s devil”, which refers to the printshop apprentice. Euwals’ little devil is the green and red gremlin who leans over her shoulder, grabs her wrist and makes her drop letters from her composing stick. In other words, the imp on whom to blame typographical errors. To capture Sjaklien Euwals’ humor in translation, we might have to go with “Z iz the typezetter’z gremlin that won’t let looze.”
Given the affinity between artists’ books and children’s books (particularly alphabet books), it is surprising how few works of book art pay homage to the form of the horn-book. Van Hornbook tot ABC-Prentenboek sets a high bar. Perhaps increased awareness of it will prime the pump for primers.
“Elder Futhark“. Last edited 11 August 2022. Wikipedia. Accessed 27 October 2022.