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Handbill Typography

I love it when I see it, but the elusive typeface genre, which I didn’t even know had a name until very recently, has been all but a mystery to me. Full of historic and cultural influences, at times reminiscent of antique playbills, it has the ability to connote the past beautifully whilst also maintaining a contemporary integrity.

Consistent with it’s enigmatic nature, Bringhurst doesn’t mention them in his type bible and Google searches have proved futile. So then dear designers, perhaps you could shed some light as to where these fonts come from, which are your favorite, and where should one look for more info about them. Thanks in advance!

Thanks to Ryan for the topic and entry.

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PUBLISHED ON Dec.17.2003 BY Kiran Max Weber
Armin’s comment is:

Seems like a better place to ask this would be over at Typophile. You'd probably get better feedback from the type geeks… I mean type geniuses.

BTW, for some reason when I see this sort of type I think of the fine design of Sam Potts Internationale.

On Dec.17.2003 at 10:35 AM
Kiran Max Weber’s comment is:

Seems like a better place to ask this would be over at Typophile.

Typophile geniuses Speak Up!

On Dec.17.2003 at 10:44 AM
jonsel’s comment is:

Most of that stuff is from old wood type, I believe. Victorian handbills had all sorts of crazy typefaces mixed willy-nilly. Some of it feels very old-west, some very royal and detailed, and some more classical, like the Clarendon-based words in your sample, Kiran. I love the stuff.

On Dec.17.2003 at 11:12 AM
marian’s comment is:

At AIGA I bought "Quack, Quack, Quack: The sellers of nostrums in prints, posters, Ephemera & Books" by William Helfand. Incredibly I have not yet read or even looked at the pictures in this book. Just cracked it open, and I think you'd like it: some good handbills in there.

(BTW, it's Bringhurst--unless theree a type bible writer I don't know about called Brinkhurst)

On Dec.17.2003 at 11:28 AM
ps’s comment is:

the fontshop offers a service where you can eMail of fax them a typesample and they will tell you what it is. i've used it a few times and they seemed to know what they were doing. another reason why i prefer to buy type there than at adobe.


On Dec.17.2003 at 11:36 AM
Scott d.’s comment is:

One of the fonts that you link to looks like Rosewood Fill.

There are some additional fonts such as PT Barnum.

I've seen some well done playbill style design recently and I'd also like to know where more of these fonts can be found, since the fonts I've seen have been very elegant, and have not been the ones I listed.

On Dec.17.2003 at 11:44 AM
jonsel’s comment is:

There was a site — but I just noticed it is down today — with lots of woodtype fonts

revived from old specimens. I hope the site goes back up, because there's great stuff in there. I've downloaded a few fonts when they were posted as free samples, but there was plenty more that can be purchased inexpensively.

On Dec.17.2003 at 12:00 PM
sena’s comment is:

I love this kind of type. Here is a sample from some work that I did earlier this year. It uses 3 of my favorite handbill typefaces: Vineta (at top and bottom), Willow ("...eggs in one basket..."), and Blackoak ("...WAS...").

Rosewood Fill, as Scott d. mentioned, is another good one. And it's showing up in a lot of Starbucks Coffee collateral these days.

On Dec.17.2003 at 12:10 PM
Sam’s comment is:

The second one is Vineta (which is quite similar to Profil)--yes? They both look like digital versions--are they, Kiran?

I do love me a good shaded type. Does it get any better than Agency Open or Gill Shadow? Mmm, nope. I'm also partial to Rosewood without the crap inside it:

However, Rosewood Fill is easily up there with Mrs. Eaves for overuse.

As for book sources, Bringhurst wouldn't be the place to look for sources. Van Nostrand Reinhold (who seem not to have a site) publishes a big book of woodtype that has tons of this stuff, and I'm sure Dover does too. It's interesting--I can't find the Rosewood or Vineta designs in any of my old specimen books, under any name. Not even in the Photo-Lettering One-Line catalogue which is about the best damn thing to read in the bathroom. Profil is in The Berry & Johnson Encyclopedia of Type Faces which is wonderful because it gives a little history and because it has Mondial and Orplid.

More book listings at TypeNow.

Also: How to be a Font Detective.

On Dec.17.2003 at 12:16 PM
Sam’s comment is:

Also, you don't see any Rosewood or Vineta in heaven.

On Dec.17.2003 at 12:18 PM
Stephen Coles’s comment is:

Scott's Rosewood recommendation is a good one. It's a part of Adobe's Wood Type series which includes a bunch of fat and fancy western types.

"Tuscan" is a category of headline type that is characteristically handbillish. The style has been discussed several times at Typophile: 1 / 2 / 3. There was even a critique of a tuscan pixel font!

Also, Dan Solo's books are full of funky old wood alphabets.

On Dec.17.2003 at 12:23 PM
Scott d’s comment is:

Sena, great sample, the fonts are excellent. And, as a few people have mentioned I too have seen Rosewood used more and more.

Thanks for all the links, I've been searching for some fonts other than Rosewood to use for this playbill style.

On Dec.17.2003 at 12:43 PM
rebecca’s comment is:

Does anyone else think this could be crosslisted with the "future has-beens" subthread going on right now? I feel like the last year has been rife with circus typefaces, but the Celebrity Poker ads that saturated Bravo! over Thanksgiving is the only concrete example that comes to mind. Am I crazy?

On Dec.17.2003 at 01:16 PM
rebecca’s comment is:

Oh, and I got all the type for this cover from Dover's reissue of Clarence P. Hornung's Early Advertising Alphabets, Initials and Typographic Ornaments.

On Dec.17.2003 at 01:24 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

Rob Roy Kelly put together a fairly comprehensive book on wood type faces in the 60s. I'm not sure it is in print any longer, but they turn up on ALibris all the time.

On Dec.17.2003 at 01:25 PM
rebecca’s comment is:

Okay, actually I take that back: I got some of it from the original edition of that book. The Dover edition is abbreviated. I'll stop now.

On Dec.17.2003 at 01:25 PM
Paul’s comment is:

I agree that this stuff has been pretty overused recently, but I still really love looking at it. In fact, speaking of old Clarence P., just the day before yesterday I bought an amazing picture book called Handbook of Early Advertising Art by him (Dover, 1956) which is just filled with great examples of this kind of type, as well as some awesome ornament collections. I cannot resist buying a book like this when I find one. (and at only $9, it was a steal!)

My old website and identity used to rely heavily on Rosewood Fill, so its overuse in recent years has really put a final, sad nail in its coffin. Here's my old card, circa 1999. (I know, I know!)

On Dec.17.2003 at 01:38 PM
marian’s comment is:

Sometimes I take the url to a specific discussion on Speak Up and drag it to my desktop for future reference. This is one of those times.

On Dec.17.2003 at 01:44 PM
Ryan’s comment is:

Color me curious but all this reference to wood type faces has me wondering. Are wood types simply artifacts only to be viewed in type specimen books?...or have they been digitized for today and are simply referred too as wood types becasue of the process they came out of? Sincere gratitude to everybody for the very helpful examples and links thus far.

On Dec.17.2003 at 01:49 PM
Sam’s comment is:

MyFonts's What the Font? is also really really handy, not to mention just plain amazing. Does anyone know how this works? Are there computers involved?

On Dec.17.2003 at 01:49 PM
Stephen Coles’s comment is:

Yeah, Sam. Lots of computers. Every glyph of every font in their database has its own record and they are checked for matches when you upload a sample.

On Dec.17.2003 at 01:54 PM
Stephen Coles’s comment is:

Ryan - Most of these digital fonts are replicas of actual wooden type — from before the age of photo type or computers. The small stuff was metal, but the large stuff was wood because it was lighter and cheaper. These handbill types were usually larger for headlines — anywhere from 24 pt. to massive foot-high letters.

On Dec.17.2003 at 01:58 PM
Adrian’s comment is:

Hatch Show Print has a nice book out and had a few other items at Barnes and Noble.

On Dec.17.2003 at 02:08 PM
Sarah B.’s comment is:

Like Sena, I have used Willow and other like it quite often for playbills and theatre items the like.

We also use :hides: Impact a lot too for our theatre billboards and posters.

And we even had the opportunity to do a small run (small production - personal invite) with some wood type and hand printed them - so fun fun fun!!!

On Dec.17.2003 at 02:19 PM
Andrew Pollak’s comment is:

Here is a website I designed a couple years ago. Sort of embarrassing, but I thought it is a perfect example of ROSEWOOD MADNESS.


On Dec.17.2003 at 02:25 PM
eric’s comment is:

slightly off topic, and not to unhinge Ryan's effort, but it's nice to see you around again Kiran.

On Dec.17.2003 at 02:35 PM
Adrian’s comment is:

Wrecked. Nice use of handbill type and good looking personal portfolio site.

On Dec.17.2003 at 02:38 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

On the topic of Woodtype, I'll have to mention my old hangout: Blinc. I wouldn't call it fine typography (thought it was fun typography), but I also got to work on some 'revival' wood faces for Chank.

And, yes, if you are ever in Nashville, visit Hatch Showprint. A mini-mecca for anyone interested in this stuff.

On Dec.17.2003 at 03:21 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

I know everyone complains about its overuse, but I love this stuff and can't get enough of it. As long as it's used well, you'll hear nothing from me.

Hey Coles, any idea where www.woodentypefonts.com went?

On Dec.17.2003 at 04:16 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

Does anyone think some of the wood type resurgence can be traced to Paula Scher's '94 Public Theater identity and posters? That's my first real awareness of it, but I was just starting art school then, so '94 was my first real awareness of real design in general.

On Dec.17.2003 at 04:17 PM
eric’s comment is:

jon, don't you think the wooden type thing is just a normal reaction to computer type ala early Emigre etc?

On Dec.17.2003 at 04:21 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

Definitely, Eric. It's one reason I use it for my own personal identity. With so many "electronic" forms of communication, I love that a wood letter is something I can take with me wherever I go. A typographic outline file is a bit harder to grasp, physically.

As valuable as the web is — especially for fostering communities amongst far-flung people (hello, Speak Up) — it is dreadful for history's sake. In 50 years, who is going to be able to view Speak Up's archives and include it in their history of design criticism? Where is the record of all the dot-com sites that came and went? We still have physical copies of leaflets and posters and more important artifacts like the Dead Sea Scrolls from ages ago. Maybe a copy of Stop Being Sheep will be found in Sam's dusty attic, but everything else? Poof. Gone like a syquest.

On Dec.17.2003 at 04:46 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

In 50 years, who is going to be able to view Speak Up's archives and include it in their history of design criticism?

The Wayback Machine is a start. It's a small start, but a start.

And yea...one of these days I need to find someone with a syquest drive to revive some of those ancient files...

On Dec.17.2003 at 05:22 PM
pk’s comment is:

Seems like a better place to ask this would be over at Typophile. You'd probably get better feedback from the type geeks.

um? type geeks? bitch.

actually, there's not much i like more than drawing a true outlined and dropshadowed character. i don't see many of those published any more. some nice chiselly new things over at hoefler.

playbill typography: didn't someone mention yee haw in another thread? i went to school with these guys. they rock the barn down...and they interned at hatch way back when.

On Dec.17.2003 at 06:46 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Bitch? How dare you? You, you… you type geek.

On Dec.17.2003 at 08:48 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:

I read recently that the Victorians's practical motivation for mixing different display types on things like playbills was the simple fact that typecases would not have a lot of characters available in any one font. So switching from line to line was a way to conserve a limited resource. (Oldsters like me who used to work with Letraset transfer lettering should be able to relate.) What was once a necessary evil has now become a beloved style. By most at least: I did it once while I was working for Massimo Vignelli and he hated it, thought it was fake, corny nostalgia. Probably still does.

On Dec.18.2003 at 06:58 AM
pk’s comment is:

Bitch? How dare you? You, you… you type geek.

layout artist.

On Dec.18.2003 at 07:18 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Commercial layout artist please.

On Dec.18.2003 at 08:28 AM
Dmitri S.’s comment is:

A little history from the Link

Wood was used for letterforms and illustrations as far back as the first known Chinese wood block print, dating from 868. With the expansion of the commercial printing industry in America in the first years of the 19th century, it was inevitable that someone would perfect a process for cheaply producing the large letters so in demand for broadsides. Wood was the logical material because of it's lightness, availability, and known printing qualities. Chief among these qualities was wood's ability to be manufactured with a smooth surface (unequal cooling causes metal type to be concave on top).

Darius Wells of New York found the means for mass producing letters in 1827, and published the first known wood type catalog in 1828. Wells introduced a basic invention, the lateral router that, in combination with a pantograph introduced by William Leavenworth in 1834 constituted the essential material for mass-producing wood type.

On Dec.18.2003 at 08:31 AM
Dmitri S.’s comment is:

I mean

A little history from the Hamilton Woodtype Museum

On Dec.18.2003 at 08:33 AM
jonsel’s comment is:

Anyone here been to the Hamilton Museum? It's a little out of the way for me, but I'd love to make a pilgrimage someday. To Hatch in Nashville as well.

On Dec.18.2003 at 09:30 AM
pk’s comment is:

su and i went to the hamilton with chester and tracy from thirstype last summer. it rocks out. possibly su could post something here about it...he grabbed quite a bit of art from there. there's a somewhat-resident artist whose name i can't remember doing some great stuff.

On Dec.18.2003 at 09:50 AM
freelix’s comment is:

Anyone here been to the Hamilton Museum?

is that in Upstate? theres the Hecksher up in Hamilton... its in a converted old High School Gym. Please save yourself now...

On Dec.18.2003 at 10:49 AM
jonsel’s comment is:

Upstate Wisconsin, not NY. I've been to Hamilton, NY. Nothing much there besides Colgate U.

On Dec.18.2003 at 11:00 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

Some nice photos of the museum (scroll down)

On Dec.18.2003 at 01:30 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

BTW, there's no such thing as 'upstate' Wisconsin. It's called the 'northwoods'.


On Dec.18.2003 at 01:31 PM
Scott d’s comment is:

The most issue of HOW (February 2004) is dedicated to typography. A few of the free fonts websites that they profile have a couple of fonts that are appropriate to this discussion.

One of those sites is the Astigmatic One Eye Typographic Institute.

On Dec.18.2003 at 02:50 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

any idea where www.woodentypefonts.com went?

I found it, if anyone is interested.

On Dec.19.2003 at 10:10 AM
Armin’s comment is:

What's up with all the cheap 3d? Not very wooden.

On Dec.19.2003 at 10:15 AM
Stephen Coles’s comment is:

Yeah, that boggles me too, Armin. I think he'd do better just showing the fonts straight up. Some of them are pretty nice.

On Dec.19.2003 at 09:03 PM
Gerardo Reyes Jr’s comment is:

Everyone interested in this topic should visit the

On Dec.21.2003 at 02:09 PM
Gerald Lange’s comment is:

In case it has not been mentioned, there is a very good book on handbills and other printed ephemera called _Printed Ephemera_!!! Out-of-print but copies are generally available on abe.com.

But, whoever said that cast metal type was concave on top was mistaken. The use of antimony in the alloy mix allows for the metal to be cast without shrinking or other similar anomolies. Early on, bismuth (sp?) was used for the same purpose. A gift to early printing from the alchemists.

Hand carved wood was used quite early in printing (for illustrations and block books) but the use of wood type for display was a phenomonen issued in with the Industrial Revolution. The large advertising posters used to sell all the products of commerce required something lighter than lead and with the invention of the pantograph engraver, wood fit the bill quite nicely.

On Dec.23.2003 at 10:43 PM