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During the Renaissance, philosophers and artists sought a mathematical formula that would relate the proportions of the human body to proportion in architecture, art, and printing. This mathematical relationship was referred to as the "golden mean" or the "divine proportion." Printers and designers of lettering also used this in their designs.

B. P. (Benjamin P.) Wilme.

A Manual of Writing and Printing Characters: Both Ancient and Modern, for the use of Architects, Engineers and Surveyors, Engravers, Printers, Decorators, and Draughtsmen. London: Pub. for the author, by John Weale, 1845.

In 1845 Benjamin P. Wilme, a civil engineer and surveyor in London, produced this treatise on letterforms for "the Schoolmaster, the Architect, Engineer, and Surveyor, and their pupils." It gave only brief instructions on lettering, but included 26 lithographed plates showing a wide variety of alphabets and letterforms.

Geoffroy Tory, ca. 1480-ca. 1533.

Champ fleury; translated into English and annotated by George B. Ives. New York, Grolier, 1927.

Subtitled "The Art and Science of the Proportion of the Attic or Ancient Roman Letters, According to the Human Body and Face," Champ fleury is the most famous example of the Renaissance pursuit of an ideal proportion between humanity and the letters in which its achievements were recorded.

The Grolier Club edition of Champ fleury was designed by Bruce Rogers, one of the greatest typographers of the twentieth century.

Stanley Morison, 1889-1967.

Fra Luca de Pacioli of Borgo S. Sepolcro. New York: The Grolier Club, 1933.

Luca de Pacioli (1446/7-1517) was an Italian mathematician and teacher. De divina proportione includes diagrams of the shapes and proportions of classical Roman letters.

Reynolds Stone.

A Book of Lettering. London: A. & C. Black, 1939 (1943 printing).

Lettering manuals were used by the hobbyist as well as by the professional. A Book of Lettering includes letters for the embroidery and for decorating with leather.

David Lance Goines, 1945-

A Constructed Roman Alphabet: a Geometric Analysis of the Greek and Roman Capitals and of the Arabic Numerals. Boston: D.R. Godine, 1982 (Lunenburg, Vt.: Stinehour Press).

Goines, an artist and writer, is best-known for his posters. A Constructed Roman Alphabet won the 1983 American Book Award.

Initial Letters

The tradition of ornately designed, oversized initial letters goes back to medieval illuminated manuscripts in which they were used to illustrate and decorate the text. In the nineteenth century, a gothic revival of medieval design brought back their use. This reached its full flowering in books from William Morris's Kelmscott Press. In the twentieth century, initial letters were used more as part of an overall design with a more modern expression.

Parables of our Lord. London: Longman, 1847.

Parables of our Lord was printed by chromolithography in gold and colors by Henry Noel Humphreys and bound in papier-mâché to simulate the carved ebony bindings of the Middle Ages.

Joseph Pennell, 1867-1926.

Letter L (Self-Portrait). Ink, ca. 1890-1900.

Joseph Pennell was a celebrated etcher, illustrator and teacher.

Mark Samuels Lasner Collection

William Morris, 1834-1896.

The Tale of Beowulf; done out of the Old English tongue by William Morris and A.J. Wyatt. Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1895.

Design for twelve initial letters for The Tale of Beowulf. Pencil, India ink, and Chinese white on sheet of wove paper [1895].

Mark Samuels Lasner Collection

The admiration of William Morris for the beauty and craftsmanship of early printed books led him to open the Kelmscott Press in 1890. There he developed typefaces, ornaments and illustrations that were reminiscent of Renaissance printing, but were also influenced by the nineteenth-century Pre-Raphaelite and the Arts and Crafts movements. The initial letters are an essential part of the aesthetics of the page as a whole.

The English Bible: Containing the Old Testament & the New… Hammersmith: Doves Press, 1903-1905.

Bookbinder and designer Thomas J. Cobden-Sanderson (1840-1922) founded the Doves Bindery with Emery Walker in 1900. The English Bible is considered the masterpiece of the press for its elegance and simplicity. The type that they designed for the book was based on the roman type of the 15th-century printer Nicolas Jenson. The calligraphic initial letters are stark and simple and a perfect match for the type.

The Four Gospels of the Lord Jesus Christ according to the Authorized Version of King James I. With decorations by Eric Gill. Waltham Saint Lawrence, Berkshire: Golden Cockerel Press, 1931.

Considered to be the typographic masterpiece of the first half of the twentieth century, The Four Gospels combines the modern and the medieval. In Gill's dramatic and imaginative initial letters, leaves curl into the spaces between paragraphs, swords hang down into the margins, and the symbols of each evangelists hold up the title of their gospel.

Liam O'Flaherty, 1896-1984.

Two Lovely Beasts: and Other Stories; with illustrations by John H. De Pol. New York: Devin-Adair, 1950.

Wood engraving of initial letters for Two Lovely Beasts, 1950.

Woodblocks with initial letters for Two Lovely Beasts, 1950.

The engravings for Two Lovely Beasts were inspired by John De Pol's travels in Ireland. The University of Delaware Library is the repository for the papers of John De Pol.


During the medieval era, monks decorated religious manuscripts with gold, silver and other brilliant colors, or with elaborate tracery and miniature designs. The technology of early printing did not allow for this decoration except by hand. With the development of the chromolithographic printing process in the mid-nineteenth century, it became possible to recreate the brilliant colors of the medieval manuscripts. Many books were published during the Victorian era with illuminations copied from the early religious works.

Hand Book of Illuminated Initial Letters: from the 6th to the 18th Century. London: Newbery & Compy., ca. 1860.

Many of the illuminated letters are based on the original examples in British libraries.

F. (Freeman) Delamotte, 1814-1862.

Mediæval alphabets and initials for illuminators. London: E. and F.N. Spon, 1861.

Delamotte was a wood engraver who wrote several popular works on illumination for both profession and amateur artists.

Sign Painters' Alphabets

Sign painters, architects, engravers, and commercial artists turned to design sample books for ideas for their own work. Many books and magazines were available to the trade with both classic and modern alphabets.

Archibald McLees, (1817-1889).

A Series of Alphabets: Designed as a Text Book for Engravers and Painters of Letters. New York: Published by the author at 609 Broadway, c1855.

Archibald McLees founded an engraving company in New York City that published stock certificates and other financial documents as well as books.

L. Prang & Co.

Prang's Standard Alphabets. Boston, U.S.A.: L. Prang & Co., c1886.

Louis Prang immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1850 and established a commercial lithographic company in Boston. He became the best known printer of popular chromolithography in America, producing books, cards, toys and artistic prints. He also produced several alphabets for the printing trades.

Louis Ramade.

Nouveau recueil pratique de lettres modernes à l'usage des peintres. Paris: Monrocq, ca. 1900.

This is a book of alphabets for the use of sign painters.

R. Henderson.

The Signist; a compilation of the most modern and artistic designs, valuable to sign writers, draughtsmen, designers, architects, engravers, etc. New York: A. V. Benoit, c1903.

The Signist was a catalog of designs for all types of drawing and printing trades.

Henderson's Sign Painter; a Compilation of the Very Best Creations from the Very Best Artists in their Specialties, Embracing All the Standard Alphabets… Newark, N. J.: R. Henderson, c1906.

In 1906, R. Henderson published this compilation of lettering and sign layouts, many printed in full color. It features the work of the highly skilled and influential Denver artist, John Ohnimus, who also lettered the striking cover

F. A. (Frank Albert) Church, b. 1887.

Old English Capitals in Eight Sizes. Chicago, Ill.: Published by Service and Sales Bureau, American Stone Trade, c1915.

This book of large alphabets was made for engravers of monuments, grave stones and other stone work.

Charles Jay Strong.

Strong's Book of Designs: A Masterpiece of Modern Ornamental Art, Comprising New Ideas and Designs of Every Conceivable Sort of Interest to the Sign Painter, Card Writer and Commercial Artist. Chicago: Frederick Drake & Co., c1917.

C.J. Strong was very influential in the commercial art world at the turn of the twentieth century. He also owned and operated the Detroit School of Lettering and a mail order supply company. Strong's Book contains examples of exotic alphabets and designs for posters, show cards, letter heads, book covers and hanging signs.

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