Amerique Septentrionale (detail).
It all began with my fascination with old maps. Long before I’d even designed my first font, in fact, my parents had given me a collection of printed maps of Texas from the 1500s to the 1900s called Contours of Discovery.
I marveled at the hand-lettered legends and place names and how they differed over the centuries—and years later modeled Terra Ignota after the lettering on one of these prints, Amerique Septentrionale, by French cartographer Nicolas Sanson d’Abbeville.
Cartographic work of Emanuel Bowen (detail).
To date, I’ve released five typefaces inspired by maps and charts from the 17th through 19th centuries, most recently my first-ever serif text-type family, Geographica. My plan was to offer two kindred fonts—a script and a hand—that simulate the penmanship on Geographica’s source materials, the mid-1700s maps of English engravers Emanuel Bowen and Thomas Jefferys.
And in rounding out the character set for the first of these, Geographica Script, I stumbled on a fascinating phenomenon I’d never heard of: trade cards. In particular, British and Colonial American trade cards from the 1700s that, like cartographic prints from the period, demonstrated ornate 18th century penmanship.
Trade card for Spermacaeti Candles (click for larger view).
The precursors of modern business cards, trade cards were designed, engraved, and printed for tradesmen, service providers, and salespeople to distribute to potential customers as introductions to (or advertisements for) their particular businesses. Not only were these cards covered in fancy, graceful round hand, but they usually also featured opulent floral designs and period illustrations of products and popular symbols—like anchors, crowns, doves, and lions rampant.
As soon as I laid eyes on 18th century trade cards, Geographica Script got a lot more interesting: it’ll come with many such ornaments.
William Hogarth illustration.
A number of the images I found—in collections from such places as the British Museum, the Museum of London, and Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library—were the work of English printmaker William Hogarth, an artist and cartoonist credited with pioneering western sequential art. The prolific Hogarth was a master at reproducing the iconic symbols of the period.
And the round hand itself on these varied, intricate cards added a plethora of flourishes, swashes, and embellishments. Curls and loops, fancy ampersands. (My OpenType-features cup overfloweth.) Plus, I learned a few things, such as the meaning of the ubiquitous abbreviation “NB” (nota bene, or note well) and the fact that, as long as 250 years ago, we English speakers were fond of the phrase “all sorts of.”
Geographica Script is taking longer than I’d imagined, but I’m anxious to find out how it’s received. (There’ll even be a unicorn!) I dare not predict a release date, but keep your eyes peeled.
Geographica Script unicorn rampant.
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A few trade card links:
• Trade cards at the British Museum
• Trade cards at the Museum of London
• Trade cards at the Fitzwilliam Museum
• Search the Lewis Walpole Digital Images Collection
• Trade cards on Pinterest
» Do this: take five minutes to listen to this TED talk by Lakshmi Pratury on letter-writing. (Just do it.)
» Here’s a transcript of the Ted Radio Hour podcast about Laskhmi Pratury’s talk (and a link to the podcast).
» Civil War amputees helped by left-handed penmanship contests…
» …and Geneva, Ohio, students participate in a Spencerian handwriting contest.
» The power of cursive penmanship in the 21st century, in response to…
» …Anne Trubek’s opinion in the New York Times (that handwriting no longer matters).
» Japan’s prime minister wins praise for his handwriting’s “good-looking characters.”