Anatomy of a Type—Franklin Gothic

When the late Steve Watts was manager of the type foundry at ATF, he was fond of saying that while “types come and go, Franklin Gothic goes on forever”—which was just another way of reminding printers that the type was a perennial best seller.

Franklin Gothic, over the past 60 years, has been one of the best-known representatives of a style of type notable for its multiplicity of forms. It is misnamed on two counts, having no historical relationship to Benjamin Franklin, and not being a gothic—at least in the traditional understanding of the term.

If anyone can be blamed for perpetrating a minor hoax upon generations of American printers, it is perhaps the corporate body of the Boston Type and Stereotype Foundry, which issued—in 1837—a new series of types without serifs, under the name of Gothic.

Sans Serif Begins

Probably it was the bold weight of the letterform which prompted the designation. In any event, the Boston firm was the first American foundry to introduce the surface design which was entertaining great popularity in Europe, particularly in England and Germany.

At the present time, when sans serif types completely dominate the typography of the marketplace, it is difficult to recall that type founders, up to the beginning of the 19th century, sought only to please the printers. The Industrial Revolution brought printers, as the manufacturers, countless changes, for better or worse. The first evidence of these changes was the introduction of extra-bold types patterned somewhat on the forms of the Didot and Bodoni styles. Called fat faces, these types were eagerly received by printers specializing in the production of broadsides, and bills, etc.

Caslon’s Egyptian

The impact of the new commercial types evidently stimulated William Caslon IV of the famous typefounding family to experimentally offer, in 1816, a monotone type in capitals, without serifs, under the name “Two Lines of English Egyptian.” This 28-point type was the first sans serif to be offered as a printing type.

Caslon’s design did not receive immediate support, primarily because a number of serif types were introduced at the same time. But by 1825 the German firm of Schelter and Giesecke had produced a series of condensed sans serifs, which included lowercase alphabets.

In 1832 three English foundries introduced bold sans serif. One of these firms, William Thorowgood, called the style grotesque, a term which is still standard in Britain for sans serif types which originated in the 19th century.

By mid-century, all of the world typefounders were issuing such types in multitudinous variety of weight and width, a practice which continues in our own times.

styles of Franklin Gothic

Styles of Franklin Gothic (top to bottom): Franklin Gothic, F.G. Extra Condensed, F.G. Condensed Italic

Franklin Gothic Appears

When American Type Founders issued Franklin Gothic in 1906, it didn’t appear that the company needed another gothic. After the company formed in 1892, as an amalgamation of American typefoundries, a joint specimen book was issued which showed some 45–50 gothic types.

Some of these had such exotic names as Turius, Altona, Octic, Telescope, etc., but most of them were simply numbered. Many of the styles were difficult to tell apart, but all of the widths now common in gothic series were represented, from extra condensed to extra extended.

In 1896, a Cornell-trained engineer named Morris Benton joined ATF as assistant to his father, Linn Boyd Benton, inventor of the pantograph machine engraving of punches and matrices. The younger Benton was given the responsibility of standardizing the production of the foundry, which at that point was overwhelmed by the vast accumulation of matrices acquired from the member firms.

Benton Begins

Morris Benton designed his first type, Roycroft, in 1898, embarking upon a career which resulted in over two hundred designs for ATF up to 1936. It is ironic that of this prodigious output, the one type of bearing his name was changed to Whitehall since the letter “W” better fitted ATF’s inventory system for font storage.

When Benton began the cutting of the Franklin Gothic series in 1903, he was no doubt somewhat influenced by the German activity in the production of sans serif type. In 1898 the Berthold foundry produced the Akzidenz series (now known to contemporary American printers as Standard) which proved to be very popular and inspire the cutting of Reform Grotesk by Stempel in 1903 and the Venus series by Bauer in 1907.

Traditional Sans Serif

Franklin Gothic is an excellent example of the traditional sans serif letter, which relies strongly upon standard roman letter features. For example, the lowercase “a” and “g” are normal roman letter characters and in all of the letters there occurs a thinning of stroke at the point where rounds join stems. Some of the contrast of roman letters remains, although the characters tend toward the monotone.

The successor Franklin Gothic maybe noted by its availability for machine setting. The type is now manufactured by Monotype, Intertype, Mergenthaler, and Ludlow, and of course by the various phototypesetting devices.

Even with the tremendous competition of competing types in our own period, Franklin Gothic continues to be popular, although it undoubtedly suffers from being cut in but a single weight, extra bold, when other gothic families are available in several weights. The fact that the design survived the impact of the geometric sans serifs of the Futura style during the period 1926–1951, and also the revival of its own contemporaries Standard and Venus, is an indication that Morris Benton, even in his youth, had the skill to create a printing type which would withstand the rigors of recurrent obsolescence. Perhaps this is a tribute, also, to the often-maligned advertising typographers of Madison Avenue for the recognition of the type’s sound characteristics.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the December 1968 issue of Printing Impressions.


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