Where do bold typefaces come from?

alexfjelldal's picture

Where do they come from? When did they emerge? The reason this question came to my mind, is that I seldom see bold serif fonts that i like. When i find a sans i like, i seldom like it's bold version. I don't think this has ever happened with a serif. For example, I think the bold garamonds I've seen are plain ugly. They don't look "natural" to me. how come?


Ken Messenger's picture

You're correct bold faces were not in the original lexicon of type. Neither was italic for that matter. To my knowledge bold types found favor during the industrial revolution and rampant commercialization that followed. "Make the type bigger" predates "Make the logo bigger"

Dan Gayle's picture

That makes it nice if you're planning on buying an "old" typeface like a Jenson revival. No need to waste the dough on a bunch of bold variants that are a)inauthentic and b)ugly. With today's opentype fonts, all you need to purchase is two types, regular and Italic, because the small caps and old style figures are included in the set.

Instead of bold, most oldstyle typography used small caps. That's one thing that Bringhurst brings up. The italics were a separate style of type altogether.

Bold fonts were originally their own typefaces, but when the different foundries started consolidating, all sorts of stuff started getting tossed together into groups willy nilly. Blah.

TBiddy's picture

I see its time for the talk. When a "mommy" serif and a "daddy" serif love each other verrrrrry much... ;)

crossgrove's picture

So then the "Mommy" serif gets bold after that? And then the small caps come out?

Eric_West's picture

Define 'original lexicon' please.


According to this, italic has been around for quite a long time, but it was used by itself and not as emphasis (as today). Plus or minus 1490 seems pretty original to me.

alexfjelldal's picture

So before the industrial revolution, there were no bold typefaces? weren't there any variations within a font family regarding color?

Bison Design

ebensorkin's picture

I don't know if there was an idea of 'bold' one way or the other as a concept but there were bold looking letters as far back as Rome I can tell you for sure. Sans Serif too. Maybe not conceived in the same way - certainly but letters that lacked serifs. And guess what? Sometimes they were the same letter. Imagine that, and you are off to a very good start. Can't see it?

Take a look:


My guess is that they may have said 'fat letter'. But I would also like to know the actual answer.

Mark Simonson's picture

The idea of weight variations of a single typeface family happened in the late nineteenth century. Before that, bold typefaces existed, but were considered to be separate typefaces, even if they seemed to follow the style of a lighter typeface. Same thing with condensed and extended. Morris Fuller Benton is credited with the idea, around 1900, of a typeface family, with a range of weights and widths.

paul d hunt's picture

there any variations within a font family regarding color?

blackletters were the original boldfaces according to robert bringhurst in the elements of typographic style.

Nick Shinn's picture

In 1850 London, before the Caslon revival, there were very few foundries and they all had pretty much the same typeface for basic text work. So although families as such did not exist yet, everything was nonetheless related. Here there are two versions of bold -- a "Clarendon" and a "Fatface".

Actually, the contrast between a bold Clarendon and a Regular Scotch Modern is preferable to Regular and Bold of the same typeface, which is a relationship typographers have been tempted to use since families have been marketed with weight variants.

This is from 1875.

Nick Shinn's picture

From 1893. The typographer decided to use an "ultra bold" to get sufficient contrast with the regular text. But the two weights are properly aligned and have the same x-height.

For sans serif, the Bold weight was way more used till well into the 20th century, so the question there should be "where do regular weight typefaces come from?"

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Come on, people, everyone knows that all fonts, whether bold or regular, come from your computer. ;-)

Paul [EDIT] and Nick, just to add to your comments [END OF EDIT], Alexander Lawson, in Anatomy of a Typeface, mentions that in 1850s England the name Clarendon became synonymous with boldface. He goes on to say:

"The idea of using a boldface character for emphasis rather than an italic became well established with Clarendon, a practice that remains common in commercial printing, principally newspapers."

James Mosley's picture

For the record, the Clarendon type of the Besley foundry is indeed the first type actually designed as a ‘related bold’ – that is, made to harmonize in design and align with the roman types it was set with. It was registered in Britain in 1845 under the new Ornamental Designs Act of 1842. But when protection ran out after only three years, the other founders also thought a related bold was a good idea. This is how Besley reacted.

But the idea of a ‘bold face’ goes back much further. Before the launch of Clarendon type printers picked out words in slab-serifs or any other heavy type. In the 18th century they used ‘English’ or ‘Old English’ types, which is why they became known as ‘black letter’. John Smith says in his Printer’s grammar (London, 1755). ‘Black Letter … is sometimes used … to serve for matter which the Author would particularly enforce to the reader.’
He means this sort of setting, from a mathematical handbook published in London in 1740:

poms's picture

Does somebody know when the english term "blackletter" appeared the first time?

In german we talk about "gebrochene Schriften" (broken fonts/scripts), if we talk about the "fontgenre" so far. (Fraktur, Textur, Rotunda, s.o.). We don't talk about something like "black scripts" or similar.


timd's picture

>Does somebody know when the english term “blackletter” appeared the first time?
According to OED

1640-4 Charge agst. Abp. Canterb. in Rushworth Hist. Coll. III. (1692) I. 115 His diligence to send for the Printer, and directing him to prepare a Black Letter, and to send it to his Servants at Edenburgh, for Printing this Book. 1712 ARBUTHNOT John Bull II. vii. (1727) 60 The Seven champions in the black-letter. 1871 EARLE Philol. Eng. Tong. §99 The form which is known to us as ‘Black Letter,’ and which was hardly less rectilinear than the old Runes themselves.

1791 MAXWELL in Boswell Johnson an. 1770, He loved..the old black-letter books. 1800 RITSON Rob. Hood II. iv, From an old black-letter copy. 1808 W. IRVING Salmag. xviii. (1860) 410 There was a certain black-letter dignity in the name. 1820 Sketch Bk. II. 90 He was a complete black-letter hunter. 1845 LD. CAMPBELL Chancellors (1857) IV. lxxiv. 6 Not much of a lawyer compared with the black~letter men of these days. 1855 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. III. 31 He scornfully thrust aside..all that blackletter learning. 1862 BURTON Bk. Hunter I. 18 He was not a black-letter man, or a tall-copyist, or an uncut man. 1864 Reader 23 July 105/1 The collection of black-letter ballads.


James Mosley's picture

It's one of those things that creep up on you. When most printing is being done in roman type, by contrast this 'old English' textura gothic suddenly looks – well – black. So that is what it is called on the Caslon specimen sheet of 1734.

I prefer 'gothic' as a handy general term for all the types that are known as 'broken' type or letterforms in German – Fraktur, Schwabacher, textura, rotunda, bâtarde, civilité – but this can be tricky in the US where gothic became the name for sanserif. Which must be why it's called black letter (or blackletter) instead.

poms's picture

Thank you for the information, Tim

Maybe blackletter as a term was invented at the time, the "english writing" world went away using brokenscripts/brokenfonts as textfonts.
And used black- and bold versions of "brokenfonts" for display, headline and so on.
A mad thesis? What do you think?

James Mosley's picture

That's about it, I think. Having a good strong colour, it was good for the names of newpapers at the head of the front page – the masthead. And sometimes, though not always, there were the overtones of 'tradition' that tend to attach to it and keep it in use today.

dberlow's picture

Thanks for all the great pictures James!

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Thanks, James.

Dan Gayle's picture

the Clarendon type of the Besley foundry is indeed the first type actually designed as a ‘related bold’ – that is, made to harmonize in design and align with the roman types it was set with.
So does the original roman still exist that Clarendon was designed to match?

Maxim Zhukov's picture
  • Does somebody know when the english term “blackletter” appeared the first time?

What about 'whiteletter' referred to by Bringhurst?

Nick Shinn's picture

James M, I don't think blackletter constitutes boldface in the sense we are discussing, as the style is unrelated to the plain roman. One might just as well say that Italic is light.

But your Clarendon example appears to determine the fons et origo!

Nick Shinn's picture

Blackletter nameplates for newspapers originated with the 1712 introduction of newspaper taxes in Britain, when the sudden increase in paper costs forced publishers to economize on the amount of space alloted to the title line, minimizing its type size and choosing the darkest type then available, which was blackletter. (John E Allen, Newspaper Designing, Harper, 1947).

James Mosley's picture

So does the original roman still exist that Clarendon was designed to match?

Dan, the Clarendon in that example from the Besley specimen is supposed to match the shape of and align with the roman it appears with. Not that closely, you may say (and I'd agree) but more so than a completely unrelated slab-serif. Incidentally, roman types of the 1840s were tending to become more compressed, which must be why the normal width of Clarendon looks condensed to us. The wide version of the type, a beautiful piece of type-making (presumably, like the Clarendon, the work of the house punchcutter Benjamin Fox, a partner in the Besley foundry) was recast from original matrices (or electros thereof) by Stephenson Blake in the 1950s under the name of Consort.

I recall that this question of the 'related bold' was discussed in the original registration document for the Clarendon type in order to back up the foundry's argument that it was an original design. I can't currently put my hands on the text, so have been meaning for some time to go back to what we now call the National Archives and get a copy. I'll report back.

And no, 'black letter' is not a 'related bold'. Sure is bold, though.

Nick Shinn's picture

As a style, Fatface predates Clarendon.
Would not printers have combined Fatface with "Regular", for purposes of contrast?

poms's picture

>James M, I don’t think blackletter constitutes boldface in the sense we are discussing…

Maybe the term blackletter came from the textsetting apperance of (especially) Textura. The "boldish", even aka black apperance of the textblock on a page.

>Except for this, from 1524, or is it just BIG?
Yes, i think

James Mosley's picture

Would not printers have combined Fatface with “Regular”, for purposes of contrast?

That's totally logical. But I don't think they did, though. At least not in the same line. Maybe it's that matter of keeping the alignment, which is what the related bold should let you do. Note though that the Clarendon in my example has a larger x-height than the roman it accompanies, so the alignment has been contrived by casting it on the bigger body of the roman.

gerry_leonidas's picture

A good essay on the development of Clarendons and their echo in later decades is on Mitja Miklavčič's wiki page (direct link).

Nick Shinn's picture

There is something uncanny about the way that the Clarendons resemble regular type that has been mechanically modified, as in a phototypositor era "camera mod" made by swelling a photographic image, or a digital era "make parallel path/expand stroke" command -- the notorious "faux" bold.

Was there any 1840s technology that prompted this approach, a contemporary meme?
Photography, of course. Perhaps woodtype pantographic routing. Or something in stereotyping?

The development of shaded and outline fonts may have prompted this line of design development. Copperplate engraving had long ago produced the "shorthand" of monoline and outline lettering.

At any rate, Benjamin Fox must surely have imagined the outline of type, and then conceptualized an outer outline and filled the whole thing in mentally, if not in a sketch book, before punching his cuts.

I don't believe that type designers of that day worked entirely at scale, they must have had sketches and larger working drawings to help the design process. Other than the famous mathematical drawings for L'Imprimerie Royale c.1700, do any such drawings or sketches exist?


I enjoyed Mitja Miklavčič’s essay, and this thread has been very educational, but I must confess that I am beginning to find type histories based on specimen books to be tasty appetizers that leave me hungry for a main course of "real" commercial use.

Maxim Zhukov's picture
  • There is something uncanny about the way that the Clarendons resemble regular type that has been mechanically modified, as in a phototypositor era “camera mod” made by swelling a photographic image, or a digital era “make parallel path/expand stroke” command — the notorious “faux” bold.

Here is a good example. These designs seem closely related. However, it does not feel that the Egyptian design is based on a mechanical modification of the 'regular' (Modern). The 'beefing up' of the strokes looks rather sensible and thoughtful. Of course, the originals of the typefaces shown had been designed independently of each other: Bruce Foundry'’s № 11, and Steven Shanks & Son’s Antique № 3 (revived by Bitstream as De Vinne Text and Egyptian 410).

Nick Shinn's picture

Maxim, your choice of Bitstream's reductive interpretation (i.e. with a minimum of BCPs) gives a very strong feeling of the "mechanical" relationship between the Scotch Modern and the Clarendon. Here is a stroked version of De Vinne:

Dan Gayle's picture

So just to clarify, what exactly was the "regular" typeface used by the Besley foundry in that piracy notice?

James Mosley's picture

So just to clarify, what exactly was the “regular” typeface used by the Besley foundry in that piracy notice?

Just one of the Great Primer types of the Fann Street Foundry. (I should probably have used that alternative name rather than Besley's, since he was the 'Co' of Thorowgood & Co. when the Clarendon was registered in 1845. It becomes Besley & Co. when Thorowgood retired in 1849, the 'Co. this time being the punchcutter Benjamin Fox.) It seems to match one called Great Primer No. 5 in a Fann Street specimen issued in 1844, but looks earlier to me, and as I said is not a very good match for the condensed proportions of the Clarendon cast to align with its baseline.

The main point of this post is that I have looked out this image (albeit not brilliant quality) made from one of the Fann Street specimens of a showing of Clarendon used with roman, which explains the the foundry's usp, and I think is based on the original registration claim that I'll look up when I get the chance.

Dan Gayle's picture

Wow. Thanks. I wish I had access to stuff like that in Seattle...

Nick Shinn's picture

Another "new media" theory for the design impetus towards Clarendons: it was prompted by smoother paper and finer printing drawing attention to the ink gain of the previous era. The Clarendon, therefore, was a cleaned-up, stylized interpretation of ink gain on deep-bite rag paper printing.

McLuhan's Third Law, Retrieval, in action. This states that new media brings obsolesced "ground" back as "figure", part of the new form. In other words, the bolding effect of ink gain wasn't considered as a design feature (more of a bug), until it was seen in comparison with the new finer images. Then, once it was recognized as such, it was exploited and developed into the Clarendon style.

The first Fourdrinier machines were installed in the 1800s in England, and these mechanically pulped and pressed recycled rags (wood pulp not being used till the second half of the century). Having seen some pretty poor paper (fragile, discoloured) in books from the first half of the 19th century -- but smooth -- I surmise that chemicals were used in the pulping then.

Randolph Burke's picture

Dear James

I have always wondered where the lighter version of Consort comes from? If I remember the bold and the italic versions were drawn in the 1960s; they are very poor.

Randolph T. Burke

James Mosley's picture

The light weight of Consort, an excellent type I think, was another Fann Street type of the 1840s or 1850s, and was presumably cut by Fox. It doesn't match the Clarendons closely, though, having unbracketed serifs.

The story of the bold and the italic is a rather sad one. They were made by H. Karl Görner, who was born in Germany in 1883, was taken on in 1907 as assistant punchcutter with Stephenson, Blake & Co., Sheffield and stayed with them for the rest of his life. He died in 1964. Görner was probably trained to cut steel punches, but the work I know about was cut in typemetal, and electrotypes were grown to make matrices for casting. This was quite a usual practice, in the UK and the US at least, from the later 19th century onwards.

I was told that, years before, Görner had made the type that was thought up by Robert Harling and marketed by Stephenson Blake under the name of Chisel. He cast type from matrices for Bold Latin Condensed and incised lines into the face. When SB wanted a bold and an italic to complete the Consort series, Görner cast a bold slab-serif from some quite early matrices and pared it down to make Consort Bold. I don’t know if he had a model for the italic. Probably not. I think they are awful types – travesties of the original cuttings of Clarendon.

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