Lettering - A brief history

Whence did the wond'rous mystic art arise,
Of painting SPEECH, and speaking to the eyes?
That we by tracing magic lines are taught
How to embody, and to colour THOUGHT?
William Massey

The marvellous faculty of writing has led various races to attribute its origin to the gods.  Assyrian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, and Scandinavian deities have all been held to have given man knowledge of writing.  The very beginnings of our writing are now thought to be indicated by the pictures made by prehistoric man whose artistic skill is evident in caves in Spain and France dating between 20,000 and 35,000 BC.  First came the drawing of a thing and then the abbreviated and conventionalised drawing used as a sign (pictograph).  A later stage is when the drawing or sign represents an idea (ideograph); for instance, the sign for sun might represent day.  Eventually the sign becomes a sound-symbol and indicates the sound of a word or a syllable, and finally the sound of a letter.  The last of these stages is that triumph of the mind - the invention of the alphabet, the means by which the combination of a few symbols may represent any spoken word.

The oldest materials on which deciphered script has been found are the tables of stone and fired-clay from the Sumerian settlements some 5,500 years ago.  These tables, consisting of administrative and accounting records, are covered by what is known as cuneiform script.  The use of these  clay tablets was eventually replaced with the use of the more flexible papyrus which was made from the fibres of a sedge plant growing in abundance on the Nile marshes.  Papyrus was used for writing on 5000 years ago in Egypt and its use spread slowly throughout the Mediterranean basin where it remained the main material for writing on until the IVth century AD.  Indeed, the word paper derives from the word papyrus.

Twenty six letters make up our alphabet, and each letter has an 'upper case' version and a 'lower case' version.  These days lettering is usually referred to as 'fonts', 'text' or 'typefaces' which are terms relating to methods of printing.

Printing is said to have been invented by Johann Gutenberg in about 1450 and involved letters being formed out of blocks of wood or metal (in mirror image) and placed in position on a plate, along-side other blocks of letters to form a page of print.  Ink was then rolled across the surface and the plate was pressed onto a sheet of paper to create the printed page.  The job of a 'typesetter' was fiddly, messy and highly skilled.  Capital letters were always kept in the top, or 'upper' cases for retrieval and the miniscule letters were kept in the 'lower' cases below - hence the term.  It goes without saying that in the days before printing all lettering was written by hand with pens and brushes.  Each document had to be reproduced individually.  This goes some way to explaining why books were treated with such reverence before the sixteenth century...

The invention of printing was advanced by the use of paper which although is thought to have been invented in China in the second century, did not reach Europe until about the fifteenth century. Before paper was available, important documents were written on animal skins called parchment (from sheepskin) or vellum (from calf skin). The skins were specially treated to be smooth enough to write on, and are much more durable than paper - lasting hundreds of years. There are many beautiful ancient bibles, books and documents on permanent display in the British Museum. The making of these books required vast herds or flocks (a bible for example needed at least 150 skins!).

Reading and writing in the days before printing was considered a privilege of the elitist. Only the very rich and powerful held this knowledge. Men who wrote were called scribes, and monks in monasteries became the archetypal scribes. They had time and discipline on their hands, and they excelled in creating the most awe inspiring works of art, usually in the form of commissioned bibles (The Book of Kells is a fine example and has been called the most beautiful book in the world). They wrote with pens called quills which were made of goose and swan feathers. The feathers were treated with heat to harden them and then cut with a very sharp knife to form a nib shape to one end. These quills were then dipped into ink and the hollow shaft of the feather stem would hold enough ink to write several letters before having to be refilled. The end of the nib was chisel-shaped (not a sharp point) and hence if it was held at a constant angle and then pulled in one direction, it would create a broad line, and in another direction it would create a much finer line. This caused letters to have thicker and thinner parts to them; for example with the letter O, the sides of the letter are thicker than the top and bottom. These characteristics have been largely carried through into the design of printed letters, even though it is not strictly necessary to their form.

The shapes of the letters in our alphabet have changed little over the centuries, but technology has advanced so quickly that the origins of our letter forms is in danger of being lost.  With the necessity for speed of production in a consumer society, the potential for beautiful lettering is almost entirely overlooked.  We simply press the key on our keyboard and the letter appears on our screen - very little thought is given to the design of the individual letters, and there is no understanding of the basic rules of well made letters.  The legibility of an alphabet depends upon every letter retaining its most basic identifiable structure.