William Caslon, the cornerstone of English type design by Nicholas Fabian.
The cornerstone of English type design
William Caslon, Type Designer

by Nicholas Fabian

William Caslon was born in Cradley, Worcestershire in 1692. He was an engraver of firearms and a toolmaker trained in London where he set up business in 1716, and later became a punch-cutter supplying tools for the book-binding trade. Caslon was not only a superbly skilled craftsman and a talented artist, but also an excellent businessman. The fusion of these skills in the same man created the basis for his own professional success and the cornerstone for English type-founding.

William Caslon had a great marketing sense and in 1720 set up his own type foundry adjacent to the foundry at Oxford University Press. His business had been financed by two English printers - William Bowyer, Sr., and John Watts. In a decade Caslon became a leading type founder in London, and in 1734 he issued his first type specimen sheets. It displayed 38 fonts which included Titlings (7) from 16 to 60 pt., Roman and Italic (14) from 5 to 48 pt., Saxon (2), Black (2), Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, Samaritan (one of each), Syriac (1), Arabic (1), Hebrew (3), Greek (4), Flowers (7 designs). 35 of the 38 fonts were cut by Caslon himself. An amazing creative production from a superb artist-craftsman.

Caslon Type Specimens
Segment from Caslon's type specimens sheet.

Caslon created type that was easy to read and masterfully simple in design. His typefaces were very popular both in Europe and the United States, and the Caslon Foundry became a major supplier to most of the leading printers on both continents. The American Declaration of Independence was printed in 1776 using Caslon type. Caslon created a tradition of artistic and functional excellence in type design that survives to this day, and it comes alive each time his classic characters are resurrected from the shelves of history. William Caslon died in 1766.

While the popularity of the classic Caslon face fluctuates with the times and tastes in fashion, it is most unlikely that they will ever be displaced because the Caslon designs really work and that provides them with historical staying power. It would be extremely difficult for even the most talented type designer in the world to improve on Caslon's natural flow of classical lines. The Caslon face could possibly be made to look different, but better ? Not very likely.

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