We are happy to announce the release of the first complete electronic issue of the seminal 1923 edition of the American Type Founders (atf) Specimen Book. Considered by many to be the culmination of specimen printing, it is an important, and massive, volume which has been unavailable until now.

a little history

In 1923, 31 years after it’s formation, atf was at it’s technological and financial height. The merger of many foundries into one conglomerate had effectively eliminated competition, and the resulting profits had been used to expand production and advertising. America was at a financial high point: everyone was looking to spend money, and to sell to others.

With this in mind, atf poured $300,000 (over $4,000,000 in today’s dollars) into the most ambitious advertising vehicle ever: the 1923 Specimen Book and Catalog | Dedicated to the Typographic Art.

why is it important?

Sample Page.
A sample of typography, circa 1923.

Not only did this 1100+ page behemoth provide specimens of type, it showed designers how to use it. Printed in full colour throughout, it intersperses specimen pages with hundreds of design examples, using the full palette of type and ornaments available.

With the arts & crafts and art deco movements in full swing, the book ended up being a snapshot of life in the Americas in the ‘roaring 20s’. This book is a fascinating glimpse of a bygone age, including:

  • advertising terminology & design, for a wide spectrum of businesses;
  • a full essay on the etiquette of-and templates for-calling-card sizes;
  • mock wedding invitations (Who would guess that, in 1923, weddings were held late in the afternoon, or in the evening? Or that private railway cars were booked for the convenience of guests?)

Sample Page.
Countless mock ads and newspaper pages add character, and teach us much about the early 1900s.

It also provides a valuable record of typography in it’s golden age. The influence of such giants as Bruce Rogers, Fred Goudy, and even William Morris can be seen in it’s pages. Countless letterpress enthusiasts have been able to not only identify type, but experience the context in which ornaments and borders were intended to be seen.

what was involved the production of this issue?

The most difficult part of producing a new issue of the atf Specimen Book is obtaining a copy. Due to it’s size, and the fact that it was often used heavily as a reference in an industrial setting, this book rarely survived intact. Surviving copies are quite desirable, and often sell for hundreds of dollars.

Another difficulty is that this book was printed using a variety of papers; many pages were made of the newly-developed ‘pulp’ paper. We now know that, unfortunately, this paper is highly acidic, and becomes quite brittle over time. It also affects negatively the materials with which it is in contact. Again, this has contributed to the scarcity of good-condition copies.

Having acquired a copy, we were faced with another issue: how can one justify disbinding an important book? Helping our conscience along was the fact that our copy, while largely intact, was badly ‘shaken’ (book-parlance for when the binding is becoming loose). The boards and their cloth covering were also badly worn. We were able to disbind it with minimal loss to the material, and this made the next step—scanning—much easier.

Resolution: we scanned each page at 400 dots-per-inch. This allows for magnification for study, but also results in a large file size; to cope with this issue, we have split the high-resolution issue into three parts, so that even a modest computer will be able to view the files.

Sample Page.
The entire book is printed in striking full colour.

Colour: each page is available in full colour, as per the original. As any printer knows, using multiple colours in letterpress work increases the workload exponentially; as a result, there are very few specimen books with this feature. No version of the 1923 atf would be complete if it were not rendered in colour, despite the fact that this results in a significant increase in file size.

Accessibility: We felt strongly that an electronic issue should easily accessible. The benefits to this are many, including: redundancy (many copies mean the information will never be lost); ease of use (people will actually use, and benefit from, the book as a reference); ease of access (short download time results in redundancy and use, as above). So, we have also produced a lower-resolution version of the book. This means that tablets and other hand-held devices can be used to read it, without annoying lag times for rendering each page. Additionally, we have added electronic bookmarks for all of the main sections, to allow for easy browsing. And, through optical character recognition, all of the text is searchable.

Completeness: We have included every page, including blank ones. While this may seem silly to some, it is important to bibliographers and those who study books as artifacts. How were the sheets printed? Does my copy have all of it’s pages? Such questions can only be answered if there is a complete copy available for comparison. As this is, thus far, the only freely available electronic issue, we felt that it is important that it be as complete as possible.

The sharp-eyed amongst us will note that pages nine and ten are subtly different from the others; that leaf was sliced from our copy long ago, and replaced with one provided by Dr. David MacMillan’s excellent website (circuitousroot.com). Our thanks go to him; his hard work in providing material similar to this should be recognized.

There are a handful of places in our copy where someone (likely the same inconsiderate soul) also sliced small samples from the pages: a word here, an electrotype there. None of them are vital (in our opinion), as they are simply smaller-sized versions of examples in the same page. And, the slicing in itself is evidence of a book in use for 90 years. (Trust me, the right person gets excited about such things.)

Format: we have chosen to release this issue in the pdf format. This format is viewable using the a wide variety-and freely-available-selection of software, including Adobe Acrobat. It has become the informal standard for graphics-intensive books. An additional advantage is that it is, at it’s root, simply a container for images, which means that they can be retrieved and updated to other formats in the future (remember redundancy?)

In view of the foregoing, then, we hope that this release of the 1923 atf Specimen Book makes the world a little brighter. It will let us benefit from the incredible skill and artistry of a bygone age. It will educate, entertain, and enable. For free. And what better thing could there be?

Toronto, January 24, 2013
David Armstrong
Sevanti Letterpress

the files
note: the files listed here are quite large. To preserve our bandwidth, we have uploaded them to the excellent internet archive, an organization devoted to making available documents in the public domain. Torrent links require the use of BitTorrent client software, such as uTorrent.
  • High Resolution:
  • Parts 1 & 2 & 3 (999 Mb)
  • torrent
  • Part One (514 Mb):
    front matter, pp. 1-300
  • Part Two (200 Mb):
    pp. 301-622
  • Part Three (304 Mb):
    pp. 623-1148
  • Optimized for Accessibility:
  • Complete Volume (149 Mb):
    front matter, pp. 1-1148