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The story of Akzidenz Grotesk

This text is from notes published in a PDF file by Kris Sowersby (KLIM Type Foundry, New Zealand) in November 2019. It is quoted verbatim.

[Early history.] Nobody knows who designed Akzidenz-Grotesk. For about 20 years it was attributed to Theinhardt, but this has recently been proven untrue. The very first sans serif typeface was published in England, circa 1816. It did not create waves in typography immediately, but the use of sans serifs would increase over time. The first sans serif sold in Germany was introduced by the typefoundry inside Eduard Haenel's Magdeburg printing-house in 1833. The matrices for this Neuste Titel-Versalien, Zehnte Sorte were imported from Caslon & Livermore in London. Like other early British sans serifs, this approximately 36-pt face was an all-caps design. The first book composed entirely in upper- and lowercase sans serif types was only published in 1900. This was the Feste des Lebens und der Kunst: eine Betrachtung des Theaters als höchsten Kultursymbols, written and designed by Peter Behrens. When Jan Tschichold's Die neue Typographie appeared 28 years later, it was also composed entirely with sans serifs. Still outré for whole books, German typographers were by then finally beginning to regularly consider sans serifs for long texts, or publications intended for immersive reading. Those designers were just as likely to specify new geometric-style sans serifs like Futura as they were older typefaces, like Schelter & Giesecke's late-nineteenth-century Breite magere Grotesk. Typographically, it took a long time to get to something like the ubiquity that Helvetica enjoyed among Western European and North American graphic designers in the 1960s. Helvetica's popularity eventually became so widespread that---as Gary Hustwit presented in his 2007 documentary film Helvetica---its use represented a cultural milestone. No earlier typeface had ever experienced that kind of hold on the market, at least not in Germany. While Helvetica was not simply a reworking of Akzidenz-Grotesk, its initial development as Neue Haas-Grotesk in Switzerland reflected, in part, the popularity that Akzidenz-Grotesk had begun to enjoy in Western European graphic design during the immediate postwar years.

[The typeface.]As a family of typefaces, Akzidenz-Grotesk was a work-in-progress. Bauer & Co. in Stuttgart and Berthold in Berlin published its very first weight together in 1898, but it was only in the 1950s that the typeface's use began to take off. Although Akzidenz-Grotesk seems to have inspired similar designs beforehand, such as Venus and Ideal-Grotesk---themselves the basis for Monotype Grotesque Series 215 and 216---and perhaps even Titania and Urania, something is fascinating about the number of neo-grotesques produced in the 1950s and 60s. In addition to the above-mentioned Neue Haas-Grotesk/Helvetica, that wave of new designs included Folio, Univers and Record Gothic as well as many others. Akzidenz-Grotesk and Helvetica are often compared with each other, but Univers represents a far more interesting counterpoint for Akzidenz-Grotesk. No other designs better illustrate the changes in the ways typefaces were developed between the 1890s and the 1950s, or even between the 1890s and today. The story of the young Adrian Frutiger's development of Univers at Deberny et Peignot has often been told: from the beginning, he conceived of Univers as a family of typefaces, with multiple weights and widths. Twenty-one styles were part of Univers's initial release, and each was designed according to the same letterform scheme. All the fonts matched each other stylistically. Today, a term like systems design could be applied to the project. Akzidenz-Grotesk, on the other hand, is not as harmonious a family. Its members were not all conceived of at a single point. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that a collection of related fonts was even envisioned when its premier style was published. While Univers was the work of Frutiger and his assistants in Deberny et Peignot's design studio, Akzidenz-Grotesk's various styles were produced by anonymous employees at several typefoundries in different historical times. Although the base style of Akzidenz-Grotesk---its regular weight---was published in fifteen sizes by H. Berthold AG in Berlin and its and its then-recently acquired Stuttgart subsidiary Bauer & Co. in 1898, the genesis of the design was slightly older. In 1894/95, when Bauer & Co. had still been an independent typefoundry, it published a nine-sized, single-weight, drop-shadowed display face called Schattierte Grotesk. Like Akzidenz-Grotesk itself, this was a generic name, which just meant shaded sans. Clip the drop shadow off of Schattierte Grotesk's letters and you get the base style of Akzidenz-Grotesk. Unfortunately we do not know the Bauer & Co. or Berthold employee who had this idea. In retrospect, it turned out to have been one of the most important decisions ever made at either firm. I have not found any evidence that Berthold had a type drawing office during the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth centuries, and no information about the internal workings of Bauer & Co. at all. The work of interpreting the exact forms each type size would take was performed by Bauer & Co. and Berthold's punchcutters, and probably not by draughtspersons who worked on paper. As a manufacturer, Berthold did not even introduce pantographic punchcutting and matrix-engraving machines into its main Berlin factory until 1910. Before that time, the physical masters for each new font had to be cut as series of steel punches or softer-metal patrices, depending on the exact point size. Steel punches could strike bars of copper as the first step in matrix-making, while soft-metal patrices would have matrices grown around them via electrotyping instead. Staff photographers may have resized images shot from a master drawing---or a print from a trial size of the type---for punchcutters to engrave onto their punches/patrices, whey they could follow as a guide. The then still-larger Schelter & Giesecke foundry at Leipzig had been using pantographs to scale letter drawings down to type size by 1894, for instance, and could even trace outlines onto the faces of punches and patrices this way. While Schattierte Grotesk and Akzidenz-Grotesk really were new designs when they were published, they were not atypical products. Many of their letterforms bear resemblance to earlier sans serifs that had already been published in and outside of Germany. Nevertheless, they seem to me to be more of a synthesis of then-current ideas of sans serif letterform design, rather than copies of any specific products from other firms.

[The name.] The name Akzidenz-Grotesk means jobbing sans. It came from the German-language term for everyday commercial printing, Akzidenzen. This was a loan word, rooted in the Latin accidentia, which referred to chance or casual events. Jobbing encompassed things like business cards, invoices, and letterheads. Berthold/Bauer & Co. must have intended for Akzidenz-Grotesk to be used in jobbing typography from the first. Together, their circa 1904 and circa 1912 specimen brochures for the typeface and its later---or otherwise related---styles included twenty-six pages of fictitious fonts in use scenarios. These ranged from advertisements for art galleries, interior decorators, and piano-making companies to engagement and change of address cards, as well as price lists for a baby carriage manufacturer and a vintner. The large Berthold/Bauer & Co. catalogue from circa 1911 included the same kind of fictitious usage scenarios for these fonts as well.

[Release.] The first proper addition to Akzidenz-Grotesk was published by Berthold and Bauer & Co. in 1902/03. This was a lighter-weight design that was initially sold under a unique name: Royal-Grotesk. We know that Akzidenz-Grotesk and Royal-Grotesk were intended to be used together---is that not the basic definition of what a typeface family is?---because Berthold and Bauer & Co. produced a dedicated specimen brochure for the two faces about a year after Royal-Grotesk's release. It was not until the 1950s that Royal-Grotesk would be properly adopted into the family, and renamed AkzidenzGrotesk Light.

[Not due to Theinhardt.] Since 1998, many authors have incorrectly stated that Royal-Grotesk predated AkzidenzGrotesk, and that it had been designed by the Berlin-based punchcutter and typefoundry owner Ferdinand Theinhardt. Indeed, Theinhardt's foundry was acquired by Berthold in 1908. Berthold kept it open in its own factory for about two years, and as a subsidiary for about twenty more. During that time, it sold both Akzidenz-Grotesk and Royal-Grotesk, as well as several more Berthold and Bauer & Co. faces. Theinhardt himself had already retired from punchcutting decades before this. He sold off his foundry in the mid 1880s, and died in 1906. The misattribution of Akzidenz-Grotesk and Royal-Grotesk to Theinhardt was put forward by Günter Gerhard Lange between 1998 and 2002. Lange was Berthold's longtime artistic director and the designer of several later versions of Akzidenz-Grotesk. His claims about Akzidenz-Grotesk's origins were already disproven by Eckehart SchumacherGebler in 2007/08 and Indra Kupferschmid in 2012-17, making them out of date now. Nevertheless, we still see new typefaces designed in the style of Akzidenz-Grotesk, which are advertised as being inspired by Ferdinand Theinhardt's Royal-Grotesk. Ferdinand Theinhardt did not cut the punches for RoyalGrotesk or Akzidenz-Grotesk---he might not have even ever cut sans serif type at all. The only collection of type specimen from his foundry I have found that can definitively be dated to the time when he still owned the company includes just two sans serifs. Ferdinand Theinhardt gave this folio to the German printer and author Theodor Goebel in January 1884, about a year before he sold his business. The first of the folio's two sans serifs was simply called Grotesque. This was a duplicate of the Moderne Steinschriften types created at the Benjamin Krebs Nachfolger typefoundry of Frankfurt am Main, published in 1865. The second was an italic named Cursiv-Grotesque, which probably came to Theinhardt from the J.H. Rust & Co. foundry of Offenbach am Main and Vienna. Rust had imported the larger sizes of this typeface from Americirca They then created the three smallest sizes themselves, publishing them in 1875. The first proper bound type specimen catalogue from the Theinhardt foundry dates to the late 1880s or 1890s, after Ferdinand Theinhardt had sold the business, and after its new owners had moved it from the northern part of Berlin to the city's southwestern district. The catalogue features six sans serifs, including the two mentioned above. Of the other four designs, only one was actually created by the Theinhardt foundry. As this was published just after Ferdinand Theinhardt had sold his business, it is difficult to gauge what his exact role in the typeface might have been. Originally called Neuste schmale fette Zeitungs-Grotesk, the design was listed in this catalogue as Enge fette Grotesque. It was a straight-sided sans serif with rounded terminals, and it bears no relation to any styles of Akzidenz-Grotesk. The remaining three sans serif designs in that undated, post-sale catalogue were Schmale magere Grotesque, Breite Grotesque, and Breite fette Grotesque. Where did these come from? Schmale magere Grotesque was a design sold under various names by at least seven other nineteenth-century German foundries. I do not know where it originated. The matrices may have come from Britain or the United States. Breite Grotesque probably came via the Krebs foundry. Krebs had produced the larger sizes for this design in-house; they called it Halbbreite Steinschrift. The typeface was different from the other Breite Grotesques sold by, e.g., Ludwig&Mayer and Schelter&Giesecke. I have not found any mentions in primary or secondary sources that suggest who the authors of the Halbbreite Steinschrift design's smaller sizes might be. I think it is quite likely that Krebs imported them from Britain or the United States, too. The visually unrelated typeface the Theinhardt foundry called Breite fette Grotesque was originally published in the mid 1870s as Zeitungs-Grotesk. That came from the Francke foundry in Danzig. Like most of the other sans serifs that the Theinhardt foundry featured in this catalogue, many German companies carried the Zeitungs-Grotesk design during the nineteenth century's last two decades.

[Expansion of the family] By 1911, Berthold and Bauer & Co. had expanded the Akzidenz-Grotesk family to include a total of six styles with the term AkzidenzGrotesk in their names. In 1958, the number had grown to thirteen. By 1968, there were twenty-one. During the early twentieth century, it began to be established practice in German typefoundries for products to have proper names, rather than generic ones, and for successful designs to be expanded to include multiple related fonts, such as a base design that was coupled with a bold or italic. The groundwork was thus underway for typeface families, both there and in other countries. For example, Cheltenham is considered by some authors to represent what, in retrospect was the first proper, large typeface family. It had at least twenty-two styles by 1913. With multiple weights and widths of Akzidenz-Grotesk available by 1911, we can begin to see the kind of design template that would be followed decades later by neo-grotesque families like Univers. Unlike Univers, however, Akzidenz-Grotesk's each other. The condensed and expanded styles have different skeletons as Akzidenz-Grotesk's regular weight. Even the terminals of Akzidenz-Grotesk and Royal-Grotesk differ from one another in their angles and exact detailing. This would not be so with Univers.

[Outside Germany.] Akzidenz-Grotesk became available for sale in the United States around 1957. The fonts of foundry type were sold by a New York company named Amsterdam Continental, a subsidiary of Dutch type foundry N. Tetterode. Amsterdam Continental had an exclusive license to sell the typeface in the USA, but they did not market the fonts as Akzidenz-Grotesk because it is difficult for English speakers to pronounce. They called it Standard instead. This was much easier to pronounce and almost implies that Akzidenz-Grotesk is the default variety of sans serif type. I think that this was a brilliant marketing move, but I have not yet been able to find out whether this was a decision made at Berthold, Tetterode, or Amsterdam Continental. A list inside a small book published by Berthold for their 1958 centenary suggests that oldest weights of the Akzidenz-Grotesk family were from 1896. These were not even named AkzidenzGrotesk when they were initially published. They were renamed Akzidenz-Grotesk Condensed Heavy and Akzidenz-Grotesk Condensed Bold, from Enge Steinschrift and Halbfette BücherGrotesk. Those generic terms meant narrow stone type and bold book sans, despite the latter not being a typeface with which anyone would compose a book. The stone referenced in the former's name was likely the lithographer's stone. Like Akzidenz-Grotesk itself, those types cannot be attributed to a specific designer or punchcutter. Despite the year 1896 given in the centenary publication, Enge Steinschrift and Halbfette Bücher-Grotesk may not be from 1896, exactly. Enge Steinschrift is older than that, and Halbfette Bücher-Grotesk may be more recent. Each typeface is included in Berthold and Bauer & Co.'s large 1911 catalogue, but an undated, bound collection of loose Berthold specimen sheets in the collection of Berlin's Prussian State Library---attributed to c.1900---includes only Enge Steinschrift, not Halbfette Bücher-Grotesk. Berthold's 1911 catalogue declares that Halbfette Bücher-Grotesk was produced in-house, but neither it nor the circa 1900 specimen does so for Enge Steinschrift, except for three of the fourteen total sizes the Berthold companies did produce. The Enge Steinschrift typeface, as an identical product with a similar name, was carried by several German typefoundries in the late nineteenth century. For example, the Flinsch, Krebs, and Ludwig & Mayer foundries in Frankfurt each sold the design under the name Schmale Steinschrift, while Genzsch foundries, sold the design under the name Longina. Like Berthold, who themselves probably acquired the matrices for Enge Steinschrift as part of their acquisition/merger with the combined Emil Berger/Gustav Reinhard foundries in 1893, none of those foundries claimed the Enge Steinschrift design as an in-house product. The original punches for the types were cut at the typefoundry of James Conner's Sons in New York. After Berthold acquired the Theinhardt foundry they adopted several types from it into their offerings. The only sans serif with which Ferdinand Theinhardt himself may have played a role---Enge fette Grotesque---was included in the sans serif section of Berthold's 1911 catalogue, together with Halbfette Bücher-Grotesk and Enge Steinschrift. Unlike those latter typefaces, however, it would never be adopted into the AkzidenzGrotesk family. For its first half century, the Akzidenz-Grotesk family did not include any italic styles. Berthold only developed those during the 1950s and 60s neo-grotesque wave. Even then, Berthold released the italic styles gradually, rather than all at once. Berthold's earlier fin de siècle customers must have preferred the use of lighter and heavier weights---or narrower and wider styles---to establish typographic hierarchy, instead of upright and sloped pairings. Before the mid-twentieth century, italic type was less common in German-speaking countries than in the rest of Europe. Blackletter type, unlike roman, rarely relied on slanted secondary faces for emphasis. Compositors used stylistically different faces instead, like a Schwabacher to emphasise Fraktur, or added letter spacing/tracking. Like other neo-grotesque typeface families' italics, Akzidenz-Grotesk's were oblique designs (sloped romans). The basic structure of each upright letter remained the same in its italic companion. The lowercase a was always double-storey, and not single-storey. While such a true italic may be a useful exercise in historical fiction, it moved away from the design language of the late-nineteenth century grotesk and mid-twentieth century neo-grotesque, resulting in an essentially humanist companion for a realist design.

The story of Akzidenz Grotesk
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Akzidenz Grotesk ⦿

Luc Devroye ⦿ School of Computer Science ⦿ McGill University Montreal, Canada H3A 2K6 ⦿ lucdevroye@gmail.com ⦿ http://luc.devroye.org ⦿ http://luc.devroye.org/fonts.html