Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

The “eBay Archive”: Recovering Early Women Type Designers

Southern Vancouver Island’s 100-kilometer-long BC-14 Highway slides predominantly east to west along British Columbia coastline through traditional Coast Salish territory. Beneath the old-growth trees that are the marrow of this lush ecosystem is the small, unincorporated community of Shirley, and the Cook Kettle Press (fig.1). Though small, the press is a regional hotbed of letterpress activity. As a print shop, it provides opportunities for artists to use its space and equipment. It also acts as a restoration shop that revamps antique printing equipment for universities, the International Printing Museum in California, as well as private printers and bookmakers. Lloyd Bowcott oversees the press’s restoration work and Facebook group, PNW Letterpress, which connects printing communities around the world.

In late 2017, I was part of an all-woman collective printing poetry chapbooks at Cook Kettle. In the spirit of our collaboration, I wanted to use a metal typeface designed by a woman. But what metal typefaces are designed by women? This question spurred my Master’s research into the role of women in type design and the recovery of such work through commercial sites like eBay, which serves as an unofficial “archive” of work mostly missing from institutional collections.

Cook Kettle Press and restoration shop, Shirley, British Columbia.
Fig.1. Cook Kettle Press and restoration shop, Shirley, British Columbia.

There are conflicting numbers for how many women had their typeface designs cast into metal for letterpress printing prior to the rise of digital foundries. In the pre-digital printing industry, women worked as printers (fig. 2) and typesetters, as well as in type drawing offices. However, very few women had typeface designs credited to them. There is interest among printers and typographers about the history of early women type designers (for example, this “armchair research” article); however, the subject is yet to be comprehensively studied by the broader academic community.

Jane Grabhorn printing on the Washington hand-press, ca. 1945. Princeton University Library.
Fig. 2. Jane Grabhorn printing on the Washington hand-press, ca. 1945. Princeton University Library.

I define “early women type designers” as women designers of alphabetic typefaces that were cast into metal by commercial foundries for use in letterpress printing between 1900 and 1960. According to my preliminary research (which I will continue at the University of Victoria this fall), there are seven women who fit these parameters, including Franziska Baruch, who designed a Hebrew typeface in 1920s Germany. Perhaps the most well-known of these women is Elizabeth Friedlander, whose biography was published by Incline Press in 1998. Gudrun Zapf von Hesse, whose typeface Diotima was digitized in 2017 (the year she turned 100) is another relatively well-known figure in the community.

Portrait of Elizabeth Colwell. Image from The Graphic Arts, March 1913.
Fig. 3. Portrait of Elizabeth Colwell. Image from The Graphic Arts, March 1913.

The field of women’s typographical work is more obscure when we look beyond Friedlander and Zapf von Hesse, but even these two “known” figures are studied far less than their male counterparts. Take the influential discussions by Robert Bringhurst (The Elements of Typographic Style, 1992, 3rd ed., 2008) and Alexander Lawson (Anatomy of a Typeface, 2005): of the 107 designers in Bringhurst’s 2008 index, three are women—and two of these created digital fonts. Lawson’s book mentions only one woman designer—in relation to her husband's work, rather than her own.

The fact that there is no comprehensive scholarly resource on early women type designers has led to gaps in our understanding of women’s roles in modern print culture. For example, a museum exhibit from 1947 lists Elizabeth Colwell as the only known American woman type designer, but Princeton University Library’s “Unseen Hands” lists Bertha Goudy (also an American) as “type designer.” (Goudy has no typefaces attributed to her, but she was an essential collaborator in her husband Fred’s work.) Such discrepancies show competing claims of authority around women's type casting, and suggest the need for wider academic investigation and recovery. Elizabeth Colwell represents a prime figure for my preliminary research in this field, since there is significant (though not comprehensive) primary source material related to her work. Moreover, some, if not most, of her work exists in vulnerable places like commercial sites where it is bought and sold by collectors, which gives the material an online presence that for better or worse remains outside academic discourse and sites of preservation.

“Proof to the Contrary”

Elizabeth Colwell (fig. 3) was born in Bronson, Michigan in 1881. She remains the only known American woman type designer of her generation; her typeface, Colwell Handletter and Italic, was commissioned by the American Type Founders Company (ATF) in 1916, and it is unknown how many sets are still extant. In addition to her successful career in hand-lettered advertisements, Colwell was also a woodcut artist and poet. She studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) and under American artist B. J. O. Norfeldt. Her success in advertising is particularly remarkable; her hand-lettered advertisements for the Cowan Company furniture store (fig. 4) and Marshall Fields are considered to be some of her best work.

The only thorough consideration of Colwell’s work is a March 1913 article in The Graphic Arts, an early 1900’s magazine on “the craftsmanship of advertising.” The author, Alice Rouillier, provides insightful and eloquent analysis of Colwell’s work; she notes, “[Colwell’s] letters are clear cut, her arrangements dignified and full of grace, bearing always the stamp of originality.” There is a clear similarity between the hand-drawn letters in Colwell’s department store advertisements and the shapes and forms of the Colwell Handletter characters (fig. 5). Rouillier’s remark that Colwell “leaned to the use almost exclusively of natural forms” (emphasis mine) is likely a reference to her use of floral motifs, but is also an indication that Colwell trusted her own well-trained aesthetic.

Colwell’s significance to women’s history in printing was recognized in her lifetime. Henry Lewis Johnson, the Editor of The Graphic Arts, wrote of Colwell that, “[i]t has been an axiom among designers, although just why it is hard to say, that women cannot do good lettering. Miss Colwell, with many other women designers, offers direct proof to the contrary.” ­

“A Letter in Pure Form”

Examples of Colwell’s hand-lettered advertisements. Image from The Graphic Arts, March 1913.
Fig. 4. Examples of Colwell’s hand-lettered advertisements. Image from The Graphic Arts, March 1913.

Colwell Handletter, published by ATF in 1916, is a Roman typeface in the Jenson style. Jenson-style typefaces, taking their name from the fifteenth-century Venetian printer, Nicolas Jenson, have a uniformity and evenness of character that makes them exceptionally legible, while subtly evoking the gracefulness of calligraphy. The thickness of the line is similar to a pen-stroke, so that the characters are substantial without being chunky, and economical use of tapering ensures that the characters are aesthetically pleasing without being overwrought. When William Morris set out to create a perfect Roman typeface—in his words, “a letter in pure form”––he turned to the Jenson style.

Hand-lettered character “A” by Elizabeth Colwell. Image from The Graphic Arts, March 1913.
Fig. 5. Hand-lettered character “A” by Elizabeth Colwell. Image from The Graphic Arts, March 1913.

The 1923 American Type Founders Specimen Book and Catalogue, which advertised ATF’s typefaces and provided recommendations for how to use them, describes Colwell’s design in this way: “Pleasing and attractive are the graceful lines and flowing style of hand-drawn letters and few typefaces can convey these characteristics so faithfully as the Colwell Handletter and Italic” (fig. 6). The diction of this marketing material feminizes Colwell’s typeface, and the ATF suggests using Colwell Handletter in “announcements, holiday printing, and commercial work.” The relationship of these uses to traditionally secretarial or feminine domains (event planning, sending greeting cards, and shopping for craft goods) (fig. 6 and 7) is interesting considering Colwell Handletter was the only typeface ATF published that was designed by a woman. My graduate work will explore whether Colwell Handletter was designed with an intentional bias toward the feminine, if it was feminized by ATF after the fact because of its creator, or if ATF recognized an opportunity in their market and commissioned a woman to create the typeface specifically to speak to their women customers.

Colwell’s typeface is representative of her unique position as the singular American woman typeface designer of her generation. In his preface to the digitized version of ATF’s 1923 specimen book, David Armstrong of Sevanti Letterpress writes, “With the arts & crafts and art deco movement 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.” Colwell’s typeface is a contribution to this “fascinating glimpse.” In fact, as the only woman contributor to the 1923 Specimen Book, her typeface is essential, an important historical artifact.

Page 297 of the 1923 ATF type catalogue. Top: an advertisement for a newly opened silver craft shop. Bottom left: an invitation to members of the Harmonic Society to reserve seats for the season’s recitals. Bottom right: ATF’s description of Colwell Handl
Fig. 6. Page 297 of the 1923 ATF type catalogue. Top: an advertisement for a newly opened silver craft shop. Bottom left: an invitation to members of the Harmonic Society to reserve seats for the season’s recitals. Bottom right: ATF’s description of Colwell Handletter.
Page 296 of the 1923 ATF type catalogue. Top: an invitation to the opening of a design and printing company. Bottom: an announcement of the Manchester Garden’s summer restaurant featuring a “refrigerated atmosphere.”
Fig.7. Page 296 of the 1923 ATF type catalogue. Top: an invitation to the opening of a design and printing company. Bottom: an announcement of the Manchester Garden’s summer restaurant featuring a “refrigerated atmosphere.”

Colwell in the Library and the Print Shop

Artists and scholars have continued to value traditional printing and bookmaking methods, perhaps utilizing them with even more fervor as e-readers and other digital forms of reading have become ubiquitous. This is reflected in the hands-on book arts programs at universities across North America (such as Texas A&M’s Book History Workshop, the BookLab at UMD, and the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa) as well as public-facing projects such as the Book Arts Collaborative (Muncie, IN), the annual Ladies of Letterpress Conference (St. Louis, MO), and the annual Wayzgoose Book Arts Fair at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery in Ontario. Here in the Pacific Northwest we are fortunate to have a sizeable community of independent printmakers selling commercial products like greeting cards, business cards, and wedding invitations. The University of Saskatchewan’s SSHRC-funded Safer Printmaking website states, “Printmaking is evolving as a vital, dynamic, and pluralistic form of Canadian contemporary art-making.” Letterpress printed materials have a superior tactility, which brings a different quality of pleasure to the reading or viewing experience, and the conservation skills that often dovetail with traditional bookmaking are relevant to the preservation of historic materials that happens in libraries and archives.

The poetry chapbook When You Let the Morning In, with a cover hand-printed using antique letterpress equipment, including the typeface Colwell Handletter Italic.
Fig. 8. The poetry chapbook When You Let the Morning In, with a cover hand-printed using antique letterpress equipment, including the typeface Colwell Handletter Italic.
Early-twentieth-century materials in a modern-day print shop: this photo was taken at Cook Kettle Press as the author designed a new type specimen of Colwell Handletter Italic.
Fig. 9. Early-twentieth-century materials in a modern-day print shop: this photo was taken at Cook Kettle Press as the author designed a new type specimen of Colwell Handletter Italic.

The eBay Archive

In late 2017, I purchased a set of 36-point Colwell Handletter Italic on eBay for $114. I am unable to determine how many cases of her type are still in existence, but eBay provided a rare collection of antique equipment. At Cook Kettle Press, I used the typeface to letterpress print the covers of the poetry chapbook When You Let the Morning In (fig. 8). Our small feminist printing collaborative created a Kickstarter campaign to self-publish the chapbook by creating Pop Bottle Press. I was able to share Colwell’s work—and the work of three other contemporary women artists—with 58 readers in seven countries. Feminist projects like this are reminiscent of early-twentieth-century initiatives—such as Elizabeth Yeats’s women-run Cuala Press, founded in 1908—to promote women’s work and equality.

Elizabeth Yates (right) working on an iron hand-press at Dun Emer (precursor to Cuala Press), ca. 1903. Princeton University Library.
Fig. 10. Elizabeth Yeats (right) working on an iron hand-press at Dun Emer (precursor to Cuala Press), ca. 1903. Princeton University Library.

The “eBay archive” allows women’s work to be recovered from the margins and provides a piece of the story of the role of women in design, print culture, and book history. Such commercial sites comprise a kind of extra-institutional international finding aid that has become an important scholarly mechanism for recovering research material currently missing from institutional archives. At the same time, it also highlights the instability of material culture traded in the open market. In collaboration with a university library, I am in the process of digitizing Colwell’s typeface for further research. I’m also looking forward to my next trip to Cook Kettle Press where the story of this typefaces continues to be inked.

The author printing on a Chandler and Price Pilot 6x10 tabletop press at Cook Kettle Press.
Fig. 11. The author printing on a Chandler and Price Pilot 6x10 tabletop press at Cook Kettle Press.