Bold and brash, the second sans serif ever cut appeared in 1828. Released by Vincent Figgins, it was the first to ever be called sans serif. The weight of its all-capital forms matches the heavy slabs of its time, and it immediately found favour. In the following years, Figgins would release more faces in a similar vein: crude and geometric in places, but always with a confidence that gives them great impact. The contemporary versions stay close to the originals, but add a lowercase and italic that draw inspiration from Figgins slab forms, offering designers a characterful set of sans.
The first appearance of the sans serif in type was William Caslon IV’s Two-Lines English Egyptian, shown in a specimen c.1816.Much of the story of the earliest sans serif typefaces (and the letterform itself) can be found in James Mosley, ‘The Nymph and the Grot’, Typographica new series 12, 1965 and a second edition for the Friends of St Bride Printing Library, 1999. While the innovations of the bold modern, fat face, and Egyptian all inspired the other foundries to quickly imitate each other, the sans did not find the same immediate success.Its appearance in specimens of Blake & Garnett—and its successors Blake and Stephenson, then Stephenson Blake—do not seem to have boosted its popularity. Few examples seems to appear outside of these specimens, though some can be found in London theatre posters from the 1840s and 1850s. For a typeface of such limited use, it is surprising that it appears across the Atlantic in the specimens of the Mackellar, Smiths & Jordan, from Philadelphia. In fact, no other foundry issued a sans serif in the following decade. It wasn’t until the end of the 1820s and into the 1830s that the sans became almost ubiquitous amongst the British foundries: Figgins in 1828, then Caslon & Catherwood, Thorowgood, and Blake & Stephenson following in the next decade. The contemporary versions stay close to Figgins’s third and fourth sans, adding a lowercase (and other assorted characters) and italics, drawing inspiration from Figgins’s slab forms.
The Figgins version of the sans is much bolder than Caslon, and they were the first foundry to name the form ‘sans-serif’, the term most widely used today. Like Caslon, their first attempts at sans typefaces were restricted to capitals only. The British foundries were slow to adopt the lowercase, which only appeared later in the century. Eight-line Sans-Serif (96 point) appears in the 1828 specimen, followed by the Two-line Great Primer Sans-Serif (36 point) in the 1830 specimen and the Five-line Sans-Serif (60 point) in the 1832 specimen. By 1833, Figgins showed a range of sizes, the smallest at Pearl (5 point).
Figgins’ first sans serifs fit into three distinctive styles: a strong, geometric display; a smaller “clumsier letter”Nicolete Gray , and a lighter form made for smaller sizes. These variations demonstrate how the form was in an embryonic stage, informed by other contemporary letterforms, but on its way to becoming something else that was entirely new. The first is Original Sans Four, modeled off one of the largest sizes, Five-Line Sans-Serif, which first appeared in 1833 and is similar in style to the first of Figgins’ sans, the Eight-Line Sans-Serif. It is reasonable to think that they were made by the same craftsman, and in the surviving matrices of the Five-Line, one can see what decisions were made. The cutter made two important design decisions resulting from the forms carrying much more weight than Caslon: the first was that the round characters—C, G, O, and Q—would continue to follow geometry. The O and Q are perfectly circular, with no optical compensation. The second design decision, however, follows the pattern of optical correction, with variation between thick and thin strokes in A, E, F, M, N, and R in MAINE and FREEMAN. Other notable characteristics are the flat horizontal terminals of the C and G, and the lack of a crossbar on the G. The R has a high bowl, and with the Q, a straight tail. Nicolete Gray describes the faces as “stronger and more balanced” than Caslon’s first attempt.
The second style, the “clumsier letter,” comes from Two Line Great Primer, and is what inspired Original Sans Three. The confidence and quality of cutting in the larger sizes seem to be missing, perhaps suggesting another hand at work. The O appears to be a perfect circle, but on closer inspection proves to be narrower. The inner counter is high, which suggests some mistake in the manufacture of the matrix. Monolinear forms replace the pleasing weight variation of the larger sizes. Though the letters are small enough to have been cut as a punch, they were made as sanspareil matrices. It is tempting to think that this was what led to the crudeness of letter, best demonstrated by the uncomfortable tails of the S. The ampersand, which is without curves, recalls the form used in blackletter, and feels at odds with the roundness of the rest of the face. Less refined than the larger sizes, the naïve quality of the letters perhaps have a greater appeal to contemporary tastes.
The final style is that of the smaller sizes which, like the second style, lacks the vigour and quality of the two larger sizes. Lighter in weight and closer to Caslon, the round characters retain some of the geometric styling, but appear to be heavier than the rest of the face in many of the weights, giving an uneven quality to the setting. The C and G are overtly open, with the barest of terminals. The R has a curved tail, which would be the model for the majority of regular-width British Sans typefaces to come. In some sizes, the Q has a tail that begins on the interior, more typical of serif styles, and only possible with the lighter weight. Figgins also cut two small sizes of the open style, which have a more pleasing quality with the open interior, lightening the face, and hiding the deficiencies in the letter forms.
The faces clearly enjoyed popularity—they are easily found in playbills in the British Library collection, and The Two Line Great Primer can be found in the United States, in a recut form as Two Line Great Primer Gothic in the specimens of Mackellar, Smiths & Jordan, Philadelphia, as late as 1885. Figgins continued to cast them into the 1850s, and while the larger sizes were replaced by lighter forms by the 1870s, some of the small sizes remained. It seems as though they were never again cast commercially by Figgins or his eventual successors, but matrices for the two smaller sizes survived, eventually to end up at St Bride Library. It would be a mistake to say that only the matrices survive because that is all that were ever made, for they are examples of so-called Sanspareil matrices, where the letter is cut into a sheet of brass and then mounted onto a base to form a matrix.
As the matrices are only uppercase and lack anything beyond the basic punctuation, these letters would remain of limited use without adding the lowercase, numerals, accents, and assorted characters we find in modern typefaces. Examining the use of the sans in printed material—in theatre bills, for example—it is noticeable that the all-capital form was often the preferred setting method for large display sizes, probably why a lowercase was not made. With no descenders, the type could be stacked tightly, as was the typographic style of the time.
When looking for a model for a lowercase, we saw that Figgins’s Egyptian types would offer a suitable example; simply removing the slabs shows a convincing sans form. Though no punches or matrices exist of Figgins’s Egyptian, countless examples can be found in the specimens. By 1833, Figgins alone showed 23 separate sizes of Egyptian. The Egyptians offer an example of how tall the x-height should be, the difference in weight between capitals and lowercase, and the variation in weight in the lowercase. The Five-line follows a more geometric form with a heavy lowercase and its relatively large x-height. In contrast, The Two-line Great Primer is lighter in weight, has a smaller x-height, higher contrast, and is less geometric in form.
Compared to Caslon’s pioneering form, Figgins’s are more emphatic and less delicate. At times crude and less resolved, they have a more obvious industrial-like charm to them. The lightness of Caslon’s sans made characters like the S easier to make, and though the O looks perfectly circular and mononlinear in weight, it is less obviously so than that of Figgins. Caslon’s letters are closer to the architectural lettering style of the period, as shown by the drawings of Sir John SoaneSee Mosley, whereas Figgins’s follows a bolder, more aggressive style, keeping with the typographical models of the Egyptian and display typography of the time. Despite the success of the form in print, the British foundries did not adopt the form in large sizes, preferring and directing much of their energy towards developing the bold condensed form, such as Thorowgood Grotesque. Today, these pioneering, no-nonsense, bold forms demand reevaluation: what may have once been considered crudity will now be seen as real character against the smoothness often found in contemporary sans form. For the designer today, these are attractive qualities, making Original Sans as appealing today as it was then.