Go Buy Founder’s Caslon
So, I was trying to think of what font would be best in the header of my site, and I thought, “When else do I get to showcase Caslon?”
We live in a time when fonts are a dime a dozen. Caslon, however, along with a lot of the truly great typefaces, speaks of a time when printers demanded so much more from their types. Indeed, choosing the right font to use for your 18th-century needs was a much more arduous task than it is today. You see, when an 18th-century printer discussed a “font”, he meant not the style of text, but a very specific one, including the point size, which, when you’re dealing with hand-arranged lead blocks, are not scalable to whatever size you want. What you get is what you get.
Nor could you simply click “Italic.” Every character in that font also had to be created. In short, it was not an easy process, so it is no wonder that when a printer found a typeface that worked, that kind of became his workhorse.
In years prior, many of the classic typefaces, like the classic and ubiquitous Garamond, were designed by Frenchmen or Italians. When William Caslon, an Englishman, released his own distinct types, they became, unofficially, the official font of the English-speaking peoples. Needless to say, said peoples spread far and wide, and they brought Caslon with them.
To make a long story short (although, as my poor girlfriend will attest, I’ll gladly expand upon it at the drop of a hat), one motto printers worked by was “When in doubt, use Caslon.”
Wait. What is Caslon?
Didn’t we just go over this? Oh good, you were paying attention! Every font had to be produced by hand. One effect of this is that there are minute (or not-so-minute) inconsistencies from one point-size to another. Another effect is that my Caslon may not be quite the same as your Caslon. A third effect is that, in the digital age, when we want so desperately to use this oh-so-timeless typeface, is that any foundry wishing to produce a digital font family is faced with the question of which Caslon to use.
If you’re looking through your fonts and find Caslon, it’s most likely in the form of Adobe Caslon. Carol Twombly crafted this font from Caslon’s own type specimens from 1734-1770 – a huge span of time when we’re considering a medium whose tools could change from one casting to the next. The end result is a safe, nicely-synthesized set of letterforms, complete with new ones crafted to match the rest. It looks attractive, but unfortunately rather plain. And I guarantee you’ll see it everywhere.
A much more beautiful variety is in the form of Founder’s Caslon from the International Typeface Corporation. Like other digitizations of Caslon, Founder’s Caslon features letterforms from original type specimens – many of which still survive today – but he goes a step further.
Open up your word processor of choice. Pick a font (bonus points if you use your variety of Caslon) and type the same phrase at 12-pt, 30-pt, and 42-pt, and print. Seriously, reading this can wait, and you’ll enjoy the smell of freshly-printed text. You see, if you take a font that is meant for 12-point printing and just scale the hell out of it, you’ll see, if you look, that what looks fine for big blocks of small text may not work so well as a giant headline. Or vice-versa. While a difficult process, one nice thing about having to hand-craft every size is that you can optimize the look of the text for a particular need. Can’t do that digitally without a little elbow grease.
A lot of digital fonts include an additional style, called Poster, which is a typographer’s term for “Really Freakin’ Big,” that clean them up a bit and re-weight some of the strokes. I love Bodoni Poster so much my driver’s license picture is the “j” glyph. Just kidding.
Anyway, what Justin Howes did, during the course of Founder’s Caslon’s creation, was to forgo the usual process of selecting the letterforms that would best survive multiple scalings, and create an entire font family based on different type sizes – yep, 12, 30, and 42. And also Poster, which continues to mean “Really freakin’ big.” The result of this is that while you are setting your text, instead of relying on a number of bizarre weights (bold, compressed, compressed bold, bold italic, extra-black-plus, goblin-munchingly-bold, etc.) your headlines and sub-headlines now have a distinct, yet integrated, look just by using a different font from the same family. An elegant solution.
And no, Founder’s Caslon does not have any bold weights. Seriously, these poor guys had to hand-cut every single stinking glyph, in Roman and Italic, in every size under the sun, not to mention swash characters, ornaments, and small-caps. They just didn’t have time to make things bold! Yes, more on this later.
So go forth with your newfound appreciation for Caslon in all its glory.
PS – if, while you were glancing through your fonts, you found Caslon Antique, don’t be fooled – it wasn’t based on anything William Caslon designed; the name was just invoked to cash in on the established popularity of Caslon’s typefaces. Still, given that it was designed to emulate the look of physically deteriorated metal pieces of type, I love the look of it, so don’t hesitate to use it if you want!