Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Nature of Type Design in the 19th C, Part Two

Back cover of the 1898 Strong Seed & Plant Co. catalog seen above.

Yesterday, in Part One I reported on the proliferation of seed catalogs during the later half of the 19th century and how they came to reflect the nature of hand-lettering styles of that era. Today I am featuring a collection of seed catalog cover designs from "America's Attic", in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution which consists of 10,000 seed and nursery catalogs dating from 1830 to the present. They not only are important historical documents from a botanical perspective, but they also provide a window into a remarkably rich history of type design, illustration, and printing in the 19th century. The designers of these ornate covers were master lettering artists and it is clear the concept of minimalism was not in the vocabulary of their day.
      Most of these early catalog covers in the mid-19th century contained very decorative typography with colorful illustrations and printed with chromolithography and wood engravings. Typically the artist would combine some decorative lettering, often drawn on a curved path, with other text on horizontal baselines. Ornamental frames and devices were also used to contain some of the lettering designs at times, as seen in the artwork of the cover directly above. Alternatively, the text might be incorporated within the illustration or it may be the only treatment that carries the entire design, as in the case of the 1872 Vick's catalog seen above.
      The Smithsonian's digital archive of these seed catalogs are an incredibly valuable resource of 19th century hand-lettering and design. The site is well-documented and represents 258 catalogs with 500 individual images for endless exploration. Most of the collection was donated by Mrs. David Burpee in 1982.


  1. Great theme and excellent selections, Jennifer. Lettering artists of this skill level were much more common in an era when they were in higher demand. It's incredible to think how many could do this kind of work.

  2. I do agree with you Stephen. This "artistic style" of hand lettering was much in fashion at the time so there were likely more artists producing it then. I would love to learn more about some of these 19th C artists and their work. They were some of the original "commercial artists" to produce marketing materials and probably made a paltry salary because the competition was so fierce. The unsung type heroes of their day.

  3. Love this website. Rochester,NY archives at RIT and U of R have materials from the early Litho Companies in the city. They have also published books and articles on horticultural art of 19th century.

  4. Thank you Thomas. I am aware of the great RIT archive, but not the U of R. It must be a wealth of riches there in Rochester!


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