by the gentle author
Chiswell St is a canyon lined with glass and steel buildings leading from Moorgate to the Barbican today, yet once this was the centre of printing in the City of London. The foundry established by William Caslon in 1737, Britain’s most celebrated type designer, stood here until 1937. For more than two centuries, Caslon was the default typeface for printing in the English language and when the Americans wanted to make their Declaration of Independence and publish their Constitution, they imported type from the Caslon Foundry in Chiswell St to do it.
These historic photographs from St Bride Printing Library, taken in 1902 upon the occasion of the opening of the new Caslon factory in Hackney Wick, record both the final decades of the unchanged work of traditional type-founding, as well as the mechanisation of the process that would eventually lead to the industry being swept away by the end of the century.
Top image: 22/23 Chiswell St with Caslon’s delivery van outside the foundry
William Caslon I
Mid-eighteenth century British punchcutter and typefounder, who solidly established British typefounding with well-crafted copies of earlier Dutch designs.
Caslon started work as apprentice to a London gunsmith, and set up his own business in 1716 engraving gunlocks and bookbinding tools. In 1720 William Bowyer the elder took him to see the respected James foundry, and subsequently helped Caslon set up as a type founder himself. His great reputation stems largely from his specimen of 1734, showing types that were (and often still are) reckoned to be superior to the Dutch types that inspired them. Indeed, his success meant the English reliance on Dutch types came to an end. He cut many non-Latin types (including Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Coptic and Armenian) and some beautiful ornaments. His types were just as highly regarded in colonial America, and the Declaration of Independence was set in Caslon. His son, William Caslon II, took over the business upon his death in 1766.
Updike explains the fame and excellence of Caslon’s types thus: “While he modelled his letters on Dutch types, they were much better; for he introduced into his fonts a quality of interest, a variety of design, and a delicacy of modelling, which few Dutch types possessed. Dutch fonts were monotonous, but Caslon’s fonts were not so. His letters when analyzed, especially in the smaller sizes, are not perfect individually; but in their mass their effect is agreeable. That is, I think, their secret: a perfection of the whole, derived from harmonious but not necessarily perfect individual letterforms.”