Alastair Johnston at Columbia College Chicago

In his first visit to Chicago since since 1978, Alastair Johnston had the run of the Center for Book and Paper at Columbia College Chicago earlier this June during the 2011 Typography Symposium (which also marks the launch of the Chicago chapter of the American Printing History Association). Johnston (b. 1950, Glasgow, Scotland) is a printmaker and a type scholar, and he teaches “Typography and Typographic Design” at the University of California, Berkeley. After immigrating to California in 1970, he co-founded Poltroon Press in 1975 with Francis Butler in Berkeley. You can peruse a little bit more of his back story here.

With a soft Scottish lilt and and penchant for the droll, at the lecture I attended Johnston regaled us with anecdotes of his process researching 19th century San Franciscan newspaperman, printer and printing equipment salesman, William E. Loy (1847-1906), the subject of Johnston’s newest book: 19th Century Designers and Engravers of Type (Oak Knoll Press, 2009).

Loy’s love of type prompted him to profile the many designers working in the field, a novel, humanizing endeavor in midst of unscrupulous type foundries fiercely jockeying for better sales. To remove himself from the commercial enterprise of most type publications (produced by foundries as advertising), Loy partnered with the Chicago-based Inland Printer around 1896 and for the subsequent three years he published monthly features on his peers, including visual lists of the type they had designed or cut.

Type designed by James West, mid-1800s. Re-printed in 19th Century Designers and Engravers of Type.

Johnston’s book collects all of these profiles for the first time (culled from the archives at the California Historical Society), and you can see a few pages from the book in a PDF here. As I understand it, he typeset the book himself. Google Books also has a 1900 copy of the Inland Printer online, complete with a Designers and Engravers of Type column from Loy. For more on the Inland Printer, see some amazing covers archived here (it is hailed as the first American magazine to offer a newly designed cover for each month’s printing), and refer to Maurice Annenberg’s A Typographic Journey Through the Inland Printer 1883-1900 (Baltimore, MD: Maran Press, 1977).

Alastair Johnston is currently back to the stacks, researching for a biography of Richard Austin (designer of the Bell typeface), and is planning another book on the intriguing subject of “tramp printers,” the stories of whom are buried in type journals collected by William Loy, which was a pre-Linotype, mid-19th century phenomenon of migrant workers who were skilled at setting type and who traveled across the United States printing and embellishing the news of the day.

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