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History of Lettering

The Punchcutter

When printing was first invented it was no accident that those skilled in engraving and metalwork came to pre-eminence. To create a metal type a punch first had to be made, requiring exactness and fine dexterity. Each letter was cut, in reverse, into a metal bar, which was then struck into copper from which the finished type was cast in lead alloy.

Until a machine was developed to do this job, the skill of the punch-cutter was highly sought by typophiles in the late 19th and early 20th century. Edward Philip Prince was an Englishman who cut most of the punches for the private press movement, Morris’s Kelmscott, Ricketts’ Vale Press and Walker’s Doves Press, for instance. He was also commissioned by Updike in the US and Kessler in Germany.

To give some idea of how long it would take to produce a complete upper and lower case alphabet, in one size, it took Prince a day to cut one punch. Few though survive, for once the face was done the punches were thrown away, or if thought to be needed again ‘sealed in earthenware pots’. He was well paid, however: earning up to three times the then national wage.

Somewhere, years ago, I picked up a book about Prince (from which the illustrations and quotes are taken) – privately printed in an edition of 1000 by FC Avis. (His address was given as London, SE4, which is where I then lived.) Anyhow, Prince is described as a modest man, a ‘superlative craftsman’ and ‘possessed of that gentleness of spirit which becomes greatness in a man’.