Aligning a Rocky Road

The history of baselines

A friend writing about the nature of vertical type alignment and interline spacing with digital-only typesetting put me on the path to research something I’d long wondered about in the era of metal type (~1450–1980s): How could you set a line of type that mixed typefaces from the same or different foundries and keep a consistent baseline?

The baseline is the invisible horizontal line on which the bottom of the body of characters sit in the Latin alphabet and many other scripts, whether the bottom of an uppercase letter or the main body of a lowercase one. This is true for handwriting, scribal hands, and letterpress type — as well as all the phototype and digital type that followed in printing and onscreen. The baseline is one of the foundations of legibility, allowing letters to be read in a flowing fashion along a horizontal line our minds construct.

From James Craig’s Designing with Type (1980), as reproduced in a blog entry by Paul Shaw.

So how did type foundries keep a consistent baseline? They did not. At least for most of the first four and a half centuries of printing before industrial scale had fully set in and before standardization became keenly important as an element of efficiency and productivity.

Many printers initially made their own type or contracted or bought it from goldsmiths and others. That worked perhaps well enough within an individual press. As Talbot Baines Reed wrote in A History of the Old English Letter Foundries (1887):

Imagining, as we do, that the moulds of the first printers were of a primitive construction, and, though conceived on true principles, were adjusted to the various sizes of letter they had to cast more by eye than by rule, it is easy to understand that founts would be cast on no other principle than that of ranging in body and line and height in themselves, irrespective of the body, height and line of other founts used in the same press.

That was obviously not tenable as scale increased. Type foundries arose just decades after printing’s rise in Europe, and rapidly took on more importance as a centralized supplier of a key ingredient of printing. (Printers also worked out methods to purchase or rent some parts of type production and make their own duplicates, authorized or otherwise.)

Still, it took a long while for the printing world to settle on names for consistent sizes of type, which were quite picturesque (or even pica-resque — no?). Pearl, Brevier, Long Primer, Double Pica, Minion, Bourgeois, and many others had been established (according to Reed) by the mid-1600s in England at least, and elsewhere earlier and later under the same names or synonyms and translations.

These were measured imprecisely as a certain number of characters to an English foot of 12 inches. Pearl was 184 to a foot, measured from top to bottom when looking at the printing side of a piece of type, according to the first comprehensive book on setting up a printing shop, the 1683 volume devoted to that craft of Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises series. However, these sizes were meant as guidelines and weren’t always precise — imagine finding a well-calibrated ruler to measure a foot in those days.

A chart in Reed’s book on English foundries showing the evolution of measurements of common type sizes.

By the 1800s, a standard measure — the point — began to settle in, with France leading the way. By the end of that century, American and British printers settled on a slightly different measurement than European printers, called the American measure. It was 0.01383 to the point and 0.166 to the pica. (Twelve points make a pica, another common measure.) That let 6 picas add up to just a hair below one inch. (In the desktop-publishing age, a point is exactly 1/72nd of an inch compared to 1/72.27th with metal type.)

The Pearl size noted above at 184 to the foot is somewhat above 4.5 American points; Pearl eventually rounded up to exactly 5 points. (Also: Imagine setting 5-point type by hand at 1 a.m. for the next day’s edition of the newspaper, while likely hungover or poorly rested and slowly asphyxiating from the fumes emitting from the dim but steady kerosene light that illuminated your efforts.)

Elements of a piece of metal type from Hand Composition by Hugo Jahn (1931).

However, the baseline remained a fiercely worse problem. There was no standard by which the face of the type, or the part that received ink and printed on paper, was aligned to the body of type, or the overall metal block that was set in place among its fellows.

A foundry might design different styles of the same typeface, which had to be drawn and manufactured separately, with the same face-on-body characteristics. You would want your upright (Roman), italic, bold, small caps, and other variants to all share a baseline. But within a foundry, it’s possible that no two typefaces’ baselines might match.

With the perfection of hot-metal typesetting in the 1870s for keyboard composition, and the massive growth of the periodical world, the example was set of having consistent units all around: points for height, units for widths (more on that in a moment), and a standard line for baselines. Those characteristics were all found in Linotype, Monotype, and competitors, because fonts were made by a single manufacturer and typefaces were often mixed on a line.

From Hand Composition, an illustration of erratic baselines.

The ability to easily mix fonts accelerated because not long after the introduction of the Linotype with a single font available at a time, the company added options to choose from among multiple fonts at once — eventually allowing for eight fonts at their fingertips at a time. (These fonts were made up of molds called matrices or mats stored in big magazines above the unit. A compositor would type, and a mat would drop down, adding to a line of mats.)

Some shops would also swap out particular mats in magazines for alternates they might need regularly. The Monotype system worked differently, but still allowed for mixing characters among different fonts for casting all at once.

From The Printing Art magazine (1913)

A typesetter could switch among styles and fonts, or even language scripts, like Greek for math or Biblical texts. This made it relatively trivial to set copy among mixed fonts that shared a common baseline — the hot-metal equivalent of switching faces using a font menu today and expecting that characters would stay steady along the baseline as you typed.

For handset foundry type, this increasingly apparent difference seemed to became a sticking point as you read contemporary industry writing, as the lack of a common line reduced efficiency and quality to no purpose. Ultimately, one foundry began pushing a standard line for everything it cast, as reported in the industry magazine The Inland Printer in 1894. The author, R. Coupland Harding, wrote:

Since I began these articles [about standard units] a new American foundry, the Inland, has started, and its types are all to systematic line. The long suffering printer may cry Eureka! I do not know that, in this detail, their system can be improved. Will the other foundries also fall into line?

They did. By 1902, The British Printer wrote about what had finally become an accepted, but still new, convergence that included a standard line:

  • Every font of the same point size, with a few exceptions for decorative faces and design elements (like borders), had a baseline at an identical position on the body.
  • Every point size varied in a consistent manner, which allowed compositors to insert standard leading (strips of lead largely used for vertical spacing between lines) to align baselines among different sizes or perform other adjustments.
From The British Printer (1902), showing standard line fonts.

(I discovered one bit of typographic trivia. Around 1900, the term beard — as labeled in the figure above — was used to refer to the space on the printing side of the body of type below the face. By no later than about 1930, that changed to be called the shoulder, while the beard shifted to refer to the vertical or side of the face of the type — its relief from the background of the body. That’s how the term is used in the 1931 Hand Composition book from which I took the illustration of a piece of metal type above, and in other sources around the same time.)

There is one more piece that snaps together here, too, though it may seem less important. With point size and baseline standardized, what of the set width, or the linear dimension a piece of type takes up in a line? This was relatively arbitrary for most of the history of typefounding, as punchcutters simply worked to whatever width a character required.

However, that made justifying a line of type into a column — flush left and flush right on the margins — a much more complicated and inefficient task. Compositors had to fiddle with very thin spaces made of brass and copper, and setting different sizes of type in a single line could also require packing a line vertically with thin leading.

Meanwhile, hot-metal composition systems relied on a strict unit measurement for set width for a variety of reasons. With Linotype, it eased designed and production. For Monotype, the same was true, coupled with the particular spacing system that calculated word spaces during composition to insert them while casting.

In that 1902 British Printer article, the author extols the rise of set widths based on points. All characters in a line always aggregated to multiples of points, allowing for faster and more accurate spacing and fit.

The three developments together of a standard point size, set width, and line suddenly allowed the intermixture of fonts and sizes — even perpendicular orientations — with incredible reliability, as The British Printer demonstrated in a tour de force page set solid with no spacing used either between words, to justify lines, or vertically between lines.

The British Printer sets a page solid in every direction: no spaces between letters or between lines.