The Rise and Fall of a Typeface | Newberry

The Rise and Fall of a Typeface

According to Peter Stallybrass, an obscure typeface called civilité offers us a way of thinking about both the history of printing and the development of the bureaucratic nation-state in Western Europe. Peter, who is Annenberg Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke with Jill Gage, the Newberry’s curator of printing history, about why civilité was designed to simulate handwriting, why it was the chosen typeface to print “junk mail” from King James I, and why it eventually faded into obscurity.

The Rise and Fall of a Typeface by Shelf Life, from the Newberry Library


Created in the 1550s, the civilité typeface was designed to simulate cursive handwriting. Though it was a difficult typeface to work with and eventually faded into obscurity, for a time civilité had its uses: such as for printing short government documents that mirrored the handwritten fill-in-the-blanks information that those documents required. [Call number: Case Wing oversize Z 311 .C716]

Show Notes

1:26 — Jill points out the difference between how design students visiting the Newberry react to roman and italic typefaces vs. a “dead typeface” like civilité.

2:30 — Peter discusses the origins of civilité: designed for children’s books in the 1550s, the typeface simulated the look of cursive handwriting. At a time when the nation-state was creating all kinds of printed and handwritten documents, civilité could bridge the divide between printing and writing.

5:57 — Civilité was a nightmare for printers to work with. Therefore, it was mostly used for short texts and single-sheet documents.

7:12 — On the other hand, any typeface will have its difficulties and complications. For a given typeface, letters can exist in multiple variations—the infamous early modern long “s,” for example. Readers get used to seeing these variations.

9:25 — Why didn’t printing in civilité catch on?

13:42 — What’s the relationship between manuscript and print after the “printing revolution”? Manuscript documents don’t just continue to appear after the printing press; there’s a “massive incitement” to write because the nation-state demands so many forms that must be filled in by hand. Printing short documents like indulgences was big business in the early modern period.

18:53 — Why was civilité used to print “junk mail” sent by King James I?

25:32 — What does civilité (and single-sheet printing) reveal about larger questions related to printing history?

Further Reading and Related Resources

About the Newberry’s materals related to the history of printing and the history of the book

Finding aid for the John M. Wing Foundation Printing Ephemera Collection

“Print or Manuscript? Civilité Type in Early Modern England” by Heather Wolfe