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The Alphabet Thesaurus Nine Thousand

For sheer typographic exuberance, it's hard to beat the old specimen books published by Photo-Lettering, Inc., a now-defunct phototypesetting outfit that flourished for about 50 years in New York. The Photo-Lettering library was massive, mostly made up of a mind-boggling array of display fonts. They called their specimen book an "Alphabet Thesaurus," arranging it as guide to the various themes and styles of the fonts in their library.

Photo-Lettering specimen

At a quick glance, you might cringe at a lot of stuff shown in the books, but I’ve always thought that the big problem is that they offered a lot of fonts that were horribly abused by the people who used them over the years. Every time I take a close look at the letters themselves, they're pretty incredible: novel, lively, well-drawn, and filled to the brim with personality — even the goofy ones. Considering some of the great lettering artists who contributed to their stock, it's not such a surprise.

Photo-Lettering specimen

The books are not completely painless, however. One of the big features of photocompositon was the ability to squeeze and stretch and skew and otherwise distort fonts stored on film masters, and the pages that show off that ability really make it clear how few typefaces can withstand that kind of torture.

Photo-Lettering specimen

House Industries owns the Photo-Lettering collection these days, and they've been working for a few years now on a tool for ordering custom settings of display type rather than the typefaces themselves, a return to the model used by the old type outfits like Photo-Lettering. I’ve seen demos now and then, and it's clear that it's a massive amount of work to sort through, digitize, and engineer all the fonts in that collection, but I still salivate waiting for the chance to play with them once and for all.

Photo-Lettering specimen

(More photos of the book at Flickr.)

Comments (4)

1) david z.: When you say "ordering custom settings of display type rather than the typefaces themselves," you mean I would contact the company and tell them I need the text "Happy Birthday!" in 30 pt. Garamond and they'd set it and send me an image? Because I don't understand how that could survive as a business model these days. (Sep 2, 2007 2:26 PM)

2) Sparky: The tool they're developing is an online interface that lets you key in some text, try it out in the available fonts, set the size and color, and maybe apply a few transformations (weight adjustments, scaling, whatever they've built into the font) and then purchase a downloadable PDF of the result. No, it wouldn't make sense for something like Garamond, but it's a actually a nice alternative to buying every single kooky display font you wanted to try out in a layout. And I assume they'd also sell the fonts that proved to be really popular, too. (Sep 2, 2007 4:09 PM)

3) Jasso: Something like this one? Font test and play page by one of the few Finnish type designers/founders: Test Xtra Sans (Sep 2, 2007 7:00 PM)

4) Peter Bruhn: Thank you for putting up these images :-) (Sep 6, 2007 2:08 PM)

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