William Caslon, typesetter

When William Caslon set up shop in the Minories in 1716, he had his work, and his future, cut out. The young Caslon, who had been born in Cradley, Worcestershire in 1692, was a skilled engraver and toolmaker. He made a living engraving Government marks on the locks of guns, and also turned his cutting skills to punch-cutting, making the hard metal punches used to make the moulds for type founding. The type-makers would then flow molten lead into Caslon’s moulds, to produce a single piece of type, ready for typesetting.

But London typesetters were held in low regard. English printing was behind its Continental counterparts, and most of the typefaces used in London presses came from Dutch typefounders. All this was to change in 1719, when a group of London printers and booksellers asked the young engraver to cut a font of ‘Arabic’ type, for a new Psalter and New Testament. Copies of this were to accompany the missionaries aboard the vessels flooding out of Wapping, on the trade routes to the Far East. The evangelistic bookmen hoped that they would be able to export Christianity about the merchant ships.

Dissatisfied with the dull Dutch typefaces on offer, Caslon soon took to cutting his own font designs. He began with the Dutch faces as his model, but refined them, making them more delicate and inventive. An excited Caslon went on to create a large number of ‘exotic’ typefaces.

Having added design to his punch-cutting skills, the enterprising Caslon soon realised that there was a business in the making. Craftsman, artist and businessman in one, he became the first great English type-founder. He set up his foundry in Chiswell Street, in the City, in 1720, and built a substantial country home in rural Bethnal Green.

The taste for Caslon spread to the United States, and Caslon was the typeface used for the Declaration of Independence in 1776, joining that other great export from the East End – the Liberty Bell. The family business, meanwhile, had passed from father to son, through four generations, all called, with a remarkable lack of imagination, William Caslon.

But typefaces, like any other design, go in and out of fashion, and by the early 1800s, the taste for Caslon had dropped off, in favour of newer typefaces, and in 1819, William Caslon IV sold the Chiswell Street business to Sheffield typefounders Stephenson Blake and Co. But around 1840, there was a revival of interest in the fonts. This was a burgeoning time for English print – with presses becoming more plentiful, printing cheaper, and an explosion in the number of pamphlets, newspapers, and cheap popular novels. Printers found that the Caslon faces, elegant, clear and easy on the eye, worked as well as they ever had, and better than most. George Bernard Shaw, went so far as to insist that Caslon be the only typeface used in his books.

Daniel Berkeley Updike was a Bostonian printer, typographer and typographic
historian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He explained the popularity of Caslon’s types in the US. ‘While he modelled his letters on Dutch types, they were much better; for he introduced into his fonts a quality of interest, a variety of design, and a delicacy of modelling, which few Dutch types possessed. Dutch fonts were monotonous, but Caslon’s fonts were not so. His letters when analyzed, especially in the smaller sizes, are not perfect individually; but in their mass their effect is agreeable. That is, I think, their secret: a perfection of the whole, derived from harmonious but not necessarily perfect individual letterforms.’

The Caslon connection with typefounding disappeared for good when the other family foundry, HW Caslon & Co, having passed down through various members of the family until 1937, was itself sold to Stephenson Blake.

William Caslon has his local memorials – William Caslon House in Patriot Square and Caslon Place in Cudworth Street. But his true legacy is in his enduring typefaces. If you read books, magazines and newspapers, you will encounter a Caslon cut sooner rather than later.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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