The Alphabet



Frederic Goudy was born in 1865. He was a prolific American type designer, artist, writer, printer, and lecturer. Mr. Goudy sought perfection in his letter forms, leading to designs that are more iterative than innovative. While he is highly regarded today, his devotion to tradition was sometimes criticized by his contemporaries. He founded the Village Press in 1903 with Will Ransom. This business was modeled after his associate William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement. The press was relocated several times and burned to the ground twice. Mr. Goudy’s wife Bertha was an accomplished type compositor and following her passing, he named his 100th typeface Bertham.


The Alphabet is 44 pages with 27 full page plates and was originally published in 1918. The book is typeset in Mr. Goudy’s own typefaces by his wife whom he thanks in the dedication and credits in the colophon.

The book begins with an Introduction followed by six chapters covering the history of letters through the development and evolution of movable type. The chapters titles provide some insight into the thoroughness and rigor Mr. Goudy applies to the subject; What Letters Are, Letters Before Printing, The National Hands, The Development of Gothic, The Beginning of Types, and The Quality of Lettering. Chapter seven, Notes on the Plates, provides a necessary guide for the 27 plates that follow. The plates physically constitute almost half of the volume.


The title is in no way a misnomer, The Alphabet is about the history and evolution of letterforms, providing a survey from Trajan’s Column through 1918 with dozens of touchstones and examples.

Mr. Goudy’s aspiration seems to have been for this book to be regarded as a seminal reference, and in this, he has been successful. To his credit, or perhaps Bertha’s, it is also a beautiful book. Mr. Goudy is unapologetic in his righteousness. These are not opinions. There is no debate, but there is comfort in his convictions. The Alphabet consists of two distinct, but connected parts, a history and a visual reference. One a bit more approachable than the other.

In the Introduction, Mr. Goudy offers a justification for his book. “Naturally, the author attempts a contribution in a field already well cultivated, should offer new material, or present what he has garnered here and there in a novel and undeniably useful way.” Despite this assertion, the first chapter, What Letters Are, reads similarly to other typographic histories published in his era.

The next three chapters, Letters Before Printing, The National Hands, and The Development of Gothic, while offering nothing new in terms of theme, make good on the promise and add to field with their remarkable level of detail. Beginning 2500 years ago, Mr. Goudy uses these three chapters to recount the history of Roman letterforms through the invention of movable type. From a historical perspective the attention to detail is applaudable and for the reader it can feel a bit dense at times, but it is not without its charms.

Chapter 5, The Beginnings of Types, continues the history lesson now covering movable type and printing, but also finds Mr. Goudy more free with his opinions. He commits several paragraphs to Nicolas Jenson, seems very fond of William Caslon and his work,” [Caslon] worked with so much industry and excellence that he was without rival at the head of the profession of letter-founders” and is dubious of Giambattista Bodoni’s efforts “his types are absolutely devoid of any artistic quality, being so regular and precise in line that a monotonous effect is produced.” He goes as far as to quote William Morris on the matter and his opinions of “the sweltering hideousness of the Bodoni.”

The Qualities of Lettering offers advice to students developing their skills. His instruction begins with studying, respecting and even copying the past, from there: “The student must do his own work, draw his own conclusions, and re-discover for himself the fundamentals the writer has attempted to outline.” Mr. Goudy ends with a refrain that would be familiar to students and educators today “When the craftsman has mastered the essentials, he may then devote all his efforts to new departures.”

The second part of the book, set up so painstakingly by the previous, is a visual guide for the reader to compare, contrast the evolution of letterforms. The final chapter of the book provides necessary notes, which support the impressive plates. There is one plate for each letter of the alphabet consisting of a fifteen specimen layout. Amongst the examples are Trajan’s Column, hand type, typefaces by Jenson, Caslon, and Bodoni, as well those designed by the author himself. The plates efficiently and beautifully enable the comparison of thousands of years of letterform history. The book is worth reading, if not owning for the plates alone.


The Alphabet is not for you unless you are a typographic aficionado. If you are not sympathetic to the subject it is a challenging read. If you do have sympathy, there is much to appreciate and treasure within these pages, not the least of which is “The Alphabet” of 27 plates. The plates provided an invaluable visual guide to the development of letters.


Frederic Goudy was a prolific type designer whose faces are still in use. The book contains a lot of history and can be a tough read, but it is a valuable reference. The plates are a must see for type geeks.


“…decoration is not an end in itself and must be adapted to the purpose and place for which it is planned, not being separated from the whole…”

“… the character of all lettering is directly due to the tool employed. The stylus merely scratched the surface of the clay or wax, and gave us cuneiform character; the chisel gave us the clear-cut inscriptions in stone; the reed pen, blunt strokes with thick ink on papyrus; the quill, the round full-bodied form”

“We of to-day have been reared on print, with all its mechanical smoothness and precision. have little, if any, ideal lettering, and little feeling for the charm of character and individuality that only hand work gives.”

“The idea that a page is made beautiful only at the expense of legibility is a vagary of artists lacking a knowledge of the art with which they meddle.”

“It is one thing to disregard tradition, but quite another to go beyond the bounds of moderation.”

“To make our work meet present requirements and satisfy human needs, the craftsman must now, as then, enter sympathetically into the details and incidents of the lives of the users of his work, and recognize fully their necessities and obvious habits; therefore work produced under other and different conditions will seldom present more than a basis for new expressions.”