US Point System


Favicon-smallA recently discovered account of Nelson C. Hawks’ contributions contradicts some of the information presented below.

GoudyLeaf-LeftDisclaimer. You do the math… The brain-breaking computations of this subject, thoroughly discussed by others, are far beyond the scope of THP research. This topic explores how the centuries-old English system of type measurement impacted 19th-century US/UK typefounders and printers.

At first, TFs worldwide cataloged their wares in terms of sizes developed in England during the 1500s—a time when all printing was geared to publishing books and periodicals. Starting in the 1860s, US display type designs began to gain international prominence. A problem arose for job printers:

  • Real-world measurements and baselines of fonts produced by different TFs were inconsistent and/or incompatible.

This issue, openly debated in trade journals during the 1880s, clashed with a concurrent private one that was not discussed:

  • Competition among TFs had become so intense that “secret” price wars (disguised as discretionary discounts as high as 50%) reduced profits to the brink of industry-wide collapse.
  • Price wars were a reaction to competition against advertising agencies that paid for newspaper space by bartering inferior type cheaply produced by the electrotype method of cloning designs originated by legitimate TFs.

The most prosperous TFs could afford such losses temporarily; others could not. None could survive them indefinitely. The situation was “outta control”! By the 1880s, price wars among TFs threatened US industry-wide collapse.

Browse all related images (in preparation), or click individual links below.


Until the 1870s, nearly all types sold in the US were imported from England, Scotland or France—or copied from faces originating there.1 Legal inch standards differed in the UK vs France, and type sizes differed accordingly [sidebar].

The only unit of the English system was the pica, the standard line height: one pica=1/6 inch: six lines=one inch [sidebar]. Pica definitions/measurements varied among producers. These differences were perpetuated among 19th-century TFs in the US and Canada [sidebar], which—until the mid-1870s—imported most of their inventories from France or the UK.

There was no unit intermediate to the pica. Other relatively arbitrary sizes were named according to their intended use. The names of the sizes and their relative proportions were fairly consistent. The realistic measurements of the type bodies and alignment of their baselines were not.

B. Franklin Stamp

Franklin Commemorative
US Postage Stamps
Michael Dooling, 2006

Philadelphia. During his tenure as US Ambassador to France (1778–1785), Benjamin Franklin purchased matrices, typefounding equipment and a copy of Manuel Typographique, a treatise by Parisian typefounder Pierre Simon Fournier introducing his system of 72 points per French inch [sidebar].

In 1806, one of Franklin’s heirs lent these assets to Binny & Ronaldson, the first successful US TF. B&R considered the French standard far superior to the English one. During the next generation of B&R, Lawrence Johnson [1801–1860] implemented this system, which passed to MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan.2

Thanks to the work of Herman Ihlenburg (recruited by L. Johnson|MSJ in 1866), his employer soon led the international market for innovative display type (see Philadelphia, below). By the mid-1870s, most US TFs stocked MSJ fonts, so the Fournier/Johnson/MSJ system was familiar to its distributors and their printer clientele.

Chicago. In 1871, The Great Chicago Fire destroyed all TFs in the city including Marder, Luse & Co.|The Chicago Type Foundry. Nelson C. Hawks [1840–1929], later a Marder Luse partner, convinced John Marder to seize the opportunity of rebuilding to adopt his plan for 72 Americans per UK/US inch.

Hailing’s Circular of Autumn 1879 notes that the latest Marder Luse newsletter introduces a 13-size series of Condensed Gothic with a uniform “beard” (space between the baseline and the face) promising perfect alignment of all sizes at the top and bottom.

The “American System of Interchangeable Bodies” was soon imitated by progressive TFs in the west and by some eastern ones. Marder Luse continued to show named sizes until 1881,3 when point equivalents were parenthesized.

Composing Stick

The Fournier-Johnson and HawksMarder Luse pica sizes were nearly identical (within 0.0003 inch?). Even so, the baselines of bodies cast by US and UK producers did not align.

Job printers, whose work involved multiple display styles, became increasingly annoyed. Compositors complained that justification [lining] of mix ‘n’ match fonts required time-consuming baseline-boosting with paper or cardboard (YIKES!).

Routinely taking advantage of price-war discounts, perhaps they perceived this “generosity” as a signal that TFs would maintain them indefinitely—or that they were greedy. By the mid-1880s, they demanded standardization:

  • Agree on a uniform pica and beard.
  • Produce future styles on the new bodies.
  • Phase out supplies of types cast on old bodies.
  • Restock them with types cast on new bodies.
  • Absorb all related expense.

US Producers had their own reasons for favoring change—or not:

  • Unlimited North American Market. Compatibility guaranteed for all original or distribution fonts.
  • International Market [sidebar]. Export skyrocketed as the century progressed. US TFs naturally wanted to sell their wares in as many countries as possible.
  • Loyalty. Some producers embraced the chaotic status quo because it perpetuated customer dependency.
  • Expense. The cost of abandoning decades-old processes, recasting or discarding tons of existing type threatened financial ruin.

In an angry letter to the editor dated January 22, 1885 (Inland Printer, February 1885) an anonymous Chicago typefounder wrote that granting job printers’ wishes would cost $75,000–$100,000 (about $2 million today!) and attacked them for unwillingness to share this burden.

The December 1885 Inland Printer lists 17 TFs indicating 100% or partial commitment to reform and hails progress.

  • The first two named are Marder Luse and MSJ.
  • Three leading TFs known for original faces are conspicuously absent: Dickinson (Boston), Bruce and Conner (New York).
  • In 1881, Marder Luse issued the first catalog labeling specimens by point size.4
  • As more TFs joined this trend, some boasted that they were first to adopt the change; others, that they had always used this system so no change was necessary.

Nothing whatsoever had changed! The fonts themselves were exactly the same; only the formerly named sizes were expressed in their theoretical point equivalents. Pica units and baselines still did not match.

In 1886, Thomas MacKellar and John Marder (Vice President) called a meeting of the Typographical Association (later called the United States Typefounders’ Association) as announced in The Inland Printer:

The Inland Printer, August 1886

A featured article of the October Inland Printer reports that representatives of 20 of the “largest and best” US TFs “thoroughly ventilated and discussed the grievances of the trade.” The conference continued for three days including six executive sessions, and a followup meeting was scheduled for October 26 in New York.

Employing printers expecting news of standardization were disappointed. A second item in the same issue congratulates the Association for progress on ending “throat-cutting practices for the benefit of themselves.” It urges delegates to resume work on a solution of their own “pet peeve” at the next session.

In the November issue, Marder Luse advises its patrons of the new discounts agreed by the Association on October 26. The following month, an ad published by The Baltimore TF observes that the point system was adopted at the same meeting.

The system chosen was the one introduced by MSJ: 72 points=0.9961104 UK/US inch (1.0 French inch); it is nearly identical to the one used by Marder, Luse & Co. as proposed by Nelson C. Hawks. Accepted in the UK during the next decade,5 it is still used today by the letterpress communities in both countries.

In the process of developing the PostScript printer language (introduced in 1984), Adobe “tweaked” type measurement for desktop publishing: 72 points=exactly one UK/US inch; six picas=exactly one UK/US inch—the same system proposed by Hawks6 in the 1870s. The accuracy of digital point sizes varies with the designer’s specification of leading [blank space determining line height] above/below the glyphs.

• • • •

Price Wars ResumeLess than three years later, deadly competition resumed—this time overtly. None other than Marder Luse advertised in the Inland Printer of May 1889 the same 25% discount offered between January 1885 and October 1886.7

The text reproaches rivals for inferior products and deceptive business practices. Note that the highlighted passage disagrees with the date cited in ads published in The Inland Printer by the Baltimore TF (December 1886) and Marder Luse (November 1886).

Bullen marks 1889 as the year when price wars that started between “two Chicago typefounders” (Marder Luse and Barnhart Brothers & Spindler8) infected all and killed the Typographical Association.9

For TFs during this life-or-death struggle, thoughts of standardized picas and beards were “the farthest thing from their minds”!

In 1890, the United Typothetæ of America appointed a committee including Theodore L. De Vinne “to consider the possibility of a greater uniformity in the bodies of types from different foundries.” The committee sent a questionnaire to every TF in the US, compiled the responses and published a summary in the October Inland Printer.

The committee’s interpretation was that, even if a more precise standard (for example, the Bruce table of geometric progressions [sidebar]) might have been adopted, “the American point system is here to stay, and we are to make the best we can of it.”

Conclusions. Decisions of the Typefounders’ Association in 1886 were too little, too late. Battling TFs never “got it together” to produce universally interchangeable fonts. Financially drained by competition with lithography and Linotype as well as electrotype piracy and resulting price wars, those that had not complied with the new standard by 1890 lacked the means to do so. Instead, they merged as the American Type Founders’ Company [ATF] incorporated on 08 February 1892.

  • The plan to consolidate was proposed by Messrs. Marder and Brower (Union TF, Chicago). Brower became the first Secretary of the corporation; Marder, Western General Manager.
  • ATF inherited the standardization mess as well as competition among members and with non-members.

In the meantime, type tastes influenced by the work of William Morris steered away from “fancy fonts.”

  • ATF replaced many existing faces with new designs.
  • Others cast on obsolete bodies were discontinued.
  • Annenberg theorizes that ATF established distribution branches to dispose of  discontinued styles and obsolete bodies. 10

The mission of The Type Heritage Project is to facilitate digital revival of lost typefaces and to document their history for posterity—lest they be forever forgotten!

GoudyLeaf-LeftSee also Nelson C. Hawks.


  1. Bullen, H.L. [pen-name Quadrat] (1906-1908): Discursions of a Retired Printer. In The Inland Printer 38:862, March 1907.
  2. MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan: One Hundred Years|1796–1896. The Inland Printer, 19:82–85, April 1897.
  3. Annenberg, M.; Saxe, S.O. [Editor]; Lieberman, E.K. [Index] (1994): Type Foundries of America and Their Catalogs, page 192. Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, DE.
  4. Annenberg et al., ibid. page 192.
  5. Editorial Notes. In The Inland Printer 21:321, June 1898
  6. Annenberg, M.; Saxe, S.O. [Editor]; Lieberman, E.K. [Index] (1994): Type Foundries of America and Their Catalogs, page 192. Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, DE.
  7. the The Inland Printer 06:702, May 1889.
  8. American Bookmaker 08:142–143, June 1889.
  9. Bullen, H.L. [pen-name Quadrat] (1906-1908): Discursions of a Retired Printer. In The Inland Printer 39:514, July 1907.
  10. Annenberg, M.; Saxe, S.O. [Editors]; Lieberman, E.K. [Index] (1994): Type Foundries of America and Their Catalogs, pages 124-125. Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, DE.