Nelson C. Hawks


GoudyLeaf-LeftThis recently discovered article contradicts some information presented in the THP feature on the US Point System.

At age 80 in 1920, Nelson C. Hawks [1840–1929] was finally persuaded to publish his personal account of How the Point System Was Started in the scholarly journal, The Printing Art.1 Front-matter of the January 1921 issue previews it:2

“We have been very fortunate to be able to obtain the story of the beginnings of the point system, which has been told with considerable detail in this number by Nelson C. Hawks, the originator of that system. His story will be found immensely entertaining…” (It’s hilarious!).

Hawks Portrait

Nelson Crocker Hawks

A Milwaukee native, Hawks was a printer there until 1874, when John Marder [1835–1918] recruited him to establish and manage Pacific Type Foundry, a San Francisco branch of Marder, Luse & Co.|Chicago Type Foundry [ML].3

  • William E. Loy’s biography of Hawks reports that he was engaged as a partner with Marder and Luse. This evidence is substantiated by records documenting that he later “sold his interest” in the corporation.

Once settled in California and publishing The Pacific Specimen (the quarterly branch newsletter), Hawks was confounded by layouts combining fonts of the same named sizes produced by ML in Chicago vs Philadelphia vs Boston vs New York.

The underlying problem was that the pica, established in England before 1600 as 1/6 of the inch,4 differed—sometimes wildly—among TFs in the US and UK.

The solution he formulated was to standardize sizes according to 12 “Americans” per ML pica. Knowing that it would delight printers, he recognized that the expense of implementing it would horrify typefounders!

His memory of convincing Marder to adopt his proposal is vividly engaging:

  • In summer 1877, he broached the subject on a train taking them to a “day off” outing in Santa Cruz. After some strenuous arm twisting, Marder agreed to listen for 15 minutes.
  • Marder responded, “It can’t be done” and “You are certainly crazy.”
  • When Hawks explained to his captive audience that a TF producing such fonts would corner the market by pleasing their customers, Marder “got it.”
  • On arriving at a junction with an hour before their connection, Marder suggested that they “step in here for a glass of beer and drink success to the New Bodies.”
  • Marder urged patenting the system as an invention to reserve exclusive rights (maximum term 14 years).
  • As a printer himself, Hawks refused because he wanted all TFs to use it as soon as possible to benefit all printers.
  • Against Marder’s wishes that he “keep mighty quiet about it until we get our moulds made,” he published the news in the Pacific Specimen and invited eager local printers to demonstrations.

Annenberg writes that the two men later clashed over who conceived the system: A “bitter argument and name-calling incident when Hawks left the organization in early 1882.” He cites letters from Marder to Hawks5 that “prove it was Hawks’ idea.”

Then he questions even this evidence by (most astutely!) observing that Ringwalt’s American Encyclopedia of Printing (1871) fully describes the French system6 and suggesting that either man may have read it.7 He concludes that Hawks clearly deserves credit for its acceptance because of his extraordinary work to share it, whereas Marder intended to monopolize it.

Hawks resumes his story in 1882, “after selling my interest in the Pacific Type Foundry”:

  • Stopping at the Cincinnati TF8 on his way to the Conner TF, his good friend Charles Wells was immediately convinced: “This is the only proper way to make type, and we will get this system under way at once.”

In New York, James (M.) Conner extended to him the hospitality of a desk and flatly refused to discuss Hawks‘ proposition; he merely roared, “NO!” Hawks “did not bother him at all. I waited for him to bother me.”

  • After about four days, Conner inquired about Hawks‘ plan. The next day, he asked whether ML had adopted it—and anyone else. Learning that Cincinnati was also “on board,” he surrendered:
  • “It’s a fool proposition, but if Charlie Wells has the nerve to grab hold of such a thing, I can, by thunder!”
  • A few weeks after returning to San Francisco, a letter from John K. Rogers asked: “Will you kindly send me the steel standards of your new bodies? I find we shall have to join the procession, at the head of which you march.”
  • The Philadelphia foundry (MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan) and the rest followed “in due course of time.”

The rest is history—and like all research, The Truth is elusive and/or relative to the source…

Explanation of the Point System, 1918

Explanation of the Point System
N.C. Hawks, 1918

When did ML adopt the point system? In the Printing Art article (1920), Hawks tells that the first ML font cast with the new bodies was Parallel Shaded, introduced no later than 1879, which agrees with the specimen text for Explanation of the Point System [left] published two years earlier.

  • Indeed, Hailing’s Circular of Autumn 1879 notes that the latest Marder Luse newsletter introduces 13 sizes of a new design (Gothic Condensed—not Parallel Shaded) with a uniform “beard” [space between the baseline and face] promising perfect alignment of all sizes at the top and bottom.
  • The item does not mention the point system, which addresses only vertical body measurement (not alignment). Why not? ML continued to show specimens only by named sizes until 1881,10 when point equivalents were parenthesized. Other US TFs began the same practice in 1886.
  • In his biography of Hawks, William E. Loy writes that ML adopted the system in the process of rebuilding after the The Great Chicago Fire of 1871.11
  • ML advertisements concur that the system was introduced in 1872. Considering Annenberg’s point that Ringwalt’s then-new reference manual was available to all concerned, this scenario surely makes sense.
  • An unattributed Inland Printer article (self-promo?) accounts that ML proprietors actively planned to adopt it before the fire.12

*In a review of Marder’s contributions just after his death in 1918, Bullen names Hawks as inventor of the system while crediting Marder for its general acceptance.14

The December 1885 Inland Printer lists 17 TFs indicating 100% or partial commitment to reform of type-body standards. Three leading TFs known for original faces are conspicuously absent:

  • Dickinson (Boston), plus the Bruce and Conner TFs of New York.
  • The Cincinnati TF had postponed production logistics pending agreement on a pica standard.
  • This information clearly disputes Hawks’ jubilant reports of “converting” the Cincinnati and Conner TFs to his system by the early 1880s.

All else aside… Hawks’ delightful yarn ends with his recollection of a dinner in December 1892 celebrating the ATF merger. On that occasion, William Bright (St. Louis TF) rose to honor him:

“There is a man sitting at this table who deserves a scoring at our hands, as a body of American type founders; for he is the cause of our clear loss of over nine millions of dollars, in the discarding of old moulds alone. I allude to the so-called Point System.

“But I tell you, gentlemen, it is the grandest thing that has ever happened to typography and marks a new era in the history of printing. After four hundred years of working by the rule of thumb, it has remained for a printer from the far-off shores of the Pacific to come across this big continent and teach us the proper way to make type.

“The benefits of this new system will soon be felt all over the land, and thousands of printers will rise up and bless the name of the inventor of the Point System. As Nathan said unto David,

“Thou art the man.”

See also US Point System


  1. University Press, Cambridge MA.
  2. Hawks, N.C.: How the Point System Was Started. In The Printing Art 36:389-392, January 1921.
  3. the Marder Luse TF (Chicago) descended from Chicago Type Foundry [1855–1861], the first TF in that city. It was a branch of the Elihu White TF (New York). When Messrs. Farmer and Little acquired the White firm, they sold the branch to Marder.
  4. Reed, T.B.: A History of the Old English Letter Foundries|With Notes, Historical and Biographical, on the Rise and Progress of English Typography, page 32. Elliot Stock, London 1887.
  5. Kemble Collection, California Historical Society
  6. Ringwalt, L. (1871): American Encyclopedia of Printing, pages 470-471, 416-417.  J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia.
  7. Annenberg, M.; Saxe, S.O. [Editor]; Lieberman, E.K. [Index] (1994): Type Foundries of America and Their Catalogs, page 191.  Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, DE.
  8. a “cousin” of Marder Luse with the same “grandfather,” Elihu White
  9. Annenberg, M.; Saxe, S.O. [Editor]; Lieberman, E.K. [Index] (1994): Type Foundries of America and Their Catalogs, page 208.  Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, DE.
  10. 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.
  11. Loy, W.E. (1900–1905): Typefounders and Typefounding In America XXVII. In The Inland Printer 30:249, October 1902.
  12. Anonymous: The Typefoundries of the United States | Marder, Luse & Co. In The Inland Printer 8:153-154, November 1890.
  13. Bullen, H.L. [pen-name Quadrat]: Discursions of a Retired Printer VII. In The Inland Printer 38:513-521, January 1907.
  14. Bullen, H.L.: John Marder, A Benefactor of Printers. In The Inland Printer 62:446, January 1919.