A Letter for Liberty

In the churchyard of St Luke’s in Old Street, about a mile to the north of St Paul’s Cathedral, one can visit a single free-standing eighteenth-century tomb that commemorates William Caslon I and several members of his family. Young Caslon was born in Cradley, Worcestershire, in 1692. He did his apprenticeship as an engraver and toolmaker with Edward Cookes who specialized in the engraving of ornaments on gun barrels before, in 1716, settling in the Minories in the City of London (a district favoured by gunsmiths) where he made a living engraving Government marks on the locks of guns. He also put his talent to punch-cutting, the skilled craft of cutting the hard metal letter punches in steel from which matrices were made in copper 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. However, compared to their Continental counterparts at the time, London type cutters were held in low regard. Most of the typefaces used in London presses came from Dutch type-founders.

In 1719, Caslon was asked by a representation of London printers and booksellers to cut a font of ‘Arabic’ type, for a new Psalter and New Testament to be produced for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK). Copies of this were to accompany the missionaries aboard the vessels sailing from the Thames harbour of Wapping on the trade routes to the Far East. Christianity was good for export. Bibles mirrored British civilization. Dissatisfied with the ‘dull’ Dutch typefaces on offer, Caslon soon set out to cut his own font designs. He used Dutch faces as model, but refined those by making them more imaginative. Caslon’s Great Primer roman, for example, is clearly related to the Text Romeyn of Voskens, a type of the early seventeenth century used by several London printers and attributed to the punch-cutter Nicolas Briot of Gouda. His cutting of the SPCK type was delayed by inexperience, but the work was finally completed in 1724 when a payment was made for 355 punches, 366 matrices, and a mould. It meant the start of a productive and profitable career for Caslon. He became the first great English type-founder. His contemporary, and student of the history of typography, Edward Rowe Mores referred to Caslon as the ‘Coryphaeus [chief or leader] of modern letter-founders’.In 1720, he set up his own foundry in Chiswell Street, in the City, and built a proud country home in, what was then, rural Bethnal Green. The family business went through four generations. However, typefaces, like any other kind of design, are fashion-dependent. Different shapes came in favour, forcing William Caslon IV, in 1819, to sell part of the business to Sheffield type-founders Stephenson Blake and Co. However, around 1840, there was a revival of interest in the fonts. This was an explosive time for English printing. Presses were plentiful, printing became cheaper, and the number of readers exploded. It meant an enormous increase in the number of pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, and popular novels. Printers found that the elegant and clear Caslon faces worked better than most. George Bernard Shaw insisted that Caslon be the sole typeface used in his books. The Caslon connection with type-founding disappeared for good in 1937 when the remaining family foundry was sold to Stephenson Blake.

In 1733, Henry Newman of the SPCK sent a specimen of Caslon’s types to Edward Hutchison in Boston with the recommendation that they were the work of an ‘Artist who seems to aspire to outvying all the Workmen in his way in Europe, so that our Printers send no more to Holland for the Elzevir and other Letters which they formerly valued themselves much on’. The specimen was well received. During the eighteenth-century, his typeface was used by most American printers. In fact, it was so popular that even into the twentieth century the adage in print shops was ‘When in doubt, use Caslon’. He played an important role in revolutionary America. Old Caslon was the typeface used for Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense in 1776, joining that other great export from the East End of London, the Liberty Bell, the iconic symbol of American Independence, located in Philadelphia (formerly placed in the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House). The bell had been ordered from the founding firm of Lester and Pack (today known as the Whitechapel Bell Foundry) for a substantial amount of money. It arrived in Philadelphia in August 1752. At the first strike of the clapper, the bell’s rim cracked. It had to be re-cast in America before it was attuned to proclaim the right of self-government and the equal rights of men. It remains an anecdote that is dear to the Americans.

Thomas Paine was born in 1737 in Thetford, Norfolk. He joined the Excise Service in 1762, worked in Lincolnshire and Sussex, before emigrating to the British American colonies. He arrived in time to participate in the American Revolution. His principal contribution to the political struggle was the powerful pamphlet Common Sense, advocating colonial America’s independence from Britain. On Christmas Day 1776, George Washington read part of the text to his exhausted army to boost morale. It did inspire the soldiers. Shortly afterward his army crossed the Delaware River and launched a surprise attack on Hessian soldiers garrisoned at Trenton (the Hessians were German regiments hired by the British and used in various combat operations). The battle raised the Continental Army’s status and inspired re-enlistments. Paine’s Common Sense sold a staggering 500,000 copies to a population of roughly three million. He refused the royalties because it was liberty not money that had motivated him. This publication was a rousing voice in bringing the colonies to revolution. It inspired Thomas Jefferson to writing ‘The Declaration of Independence’. Some historians even speculate that certain parts of the declaration may have been ghost-written by Thomas Paine.

Caslon conquered America. The ‘Declaration’ itself was printed in his type. It was ratified – not signed – by the American Continental Congress on 4 July 1776, although the content of the declaration was kept secret. The text was delivered to the printing house of John Dunlap, who spent the night setting the declaration into lead type. He printed 200 copies, now known as the ‘Dunlap Broadside’, the first reproduction of those rousing words. The copies were subsequently distributed around the thirteen colonies and elsewhere. One copy was handed to General Washington in New York who, on July 9th, read the words aloud to his troops. Another copy travelled by ship to England and presented to George III. A second printing of the ‘Declaration’ was commissioned by Congress in January 1777. Mary Katherine Goddard, a publisher and the first American postmistress, printed this copy. The ‘Goddard Broadside’ contains the list of all signers. Both copies of the declaration were printed using Caslon.

There is some irony in the fact that the first two sets of copies of the ‘Declaration of Independence’ were printed using type from an English designer. Caslon’s cutting of what would become the ‘Letter for Liberty’ had been inspired by Dutch models of typography. On 28 March 1782, after a petition campaign on behalf of the American cause organized by John Adams and the Dutch patriot politician Joan van der Capellen, the Netherlands were second (after France) in recognizing American independence.