Bethany Qualls, 2021 MPS Showcase

Recovering the Forgotten Women of Metal Type Design

Do you know who made your favorite typeface? Today’s world of digital publishing might use different technologies, but many of the typefaces you regularly encounter (Times New Roman, Helvetica, Futura, etc.) have their origins in the metal type era, a period from the end of the 1800s until roughly the 1950s. This period is when hot metal typesetting via Monotype or Linotype technologies became the norm for printing, revolutionizing what had been a mostly manual process for centuries. Our typographic design today heavily relies on norms from this metal type era. Yet while women’s more recent, computer-age contributions to typography are publicly recognized—Zuzana Licko was the first person ever to design a typeface on a computer, and Susan Kare created the first typefaces for Apple in the 1980s—the contributions of women in the metal type era have mostly been erased or ignored.

In this video, 2021 Mellon Public Scholar Bethany Qualls gives an overview of her work with Letterform Archive in San Francisco working to make the histories of women type designers in this period more accessible. A brief recap of print history situates the project, highlighting women whose work in metal type has been widely recognized. But even though people have researched early women type designers, no single, publicly accessible resource exists to synthesize what we do know. A finding aid for Letterform’s own holdings of materials by and about these women lies at the heart of this project, but the final resource pulls together information on them from across print and digital sources.

Bethany covers her two main tasks: listing over 688 bound type specimens for Letterform’s catalog, then working through all the material she could find about women who designed these early typefaces. She then located examples of these typefaces in Letterform’s own collection, created a finding aid page template, and wrote out a page for each woman known to have designed a metal typeface. These pages include biographical information, typefaces designed, later digital versions, what Letterform holds and what can be found outside of their collection. The final pages will be part of Letterform’s Online Archive in 2022

A doctoral candidate in English literature who specializes in eighteenth-century British print culture, Bethany enjoyed exploring more contemporary archives, though there were a few major surprises. One was doing the majority of her research in languages she doesn’t speak: German, Hebrew, and Russian. She was also surprised to find material about Russian women type designers that does not get discussed in English-language resources about women in typography. She looks forward to seeing how this project will highlight the recovery work that has come before, while adding more women and materials to the conversation.