[type] Faces of New Bedford

The following blog post was submitted by Laura Franz, Chair, Design Department College of Visual and Performing Arts, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.  Professor Franz brought her typography students to the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library in 2007 to get a sampling of historic materials to use as source material for their design projects. They were hosted by Maritime Curator Mike Dyer and Museum Librarian Laura Pereira.

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Typography is the art of designing the written word. Type is ubiquitous. It is in the books, magazines, and websites we read, the street signs we use to find our way, the fonts we choose in our MS Word documents. Letters are everywhere. In the landscape, letters reflect the culture of a time and place. As a typographer I am interested in how letters and type “live” in society, and how they change as life around them changes.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been researching lettering in New Bedford, Massachusetts. New Bedford had enough wealth early on to finance documentation of the town. Later it gained enough international fame (when the movie “Moby Dick” was produced) to warrant continued historic preservation. These days, along with the National Park Services and the Waterfront Historic Action LeaguE (WHALE) — which help keep historic buildings intact — New Bedford has the Whaling Museum Research Library to keep historic documents and photos archived and available to those studying the history of New Bedford and the history of whaling.

New Bedford is an excellent source of inspiration because of it’s financial, social, and industrial past: originally settled by Quakers from Plymouth Colony, it has been the whaling capital of the world, a major stop on the underground railroad, and one of the biggest cotton textiles producers in the US. It is also a small city that fought urban renewal, and now struggles to revitalize it’s downtown and to re-assert it’s identity.

Finally, the longevity of the town allows me to map its history against technological, political, cultural, and even typographic developments.

THE PROJECT: TYPEFACES OF NEW BEDFORD

My early personal interests in New Bedford were linked to the landscape: how certain street corners or buildings changed over time. (I can’t help but revel in the fact that life goes on around these buildings. Generations of people come and go. Businesses change. Tastes change. Technology changes. And thus, signs change.)

Later, in order to expand the scope of my research, I enlisted the help of some of my students. [type]Faces of New Bedford is an on-going undergraduate research project I facilitate with Juniors and Seniors at UMass Dartmouth as a typeface design project. Working with students allows me to conduct research on the role of lettering, writing, and typography over a period of 300+ years in a single place. In return, the project allows the members of my “research team” to learn about the process of designing and producing a typeface, while learning more about the history of New Bedford.

We lose a part of our history when letters are destroyed without documentation. Seeing how type lives in the context of society helps me better understand the history of my own field, and I’ve found it helps my students to identify with those that lived in the area. They begin to connect with and better understand both the history of the landscape and the history of typography.

THE PROCESS

In 2007 and 2008, students conducted research on the history of New Bedford — meeting with representatives from the National Park Service, WHALE, and the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library. They identified inspirational aspects of New Bedford’s history and found examples of writing and/or typography related to the times/events they were most interested in studying.

Students then designed digital versions of their chosen writing/lettering and wrote abstracts explaining their research (both “scholarly” and “creative”). The final result: 30 working typefaces and a series of 30 posters, each highlighting a different time in the history of New Bedford (1705-2007).

STUDENT WORK

Thirty typefaces have been designed over the years.

Some typefaces represent lettering from buildings and signs: the Cherry and Company Building, circa 1920; Signage for the Brightman Stationary Store located in the A. E. Coffin Building, circa 1930; Lincoln’s Department Store, circa 1938; A Boiler Repair and Welding shop, circa 1958.

Inspiration: Art Deco lettering on the Cherry and Company building, circa 1920. Photo by Jennifer Soares 2008.
Inspiration: Art Deco lettering on the Cherry and Company building, circa 1920. Photo by Jennifer Soares 2008.
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Inspiration: New England Boiler Repair and Welding (in the building where “Cork” is now located) circa 1958. Photo from the Library of Congress Archives.

Other typefaces represent lettering from printed materials: text from the New Bedford Mercury, circa 1807; a broadside for an anti-slavery meeting, circa 1853; a broadside for the labor party, circa 1920.

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Inspiration: A section from The New Bedford Mercury, circa 1807. From the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library .

Many typefaces are based on primary sources students found at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library.

Steve Hickey based his typeface on the writing of John Akin, a town clerk in Dartmouth in 1705. Steve’s typeface is from the oldest artifact — a 300 year-old page of handwritten notes. Steve had to negotiate which letters to “use” in his final design. When we write by hand, we often form our letters differently from word to word. You can see below how John Atkin’s “o” changed as he wrote. Steve had to design an “o” to work in the context of every word.

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Inspiration: A section from notes written by John Atkin, town clerk in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, 1705. From the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library. Note: image modified for legibility and color by Steve Hickey.
Typeface designed by Steve Hickey, 2007.
Typeface designed by Steve Hickey, 2007.

Amy Williams was inspired by the logbook kept by Seth Barlow, Jr., keeper on the brig The Nancy. Amid the day-to-day accounts about the weather, who had gotten sick or died, and the ships they saw on the open seas, she found pages of experimentation with form. Some of the letters written by Seth Barlow, Jr. where elegant script, others were bold, blocky, Roman forms. There were literally dozens of “fonts” to work with. Seth Barlow was a born letterer.

Inspiration: whaling log
Inspiration: Logbook kept by Seth Barlow, Jr., keeper on the brig The Nancy, circa 1807. From the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library . Note: image modified (color) by Amy Williams.
Typeface designed by Amy Williams, 2007.
Typeface designed by Amy Williams, 2007.

Eric Galvez was intrigued by New Bedford’s wealth during the periods of prosperity linked first to the Whaling Industry and later to the Cotton Textile Industry. He was amazed that New Bedford used to be the wealthiest city in the United States! He found examples of Old Dartmouth and New Bedford insurance maps at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Library — maps that represent land ownership during prosperous times. As Eric designed a “prosperous” typeface based on one of the insurance maps, he truly understood for the first time how a typeface can communicate something more than the words on the page.

Inspiration: Cover of a Fairhaven Insurance map from 1906 -- the height of the Cotton Textile Industry in New Bedford.
Inspiration: Cover of a Fairhaven Insurance map from 1906 — the height of the Cotton Textile Industry in New Bedford.
Typeface designed by Erik Galvez, 2007.
Typeface designed by Eric Galvez, 2007.

THE FUTURE

Students continue to work on typefaces inspired by the history of New Bedford. We’ve currently narrowed our focus to signs, and are working toward the day we will have a full New Bedford Typeface — a collection of various lettering styles from different periods in New Bedford’s history.

Unlike “regular” typefaces (e.g., Times New Roman), New Bedford won’t come in regular, bold, and italic. New Bedford is a type family built upon the history of a place, and will offer styles related to history, such as New Bedford 1880, 1920, and 1950.

Every semester we get a little closer to bringing New Bedford’s history to life in a new way. Through the letters that “lived” in New Bedford — letters and signs that changed as life around them changed.

New Bedford 1920 is in production. It is based on the Art Deco lettering from the Cherry and Company sign shown earlier in this post. The typeface was designed by Jennifer Soares, and is being refined and expanded by Justin Lilak at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
New Bedford 1920 is in production. It is based on the Art Deco lettering from the Cherry and Company sign shown earlier in this post. The typeface was designed by Jennifer Soares, and is being refined and expanded by Justin Lilak at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
New Bedford, 1958. Based on lettering from the Boiler Repair and Welding sign shown earlier in the post. Originally designed by Kayla Hardy, the typeface is being refined and expanded by Jimmy Lee at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
New Bedford 1958 is in production. It is based on lettering from the Boiler Repair and Welding sign shown earlier in the post. Originally designed by Kayla Hardy, the typeface is being refined and expanded by Jimmy Lee at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
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5 responses to “[type] Faces of New Bedford

  1. Pingback: [type] Faces of New Bedford

  2. Drooling here… Please keep us posted as to when and where New England font-o-philes can obtain these typefaces should they ever become publicly available.

  3. Pingback: [type] Faces of New Bedford - Casco Bay Boaters Blog

  4. They are scheduled to become publicly available in Spring 2011.

    I’ve got 3 students working getting them ready this year, and hope to have 3 more students working with me next year.

    You can watch for updates on the project, including essays on each of the 10 typefaces chosen for the original package on my blog: http://blog.historictype.com. Glad to hear there is another New England font-o-file out there!!!

  5. Great article! I learnt a bit about typefaces in university and I do find it interesting how they came about. I really love the Cherry and Company building typeface, Fairhaven is a nice one too.

    Bedforshire Boiler Repair

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