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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.