“Typography? That’s, like, calligraphy, right?” When I told my roommate that I had elected to take a freshman seminar on typography, she was a little bit confused. Honestly, so was I. I had arrived at Penn with a course load of political science, but impulse-registered for “Writing On The City: Letterforms, Technology, and Philadelphia Culture.” I am so glad I did.
This class has handed me many “firsts”: my first SEPTA token, my first experience printing letterpress, and my first handwritten letter from Benjamin Franklin. Okay, the letter wasn’t exactly addressed to me, but this course’s collaboration with the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts enabled us to examine and transcribe eighteenth-century handwritten letters from some of history’s real heavy hitters. This was fascinating but a little bit scary — no one wants to be “that freshman” who sneezes all over Thomas Jefferson’s exquisite penmanship.
However, these early examples of letterforms in and around Philadelphia introduced us to a method of interaction with letters that none of us had ever experienced. Professor David Comberg encouraged us to pay attention to the contours of each character, the weight of each stroke, the negative space, and the character’s overall attitude. We brought this method of analysis to documents far and wide: early editions of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia-printed Bibles, and eventually to our own letterpress creation.