Meet the American type designer whose 100+ typefaces include Goudy Old Style, the graceful, easy-reading serif that Harper’s Magazine still uses for text, and Copperplate Gothic, a gothic/serif hybrid over a century old and still on your lawyer’s business card. Prolific and experimental, Goudy’s (b. 1865, d. 1947) life and career mirrors the period of U.S. history between the Civil War and World War II.
Known as one of the world’s greatest type designers in 1933, when The New Yorker profiled him as “Glorifier of the Alphabet,” Goudy advocated harmony and simplicity in design. He championed beauty and refinement − but not at the expense of personality. In fact, says FontShop Type Expert David Sudweeks, “You can tell it’s Goudy before you’re close enough to read it.”
If we had our way, Goudy would be on the list of all-American highlights we cheer about at Fourth of July picnics, right up there with baseball, apple pie, and backyard fireworks.
As fortune had it, however, European Modernism and Bauhaus design − with their assertively angular buildings and clean-edged letters − swept the Western world with enough force to cloud our collective memory of Goudy’s stature.
Fortune wasn’t consistently good to Goudy during his lifetime either. He showed early promise but later found himself deep in a rut. A childhood encounter with an artist’s camera and winning a drawing prize at the county fair creatively inspired young Frederic. As a teen, he seemed destined for a career in the arts. That’s when he provided his Bloomington, Ill. Sunday school with a stenciled version of the Ten Commandments. Impressed, the church paid him for his work.
In his early 30s, Goudy married Bertha M. Sprinks, a stenographer and officemate about whom he later wrote, “her intelligent and ready counsel I welcomed and valued; her consummate craftsmanship made possible many difficult undertakings.”
A decade later, though his marriage may have been a match made in heaven, Goudy’s career was barely out of the gate. In a 1942 retrospect, Popular Mechanics reported, “At 40, this short, plump, pinkish, and puckish gentleman kept books for a Chicago realtor, and considered himself a failure.”
Eventually things started looking up. The Popular Mechanics article continues, “During the next 36 years, starting almost from scratch at an age when most men are permanently set in their chosen vocations, he cut 113 fonts of type, thereby creating more usable faces than did the seven greatest inventors of type and books, from Gutenberg to Garamond.”
He was among the founders of Camelot Press, where he sold his first typeface, Camelot, to a Boston printer for $10. He helped found Village Press and served as art director for the Lanston Monotype Machine Company from 1920 till 1940. He taught at the Art Students League and New York University. Goudy wrote several books, including The Alphabet (1918), Elements of Lettering (1922), Typologia (1940), and the autobiographical A Half-Century of Type Design and Typography, 1895-1945 (1946).
Upon Goudy’s death in 1947 the New York Herald Tribune‘s warm and reverent obituary read, “The entire reading public is in Mr. Goudy’s debt.” It also said, “Only time will tell how his type faces endure, but he gave a vast impetus to the art of printing.”
Endure they did. Designers still use Goudy Old Style for a classic, American feel, and should you come across it, Goudy Ornate still holds a contemporary appeal. The 1922 Goudy Sans has occasionally fooled a type expert or two into thinking it’s a more recent font. (Though the capital “A” is a dead giveaway; it sends us right back to the days Charlie Chaplin.) There’s even a free Goudy webfont, Sorts Mill Goudy, a 2011 revival of Goudy Old Style. (Use it in “light line jobs like poetry,” advises Macworld Magazine.)
So next time you get an attorney’s contact information or page through the print edition of America’s oldest general interest monthly, be sure to light a bottle rocket or dish up a slice of apple pie in memory of Frederic Goudy.
Article text by Kris Vagner