Taking the Type from Your Streets

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After a softball game this summer (in which we were trumped, per usual, and in no small part due to this writer’s lack of any useful skills), of course headed to the post-game bar (see: the best part of playing softball and why this writer plays), a fellow teammate said, “Oh man, I wish I brought my camera! The letters on that sign over there are awesome.” We talked about it a bit and the gist was that she was taking photos for this project, collecting samples of signage typography. It was really interesting and also serves as a nice segue into Paul Shaw’s “From A to Big Apple,” which is all about his collecting of the very same thing in New York.

The oldest extant lettering in New York is to be found on tombstones. The churchyard of Trinity Church (Broadway at Wall Street; Richard Upjohn, 1839-1846), which dates to 1681, has a particularly pleasing group of stones from the 1750s and 1760s cut by Uzal Ward of Newark. The tombstone of Mary Dalzell (d.1764) embodies all of the carver’s hallmarks: a winged angel’s head with droopy cheeks à la Richard Nixon, vigorously designed and deeply-cut letters in the English tradition, and a layout that seems to have been made up on the spot. Note the strongly bracketed serifs, the subtle bowl of a, the trumpet-like crossbars on f and t, the delicate flourishes on c and s, and the smaller words tucked in at the ends of lines. This is lettering that puts most gravestones to shame.