The Rise and Fall of American Type Foundries
Author: Brandon Montgomery
In a little more than 200 years, type foundries spread across America, helped the letterpress industry flourish, ushered in new printing technology and now recessed almost into nonexistence.
Records show that the first American Type Foundries came about in the late 1760’s and early 1770’s. Though accounts are conflicting, David Mitchelson and Abel Buell are generally regarded as the first to cast type in the Colonies. This was fifty years after the first American newspaper (John Campbell, Boston News-Letter 1704) and over a hundred years from the first printing plant (Stephen Day, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1638).
In the early days of printing, the average printer would have 3-8 fonts of type and if he needed replacements, might have to wait over a year to receive an order from England or Scotland. Eventually, the revolutionary war made replacing type nearly impossible. When type became illegible, the inability to replace type would multiply the amount of work required to compose an entire book. Without an ample number of each character, printers would be forced to set fewer pages at a time, print them, and then redistribute the type in order to continue setting pages. “I made use of such letters as we had for punches, founded new letters of lead in matrices of clay”, described Benjamin Franklin in his 1793 autobiography, detailing how he cast new letters as required by the Philadelphia printing plant he worked at. It was this necessity for more type that helped the early growth of American foundries.
By the late 1820’s, dozens of type foundries popped up across America and new type casting was available to the masses. This increased accessibility led to experimentation and competition in the industry, which in turn spurred improvements in casting methods and lowered the cost of type casting overall. However, this expansion would be short lived.
By the late 19th century, many small plants had begun to go bankrupt and the future looked bleak for all type founders. Not only had the popularity and increased number of type-casting plants driven sale prices below production costs, with the invention of the Linotype and Monotype, newspaper plants required less type casting support. It was around this time that over 20 different type foundries decided to combine resources in order to protect their industry. The American Type Founders Company was born (ATFC inc.1892). However, the Linotype and Monotype machines were revolutionary. They were able to cast entire sentences and lines at a time and in a much faster fashion. This was obviously ideal for news stations and book makers alike. Moreover, the ATF was hit hard by the depression. Finally, the rise of offset printing post WWII, further pushed ATF to the periphery of relevancy. The American Type Founders Company was disbanded in the 1970’s.
Today, only 4 commercial letterpress type foundries are still in operation around the world! The two remaining in the US are; M&H Type Foundry located in San Francisco, CA and Skyline Type Foundry, based in Prescott, AZ.
M&H Type is the largest and oldest type foundry dating back to 1915. Celebrating a century of continuous operation, the historic M&H still offers traditional lead typecasting for hand composition as well as digital typography to keep up with current printing technology.
Skyline Type Foundry uses four Thompson Type Casters for the bulk of their casting. These machines were patented in 1907 and use propane to perform the matrix precision mold injections. The metal itself is a mixture of lead, tin and antimony, and only takes about an hour to reach its melting point of 650˚F. Once the metal is molten, the machine casts one character at a time. A standard matrix font consists of 72 characters, with multiples of each, so this process takes a while. It was this aspect of the machine, and similar machines from the era, that led to its widespread decline.
Despite the undeniable edge digital typography has on the market, Skyline and M&H Foundries are keeping traditional type methods alive and making efforts to preserve the operation and production for current practice and historical import. The owner of Skyline Type Foundry, Schuyler (Sky) Shipley says, “It is very rewarding to preserve and perpetuate this ancient craft, and to put shiny new type into the hands of letterpress printers worldwide.”
Pictured below is the Thompson Type Caster. In the top left photo you can see individual type blocks lining up to the left of the machine after they are cast. Another photo shows the molten pot of lead alloy that gets injected into the matrices. The last image highlights J and L matrices on the workbench at Skyline. In the video you can see the Thompson Type Caster ejecting individual blocks of type.
Annenberg, Maurice. Type Foundries of America and Their Catalogue. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 1994.
M&H Type http://www.arionpress.com/mandh/index.htm
Skyline Type http://skylinetype.com/