Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue Part II: Designing Cheltenham, a Century-Old Type Font

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 Photo of Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue
Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a bookmaking revival in the greater Boston/New York area, and Bertram Goodhue was thoroughly involved, influential, and supportive. He designed for several prominent printers and publishers, including Stone and Kimball, Copeland and Day, Small and Maynard, and Merrymount Press.

Goodhue designed books for Hannibal Ingalls Kimball (1874-1933) who along with Herbert S. Stone, owned Stone & Kimball Press of Chicago. Kimball wrote in the magazine, American Printer, “to those who love books, he [Goodhue] was a master of the craft of Printing.” In 1897, Kimball founded a second company, The Cheltenham Press in New York City, named for a distinctive town in Gloucestershire England, and characterized as a “town apart.” The following year, Kimball commissioned Goodhue to design the font for his new company. No one could have foreseen that the new Cheltenham font would endure and evolve well into the 21st century.

Kimball sketched the basic weight for the font, and Goodhue completed the drawings known originally as Boston Old Style, a huge display font with letters 14” high. Eventually, the Cheltenham font would become one of the most replicated, enhanced, and reworked fonts in American typography. The typeface was the first designed specifically for both hand-setters and by linotype machine operators. Since the original design, there have been hundreds of variations segueing from linotype lead to computerized digital applications, perhaps most notably as the official font of the New York Times.

Cheltenham appeared early on in documents submitted by the architecture firm of Cram, Goodhue & Ferguson describing drawings they were submitting for a West Point competition. The team won the competition, and the West Point Chapel remains a singularly stunning example of Goodhue’s vision.

Part of the success of Cheltenham’s longevity is due to its embrace by various foundries. American Type Founders Company aka American Type Foundry (ATF,) bought the design in 1902 and issued 11 sizes of the font, from 8 pt to 48 pt, in 1903. By 1924, it offered 24 varieties of the style, widening its popularity amongst smaller newspapers throughout the country, who embraced the variety and economics of one typeface for nearly everything they printed, from ads to articles.

ATF hired type designer Morris Fuller Benton to refine the font, which he worked into a cutting finalized in 1902. It went through 21 additional variations by 1915, and 23 more were produced by 1918. It was, unusual for the time, a complete family of type meaning it gave book and periodical art director a range of choices within one font family. Cheltenham originally offered italic, bold, and roman styles, adding to its versatility and popularity. Benton then contributed both condensed and expanded variations, increasing its applications and popularity.

an example of Cheltenham typeface and font

To typographers and graphic designers everywhere, the primary element of Cheltenham was legibility. This was due to Goodhue’s original manipulation of ascenders and descenders, the parts of the letters above and below the line of type, as in the space above the letter d and below the letter p. Goodhue lengthened the ascenders and shortened the descenders, allowing for a highly readable composition. This manipulation also proved to be economical, because it eliminated "leading," the placing of pieces of lead between letters in the era of lino-typesetting to achieve readability. Leading is also known as kerning, adding spaces where appropriate to improve legibility.

JL Frazier’s seminal, self-published book, Type Lore, dedicates an entire chapter to Cheltenham and provides the best illumination to “this amputation of descenders,” a criticism by many who felt that it detracted from the font. Frazier champions the Cheltenham Old Style as more legible, where “the long ascenders accent the word forms, which accounts for its very good legibility.”

Frazier refers to The Linotype Record of October 1923 that “It is not generally known...that the creation of Cheltenham type (Old Style) is entirely owing to the Mergenthaler Linotype Company.”

A promotional page for the Merganthaler Linotype Company promoting Cheltenham Old Style, the original Goodhue design
Frazier believed that the “Cheltenham face does not possess the grace and refinement suggestive of the most polite society. It is a letter emblematic of the masses, one that accomplishes a good day’s work—at common labor. It suffices for commonplace printed matter, though it lacks artistic beauty and feeling reflected by Garamond, Caslon…and others.” Frazier opined that the tall ascenders made capital letters “awkwardly large” in relation to the lower case letters, but “by themselves, they compose neatly and look very good.”

In Old Style Cheltenham, Frazier comments that it is the Italic face that is most “irregular, stiff and odd looking. The f appears like a wrong font…swash characters may be useful and endurable, but others are quite unsatisfactory.”

However, both publishers and linotype operators loved Cheltenham and embraced its variety of choices (bold, italics, condensed, wide, etc.), and typesetters soon nicknamed the font “Chelt.”

Amazingly, offering choices of wide, condensed, bold, and Italics was met not with enthusiasm for choices but criticisms that some should simply be deleted.

Daniel Berkeley Updike, the same man for whom Goodhue designed books and the Merrymount font, wrote in Printing Types, Their History, Forms, and Use that the new font was “ungainly.” Updike added, “Owing to certain eccentricities of form, it cannot be read comfortably for any length of time. Its capitals are better than its lowercases, which are too ‘perpendicular’ in effect—a fault appropriate to so distinguished an architect of Gothic buildings! It is, however, an exceedingly handsome letter for ephemeral printing.” Although Updike does not define “ephemeral” here, we might assume he meant for only the occasional tome.

Douglas C. McMurtie, a strong critic of that era, wrote, “The appearance of most magazine and commercial printing will be improved by the simple expedient of denying any variants of the Cheltenham design to compositors.” The Cheltenham boldface was met with particularly strong criticism. While some thought it possessed “brute strength” others thought it met “every requirement formerly fulfilled by the gothics.”

Purists, on the other hand, criticized this straightforward approach for stripping out the very qualities that made the original type font so unusual.

Cheltenham’s popularity was sealed when its most ardent and longest-using-publication, The New York Times, adopted it for its headlines in 1906 along with other fonts for body type, notably Latin Extra Condensed, News Gothic, Century Bold Italic, and Bookman for front page headlines, a common practice for newspapers during the early part of the 20th century. This use of variety became cheaper than buying an entire family of faces within a font.

It was not until the 21st century that The New York Times began exclusive use of Cheltenham throughout the paper. The newspaper’s art director, Tom Bodkin, commissioned type designer Matthew Carter in 2003 to rework the font (except for Bold Italic) into what is now known as Times Cheltenham, proprietary to the newspaper. Critic Michael Bierut wrote in “Design Observer” that the newest effort to update Cheltenham “simultaneously signals modernity and heritage” with the launch of Times Skimmer, an online news browser which uses Typekit to deliver the newspaper’s classic font.

As critics in The Linotype Bulletin remarked, “Legibility is the gainer for leading, though it detracts from the beauty of the page and adds to the composition cost...a gain of white space above a line is of greater importance than an equal gain below it...” In another article, The Bulletin writer averred that “composition in it reveals no jarring differences of color; there are no heavy strokes and no hair-lines in its characters.” One un-named critic wrote that “The Cheltenham family is Irish, and each member seems capable of playing hod carrier or the gentleman.”

To some, Cheltenham Old Style has a monotone construction. The serifs are small, and allow for more words per thousand ems, about twenty percent more, making it both efficient and economical. The term serif is from the Latin word seraphim or angels with wings, and refers to the little feet or wings on the ends of the letters.

In addition to ATF, many foundries have fiddled with both lead and digital versions of Cheltenham, including Font Bureau, Scangraphic, Eisner+Flake, Tilde, URW++, and Bitstream. Most specifically, ITC (International Typeface Corp.,) made the vital contribution of enlarging the x-height, evening out the top-heavy design, and adding Ultra, Light, and Bold with companion italics and condensed designs for each weight.

In the 1990 book Anatomy of a Typeface, author Alexander S. Lawson wrote: It was Goodhue’s intent to create a book type in which legibility would be the dominant element. He, therefore, designed an alphabet of rather monotonous construction, including serifs similar to the Clarendon style of fifty years earlier. It was in the treatment of ascenders and descenders that Goodhue’s premise was most evident “as he believed that the upper half of a line of type is more important for recognition…”

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