American Type Founders Company:
A legacy of typographic innovation, quality, and creativity

American Type Founders was formed in 1892 as a consolidation of 23 of the most prominent independent type foundries in the United States. Together, these foundries had dominated American typesetting, but they were beginning to feel threatened by the recent invention of two practical systems for automated mechanical typesetting: the Linotype and the Monotype. ATF was created as a unified response to that looming threat.

Although machine typesetting took off quickly, especially in the newspaper business, hand-setting continued for many decades to be the standard method of composing type; it was also quite common to mix hand-set headlines or display type with machine-set body copy. The inspiration for ATF’s founding may have been defensive, but the company marketed itself as both the cutting edge of new technology and the keeper of traditional quality.

By 1923, when ATF issued its most ambitious type specimen book, the company was touting its preeminence in virtually every aspect of printing and type founding. A slightly pompous introductory text in the weighty specimen makes a strong statement about ATF’s leadership in the creation of the first type families. This, as the text explains, gave printers a systematic way of choosing types that would work well together and have more impact in advertising than an assortment of unrelated types. The use of type families was promoted as a source of not only beauty but also efficiency in the design and production of printed matter.

Morris Fuller Benton Morris Fuller Benton

The back story behind ATF’s invention of the type family was in the nature of its large and varied stock of existing typefaces. Since ATF came together as an amalgamation of nearly two dozen American type foundries—each one of which had its own history and its own typefaces—it naturally found itself with many competing yet similar designs, none of which necessarily matched or fit well with their siblings. Weeding out redundant and repetitive designs from multiple source foundries created an opportunity to consolidate types into coherent families, redesigning them, if need be, to present a harmonious family resemblance.

The next logical step was to design new typefaces conceived from the start as members of a single family. This was largely done by the prolific Morris Fuller Benton. The success of ATF owed a great deal to Morris Benton and his father, Linn Boyd Benton. The elder Benton had invented several of the technologies that made production of many sizes and styles of type easier, notably the pantograph, which could engrave steel punches at various sizes based on an original template (with appropriate adjustments made for each size and style). His son later explained: “Optical scaling was easily accomplished at ATF by adjusting certain settings on Linn Boyd Benton’s matrix engraving machine.”

Linn Boyd Benton’s technological advancements resulted in variations that made each size of type optimally readable. But it was Morris Fuller Benton who set his imprint on ATF, through creating or overseeing the designs of the most popular ATF typefaces for nearly forty years. He can be credited with the creation of Century Schoolbook, one of the most common workhorse typefaces making its way into digital form; the production of the Cheltenham family; influential revivals of classic types by Bodoni and Jenson; and the ubiquitous sans serifs of everyday job printing: Franklin Gothic, News Gothic, and Alternate Gothic.

— John D. Berry

John Berry is a self-described editor and typographer, which reflects his care for both the meaning of words and how they are presented. He is Honorary President of ATypI (Association Typographique Internationale) and the former editor and publisher of U&lc (Upper & lower case). He writes, speaks, and consults extensively on typography, and is an award-winning book designer.