In June I attended an unusual event at Parkway Central, Philadelphia’s wonderful main library. It’s such a wonderful library, in fact, that if you were feeling fanciful—or if you had recently looked through a book of type specimens—you might be inclined to call it eminently grand, bold and solid, magnificent.
Yes, our library is a special place, and the “Reading Type Specimens Aloud” event was unique. It was organized by The People’s Museums of Philadelphia, a project run by the artists Leah Mackin and Alina Josan, and its conceit was that anyone who looked through type specimens like the one above would want to read aloud from them—to “declaim their contents,” as the organizers put it. After looking at the books myself I see their point.
Type specimens were books produced by type foundries, the companies that manufactured the metal and wood type used in printing presses, to showcase the type for potential buyers. But rather than simply printing the alphabet in the different typefaces, they composed the type into sentences and turns of phrase, many of which were poetic or amusingly strange. Josan, who is a librarian in the Art Department, explained that the phrases were sometimes left over from print jobs, sometimes taken from popular advertisements, and sometimes composed especially for these books.
The organizers began the evening by going up to the podium and giving brief readings from a couple of the books. Afterward, the rest of us were invited to do the same. We milled around the room and looked at the books that had been pulled from the library’s collection, all of which were produced between the late 1800s and the 1920s—bona fine antiques, some with gold inlay or elaborately embossed covers.
The phrases I liked the best suggested a jumble of images that don’t usually go together, like strange, lyrical poems. In a book produced by the American Type Founders Company of Philadelphia in 1899, I found “Autumn Fashions, Damsels With Beautiful Dresses” and on the opposite page, “Trained FROG Catcher.”
Here’s another wonderful arrangement of phrases I found:
Headache Makers, Pocket Breakers, and Money Takers
Grumbling, Mumbling, Stumbling Inebriate
I didn’t go up to the microphone to declaim anything; it was nice, after I’d looked through the books, just to sit and listen to people read something when they felt so moved. The whole thing was reminiscent of Quaker meeting, only much sillier. One woman read some lovely words I didn’t understand from a book in French. Two different people read the thing about headache makers and pocket breakers; can you blame them? Someone else went up to the podium with a book and read, joyfully and very distinctly, “FIRST CREEP. THEN GO.”
Josan told us that Parkway Central is unusual in that books like these, which would be housed in a special collection in many other libraries, are in circulation and accessible to the general public—crumbling pages, broken spines, and all. As we browsed, the cover of one hardbound book that someone was holding came away from the spine and fell to the floor with a slap, but no one made a big deal out of it. It felt like a lesson: while we should be gentle when handling the books, the more important thing is that they get used, looked at, and loved.
If you don’t live in Philadelphia, or you can’t get to Parkway Central for whatever reason, you can find scans of similar type specimen books on the Internet Archive. I “paged” through a few just now and found some excellent phrases. My favorites are “Presenting Prime Novelties From Bright Brain and Deft Digits”—goodness knows what product that florid phrase was advertising— and “24 Glorious Summer Mornings.” I think I’ll take this last one as a reminder to give my bookishness a rest for a while, and go outside.
Photos from type specimen books in the Philadelphia Free Library’s collection