The First Class

An undated typescript for Ismar David’s evening class at Cooper Union, almost certainly from the 1950s.

Let me introduce myself—I am your instructor, Ismar David. I am going to do my best in the weeks to come to acquaint you with a subject which I hope you will become as enthusiastic about as I am. I look forward to many pleasant hours with you as we explore this subject together and I trust you will find them so. I would like you to feel free to talk to me about anything that is not clear as I describe it—we will reserve a period in each session when you may ask questions that pertain to the evening’s work.

And now let us begin.

I want to discuss with you this course called LETTERING and to outline our program. We will concern ourselves mainly with what is known as the ROMAN alphabet or rather the Roman letter family and it’s derivation.

You all know Roman letter forms, of course, and you are able to read and write them without being conscious of doing just that. When you were children, you learned reading and writing in school and you were probably more conscious of the appearance of these forms a that time. Later this reading and writing becomes almost mechanical and more automatic and you are not aware of the individuality of each letter.

Now it is my job again to make you more conscious of these forms. We will notice nuances of measurements and proportions of letter forms, by seeing and producing them and you will train your eye and your hand—but most important, your mind. You will develop your judgment and your taste which you will need whenever you are confronted with problems of lettering. And like all knowledge, you will find that this will help you in other problems of aesthetics.

For the purpose of this discussion, we divide letter-forms into two major groups:

One: the type which is available for use in any form of printing and comes to the typographer or printer in a “ready-made” form.

Two: the letters made by hand, individually (and this is the group with which we will principally concern ourselves in this course.)

Without going into detail about the first group, I might say that printing from movable type (more or less as we know it and use it) dates from the middle of the fifteenth century. The inventor probably was Johann Gutenberg, and while it is not clear to us when he cast his first type, the year 1440 is the accepted date for printing coming to life. He conceived the idea of making metal molds from individually cut letters and cast in those molds single letters which were later assembled. After they were used for printing, they were distributed and were available for re-use.

Prior to Gutenberg, printing on a small scale was done, but such printing was produced by woodcuts. Full pages were cut into the wood, in reverse, and books printed from them were called “block books.”

So much, at present, for the first group.

Now, for the letters made by hand. Let us first acquaint ourselves with a brief history to which we will come back with amplification from time to time during this course.

All of us take for granted, once we become literate, that what we have to say we are also able to write down. We do so by using graphic symbols—our alphabet—which represent sounds. We call this the phonetic system. This very phonetic system is one of the most exciting inventions and one of the greatest cultural contributions to civilization. It enables us to record and communicate with precision the equivalent of the spoken word.

Western culture has its roots in the Near, Middle East and North Africa, and it is in this area that we discover our pre-alphabet writing.

Before any actual system of writing existed, so far as the records that have come down to us indicate, the oldest documents of communication we have, are cave painting. These paintings, for the most part, depicted animals, and since these animals were probably sacred, we can determine from this and other evidence that has been found that these paintings were made to indicate a place of worship.

Later we find simplified and stylized drawings of objects which we call pictographs, because they, in a sense, are writing in pictures. For example, the drawing of the sun meant not only the Sun, but also “shining.” Of course, the messages written in this way had to be limited due to the number of symbols available and to the fact that no syntax would be expressed by them. The most developed writing in pictorial symbols we find in the Egyptian inscriptions which are called hieroglyphs. They are the highest form and last of this kind of writing.

There have been many theories advanced as to the culture to which we can attribute the first alphabet. The most accepted is that the Phoenicians developed it. (As you know the Phoenicians were a nation settled in cities and on islands along the Mediterranean coast.) The Phoenician alphabet was in its own way a perfect system wherein a small number of symbols representing the different sounds of speech, could be set down in an order and combination to record it. Here was a way, through the alphabet of some twenty or more symbols, to express what hundreds of pictographs could not convey and the way was then open for all of the developments of other alphabets and letter forms which succeeding centuries brought.

From the Phoenician we have the Hebrew and Aramaic alphabets and probably other alphabets for Oriental languages. But for our purposes the fact that the Greek and then the Roman stemmed from the Phoenician is of major interest. The various stages of the evolution of the Roman alphabet through to its perfected form will bear study at another time.

We will start now with the proportions of the Roman capital letters as they are exemplified at the highest point of their development—on the Trajan column in Rome in an inscription celebrating of victory of Marcus Aurelius Trajanus. Despite later deviation to which we have accustomed ourselves in the course of time, the beautiful proportion of the letter forms on this column, their clarity, grace and simplicity are still our ideal and for most of us have never been surpassed.1Ismar David papers, box 8, folder 182, RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection.

Roman Rs
A collection of upper case Roman Rs. Ismar David would demostrate a free hand R at the beginning of the semester.
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