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Keepin' It Casual
Informal Script Lettering in Mid-Century American Advertising and Design

by Ken Barber

Nothing quite matched the warmth and personality of informal lettering during the mid-twentieth century. Although enjoying a fairly brief spell of popularity from the 1930s through the 1960s, casual scripts nevertheless helped to shape America’s visual landscape. The freeflowing letterforms influenced the appearance of everything from automobile emblems to department store signage. The down-to-earth, conversational tone of easy-going scripts made them welcoming and appealing. Though perhaps not a purely homegrown phenomenon, informal pen-and-brush script lettering was embraced and applied in the United States with such arguably unrivaled fervor that typographic historian Alexander Nesbitt characterized them as “peculiarly American.”

In spite of fluctuating typographic tastes and technological advances, much exemplary casual script lettering has endured, like Andrew Geller's energetic Lord & Taylor logo and the vigorous nameplate for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. Even Betty Crocker, whose hairstyle may have changed over the years, has fundamentally retained the same style. A rediscovered appreciation for the power of dynamic script lettering, like that embodied in these examples, has appeared in the freehand lettering and typeface design of recent years.

Left: This brush-lettered magazine headline, from 1949, bears all the hallmarks of distinctive casual script lettering. Right: The brush script in this striking advertisement not only harmonizes with the illustration, it manages to maintain an air of sophistication despite a rather unrestrained appearance.

The gradual progression from conservative typography to informal lettering in advertising began at the turn of the century. Headlines commonly featured all uppercase settings, before friendlier lowercase and italics were more frequently used. Greater degrees of informality were accomplished by the use of cursive hands, executed in progressively playful ways.

By the 1930s, loosely penned captions paved the way for informal brush lettering that reached full stride a decade later. The growing interest in comic strips at this time also gave rise to cartoon, or balloon lettering. The forerunner of non-connecting brush letters, these styles caricatured the handwriting and visual devices found in multiple-frame advertisements, called “continuities,” which originally appeared in newspaper funny pages. This tactic quickly spread to all sorts of design, proliferating the adoption of the trend. Foundries followed suit, releasing several successful typefaces, including the aptly named Cartoon by Howard Trafton in 1936 and Balloon designed by Max Kaufmann three years later. Pete Dombrezian’s eponymously titled Dom Casual—originally a Photo-Lettering film alphabet—was probably the best representation of the style.

The casual script on Paul Rand’s cover for Perspectives complements the expressionistic themes prevalent in fine art, architecture and industrial design of the mid-twentieth century.

Cartoon lettering was not the only novelty to come about during the mid-twentieth century; the dynamic pointed-brush script was another noteworthy innovation. It has been suggested that its propagation in reproduction lettering owed much to show card writing, a specialized practice originally connected with burlesque and theater card signs. Accomplished sign painter and typeface designer, John Downer, recalls, “Show card artists who could render headlines would often get work from ad agencies. When I first worked in Des Moines, there was an ad agency right across the street from our sign shop. We got lots of work from them because they didn’t have anybody on staff with a lick of talent for lettering.” Perhaps the best reason for brush lettering's rapid development in the field of advertising was the enthusiasm and inventiveness of the artists themselves. In spite of the style accounting for a modest percentage of hand-done magazine headlines and captions, a good deal of people did more than their share of casual script lettering, including Ed Benguiat, Dave West, Toni Bonagura, Frank Bartuska, Dave Davison, Harold Kovak and Sam Marsh, to name a few. Photo-Lettering, Inc. co-founder Ed Rondthaler regularly met with a group of ambitious New York City-based “red hot letterers”—namely Tony Stan, George Abrams, Tony Paul, John Schaedler and Tony LaRussa—during the early ’50s at a small diner in mid-town Manhattan to discuss the growing trend. Not to be outdone, the West Coast boasted its own share of equally skilled letterers. Part-time lettering archivist Hobie MacQuarrie names Bill Hyde, Clair Lundborg and Lewis Dwyer among the talented artisans skillfully plying their trade in California.

While many of the above artists contributed to the libraries of photo-reproduction film and paste-up lettering houses—such as Photo-Lettering, Inc. and Headliners—a few also published primers introducing novices to the profession. One particularly notable author-practitioner during this time was Tommy Thompson, who wrote The Script Letter (1939), the definitive manual on the technique of script lettering and its application in contemporary design. Not only did Thompson’s book showcase his expertise, it also revealed his knowledge of the subject and his genuine passion for the art. Mortimer Leach, former director of the Lettering Department at Art Center School (now, Art Center College of Design) in Los Angeles, also composed two outstanding books on the topic of the letter arts in graphic design: Lettering for Advertising (1956) and Letter Design in the Graphic Arts (1960). Barber
Ken Barber is a letterer and type designer at House Industries, and partner in Photo-Lettering, Inc. His work is in the permanent collection of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and has been honored by the TDC. Barber teaches at MICA and the University of Delaware, and has lectured at the Royal Academy, The Hague and The Cooper Union. He also manages, an online resource for his students. Barber wrote the Typography column.