The Point System

How did we in the Eng­lish-speak­ing world arrive at 0.01387” as one point?

We use the term ‘point’ today without wor­ry­ing just how big it is. We all know that a point is roughly 1/72nd of an inch, but at the turn of the cen­tury the point was any­thing but stand­ard. I look here at just how big a point is and how we arrived at this fig­ure. When typefounders were small and spread over the UK it was nat­ur­al that print­ers would use a loc­al foundry. Founders used their own names — and not point sizes — to describe how big their type was. Names like Brevi­er (c. 8pt), Eng­lish (c. 14pt) or Great Primer (c. 18pt) were used but the sizes were not stand­ard­ised between founders. You might buy 40lbs of Brevi­er type from Miller and Richards in Edin­burgh and find that it would not be the same size as Brevi­er type from Steph­en­son, Blake in Shef­field. While print­ers used loc­al founders this did not mat­ter too much, but at the turn of the cen­tury when print­ers wanted to use Amer­ic­an types or con­tin­ent­al types dif­fi­culties arose. At the same time the Met­ric sys­tem was tak­ing hold in con­tin­ent­al Europe: Brit­ish founders had to do some­thing. The Brit­ish Print­er from 1901 ran a series of art­icles cov­er­ing the dis­cus­sion; and it gives a good insight into the atti­tudes of the dif­fer­ent foundries. The ques­tion was simple: why do Brit­ish founders not stand­ard­ise on the Amer­ic­an Point? The Amer­ic­an Point had come into being because the Mack­el­lar, Smiths and Jordan foundry in the US had joined the Amer­ic­an Typefounders Com­pany and they had the largest stock of type and matrices. Their point was adop­ted by the whole group and was embod­ied by a piece of steel with a flat, over­hanging strip bolted to the top and bot­tom. This piece of steel was 288pt at 62° and the gap between the two over­hangs meant that the base piece would not wear. The size of one point was defined as 0.01387” or 0.035146cm. The man­ager, Mr. Benton, made the remark that the Brit­ish Stand­ard Point (remem­ber that type was sold by name and not point size) at 1/72nd of an inch was so close to the Amer­ic­an Stand­ard that a little accu­mu­la­tion of dirt would bring the two sizes togeth­er. The feel­ing of the Brit­ish Print­er was that we should all use the Amer­ic­an point. This would mean type, mater­i­als and oth­er print­ers’ requis­ites could all be used inter­change­ably: no doubt that this would be good for the print­er in the long-run. The Brit­ish Print­er can­vassed opin­ion from the UK founders, and their responses illus­trate the per­spect­ives of those firms –

  • Messrs. V & J Fig­gins said: ‘…in our opin­ion there is no pro­spect of the print­ers adopt­ing any point sys­tem whatever, and those doing so will only add to their dif­fi­culties.’ The BP com­men­ted only that this quote served a pur­pose by ‘…shew­ing the atti­tude of the foundry’.
  • Steph­en­son, Blake said that they were mov­ing to the Amer­ic­an Point sys­tem and would — for a time — be run­ning both named sizes and the point system
  • H. W. Caslon were noted as a ‘pro­gress­ive firm’, and said that adopt­ing the sys­tem would be a ‘…great advant­age’, and they had got this in hand in 1886

The gen­er­al view was that most UK foundries had adop­ted a point sys­tem; and most used the Amer­ic­an Point. Once all founders moved to the sys­tem, Caslon had said they would ‘…rejoice to know that a great reform has been accomplished.’