New York Once Had an Entire District for Typography

Downtown New York used to have an entire neighborhood of type foundries, before they all disappeared

Wooden letterpress type
Wooden letterpress type Jan Sochor/Demotix/Corbis

New York City’s neighborhoods are constantly reinventing themselves, transforming over time from a forested wilderness to the high-rises of today. Amidst those metamorphoses, sometimes little bits of history fall through the cracks. Typeface designer Tobias Frere-Jones recently came across one forgotten neighborhood, and at Slate he writes about the “Type Ward” of Manhattan, which thrived during the 1800s and then vanished. 

At the Type Ward's height, dozens of type foundries clustered in just a few small blocks. Frere-Jones speculates that the neighborhood was born in order to supply the newspapers who also frequented the area near City Hall in lower Manhattan. He writes:

Hand-set type was cast in “type metal,” an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony. Lead’s low melting point made it easy to cast, while the other metals added hardness and stability. But despite all the precise chemistry, type would still wear out. And delicate Victorian letterforms at tiny sizes (six and seven point were common sizes for text) could not have resisted fatigue for very long. Each paper would have placed large and frequent orders to keep their composing rooms running and their issues printing. So the foundries would have been staying close to their best customers.

The neighborhood didn’t last long past the turn of the century: it was entirely bought out by conglomerate American Type Founders in 1909. But plus ça change…typefaces are still being designed in New York, although the digital versions are far less likely than type metal to wear down over time.

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