1869. germany. caspar moos. there is nothing modern about this letterhead, however the typography speaks to me. the many covers that i have written about are usually bought for the letterhead contained inside. here is just one of the hundreds that i must own, though i have never counted. i think it’s like counting your chips at the poker table. the realization of what you have changes the game. these letterheads serve as so much inspiration. the aspect of the paper, typography, handwriting and the engraved letterhead all add to its richness. the paper is lightweight, maybe 8lb. i think i bought this for one reason: the nine. the eighteen is preprinted and the last two digits are handwritten with a lovely flair. how does your handwriting look? i bet not many of us write that well. why is that? do they teach penmanship in school anymore? i know i was graded on ‘writing’ in elementary school. i remember my report card—all c’s. this letterhead is in german and i tried to make out the handwriting to translate it for you but i gave up. sorry. other more pressing things to do. whenever i think about handwriting i make a mental note; actually, michael sull comes to mind. I’d like to take one of his classes or workshops one day. i already have the tools. i’ve told my daughter we should do this together. of course i get the roll of the eyes and the ‘what planet are you on?’ look. i am interested in acquiring this skill. some day. just another thing for retirement.
covers, postal history and handwriting. i never tire of looking for these covers. unfortunately, i haven’t bought many covers for several years now. why? well, as i have said, my collecting has been mitigated these last few years, and also i try to ask myself ‘do i really need another example? these covers are not expensive‚ five to twenty dollars usually‚ although there are times when i choose a cover and the dealer looks carefully at it and names a high price. often the stamp or a rare cancellation contributes to a higher price. collecting covers is a fine art in itself, and there is so much information contained on them, generally revealing their history only to the trained philatelist, which i am not. however, to help clue you in, i once purchased a lovely example which a collector had analyzed and recorded the information about it. i think you will get a kick out of what is revealed: the st. petersburg/warsaw railway, the traveling post office marks. this letter was written on the 6th of july, 1863, and arrived in bordeaux on the 23rd of july that same year. awesome, right? the letter is written in french but I am unable to decipher it and unable to reveal to you what story it has to offer. thankfully a collector took the time to decipher the story on the outside for us, noting the hands through which this letter has passed. it was posted almost 150 years ago, and still it speaks to us. as much as i love the information revealed on this cover, i myself have never taken the time to decipher what is contained on those in my possession. for now, their only purpose is inspiration. maybe some ofthe covers i post this week will inspire you to decipher them.
i was fortunate to have taken chris van allsberg’s pen and ink classes at risd, in which you spent a great deal of time drawing—and i mean the most exacting kind of drawing. if you are familiar with his work, you know what i mean. i wasn’t terribly good, though i believe i was on the other side of competent. mind you, this was thirty years ago and long before chris had attained the stature he holds today. while drawing, i would often play a game with myself. i was using a dip pen then and occasionally a blob of ink would fall where it wasn’t supposed to. if this happened, i would stare at that blob and wonder what drawing could emerge from it. a face, a hand, an image that would come from the imagination rather than drawing what i saw. when i bought these cards, this memory returned to me. i have written about similar playing cards before but what makes this deck special is that each card is hand-drawn and unique. each card is a unique work of art. it’s a folk art deck and the cards, with the exception of the face cards, exhibit the most original depiction of each suit. every card is a canvas that tells a story: the fishermen; men riding donkeys; fencers and more. it’s like exploring someone’s truly wonderful imagination.
i don’t have an interesting story about these cards. i was not rummaging in an attic. i was not at some far-flung flea market. alas, they were found on ebay. evil ebay. it’s a love/hate relationship. i recall visiting a bookshop, a small one upstate, at a time when my partner still joined me in the hunt— a time long ago. i discovered a book with an alvin lustig jacket, one from the new direction series. lovely. not sure which one but they’re always hard to find and this one had no price. i brought it over to the dealer and he told me to wait a moment. he went to his computer—this was very early internet days—and brought up bookfinder.com. he typed in the title and voilà, a dozen examples of the book appeared. five dollars to fifty five. i was blown away. the search was forever altered. ebay has refined its search engine and now proposes ‘you might like.’ among the search results appear, i generally opt for ‘other items from seller.’ that’s how i found these cards. needless to say, i was in awe. i hope you are, too.
here is a rebus card that i have had for many years. these have always fascinated me, but i have never been very good at figuring them out. this one is pretty straightforward and easily translated, i think. give it a try. i remember a tv show growing up called ‘concentration.’ two players were required to solve a common phrase written as a rebus. this was one show i actually watched. this postcard was made sometime in the late nineteenth century, and i love it for the drawings as well as for the simple typography. the hand-engraving and hand-coloring are so seductive. i often say i don’t collect certain items that i’m sharing with you, but i often discover them in numbers when i start looking over my collections. there are moments in my collecting when i am asked by a dealer—whether at a flea market, paper fair or antique show—”what do you collect?” i smile, knowing he has no idea what exactly this question means to me. since there is not one answer, i usually say i’m a generalist and, if the dealer is more of a specialist, i will certainly ask if he has a particular item. (though i am embarrassed to say ‘paper clips,’ ’anything using a rebus,’ or ’19th-century examples of shorthand.’ the difficulty in buying paper is that it takes a great deal of patience searching through box after box. of course it is that one item that keeps you coming back. by the way, please keep coming back to visit me at amass.
i have written before about a particular category of my collections which falls under ‘i just like it.’ here is another item from that category, or maybe i should start a new one entitled ‘why did i buy it?’ unfortunately, i believe i have quite a few things that would fit into this category. this cover was bought because i thought it might be useful in a design one day. imagine what arcane piece of graphic design would use such an item. maybe it could be part of a background on a poster. i am reminded of trompe l’oeil paintings. i have always admired them, but when I see them today i wonder why people paint them. i guess i can see how technically satisfying a painting like this could be and i certainly enjoy looking at them. if i recall my art history and the antique road show, as well as refreshed by google, otis kaye always did trompe l’oeil painting with us currency. maybe just framing this piece of paper would be enough. the merits of its color. its folds. the little dash of color. am i projecting? most likely. maybe you can tell me what you see.
my collection of letters starts with the envelope. up until the nineteenth century, most of the letters were folded to make the envelope. here is an example: you can see the wax seal which was used to hold the folded letter shut. what makes this envelope special to me, of course, is the label, “353 from rathwnow.” i haven’t shown this to a postal dealer, so i have no idea what or why this label was attached to this letter. i just loved the letterforms. loving type is an odd thing.
there are so many of us who share this passion. what make a letterform special? what draws us to a particular font? how many new typefaces are designed each day? do we really need them? i always look forward to working with interns or new designers and they bring in their favorite typefaces. often these fonts are completely new to me. many i don’t like, but i try and set aside my prejudices and see what they see. how does that particular typeface add to the design where another doesn’t? this is certainly the case with these letterforms. the surprise of finding these numbers on a letter amidst a pile of other nineteenth-century letters said buy me. wonderful, isn’t it?
handwriting has fascinated me for many years. i think even writing in my practice book as a kid was rewarding, although i do recall getting d’s in penmanship. i have a vivid image of my report card with c’s all across for my grade in penmanship. i have always written in an obscure hand. my sister is about the only on who can decipher it. in grad school, i had matthew carter as a teacher at a time when there were not too many fonts available for the mac. many of my classmates were designing fonts with the hope that adobe might use them. i looked around and felt bored by this thought. don’t get me wrong, there was some wonderful work being done. and i love type as much as the next guy, probably more than most. i spent hours in the type shop, but making individual letter forms did not speak to me. although i think part of my issue was with learning a new program. fontographer, to be specific. after a little thought, i decided on a typeface to design: my own script. this isn’t a big deal now, it’s actually rather mundane, self-indulgent. one classmates asked what i was going to call it. ‘mac-arrogant,’ i answered. seemed fitting. anyway, in my quest for letterheads, i have invariably come across some amazing samples of handwriting. i can never resist buying a letter with such a distinguished hand. here are several examples from my collection, each more remarkable than the next. when was the last time you wrote a letter by hand?
what to collect? it seems i have just about everything. i guess where you hunt determines what you collect. i go to paper fairs, so i collect paper. i don’t collect bottles, but if i went to a bottle collector’s show i would certainly find something worth purchasing. actually, i do think i have a few interesting bottles sitting on my shelves. a couple weeks ago there was a post card show here in nyc. at almost every paper show there are some post card dealers. they have row after row of long boxes, often stacked on top of each other containing card after card. all categories by topic: flowers, state, country, etc. there is usually a row of chairs lined up for anyone to sit and rifle through the thousands of postcards. i am not one of these people. last year there was a huge show of walker evans‘ collection of postcards and a lovely book that went with it. i controlled myself and didn’t buy the book. i also missed the show. postcards are not my thing. look for the book; it’s sure to be a collector’s item. once, after walking around a particular fair, i sat down at a dealer with covers who also had lots of postcards. i always get the question, ‘what do you collect?’ i am embarrassed to answer. you would think i wouldn’t be so ashamed, but i am. i decided that i should make an extra effort. i discovered—after looking through cover after cover—that each envelope was always empty. since the value of the cover is in the stamp or cancelation, it makes no sense to save the contents. i am so disappointed by this. on one occasion i did find something special and it was the start of an ongoing collection. i call them x-y letters. in the 19th century, when paper was scarce, someone writing a letter was often short on paper or possibly conserving what they had. so after filling the page, they would turn it ninety degrees and continue writing. here are two examples of exactly that. amazing, right? i have about six examples of this. whenever i run across these i buy them. one example i misplaced/filed somewhere is an x-y-z letter. after writing both horizontally and vertically, the author turned the page 45 degrees and continued from there. truly remarkable. when i find it i will be sure to post it. i am continually amazed by the ways in which we communicate. enjoy.
i have already expressed my love for handwriting but i have not shared my love for something more expressive: shorthand. specifically, early examples. here are two, one from 1859 and the other from 1852. as a kid i practiced writing backwards, like da vinci. my best friend was left-handed so i also practiced writing that way. i so wanted to be like both of them. i loved writing as a form of expression. not as prose but as calligraphy. in high school my sophomore art teacher, gerald patrick, who i foolishly was unable to appreciate and regret that i did not realize it at the time, expressed that handwriting could have a powerful voice whether in your signature or in your art. “do you know cy twombly?” he opened my eyes to so many things. thank you, mr. patrick, wherever you are. i have never gone to the trouble to have these two letters translated. is that the right term? would deciphered be better? it’s wonderful to see these marks. they are sounds, not letters. i often read the history of esoteric subjects but i have never read much about shorthand. i’ll add it to my list. i’ll keep sharing and i hope you keep visiting.
there is nothing particularly modern about this collection but it falls in line with my love of the letterhead. when starting out as a graphic designer, i loved the application of an identity system, which meant designing the letterhead and invoice for a company. i saw unlimited possibilities when given this particular assignment and i have never lost my zeal for the letterhead. i don’t recall when I first bought these particular examples but I do recall when i discovered the 19th-century invoice. i have mentioned the paper fair in allentown before and the discovery of postal history. what caught my eye was a basket with these letters. staring out at me was a wonderful cancellation mark for new york. the dealer explained a little about postal history which i knew absolutely nothing. i was not interested in the letter or “cover,” as I learned it was called, but only in the cancellation. it was a wonderful piece of typography. i asked if i could open up the letter since it was not an envelope but paper folded in a particular way to make a self envelope. i’m not sure when the envelope became popular and there is much to read about its development and birth. i do know that these early invoices were folded into self-made envelopes. when it was opened, i discovered a wonderful invoice with superb 19th-century typography and amazing handwriting. there are several examples of french invoices and two american examples. imagine taking the time to write these out today.