Victorian typography


“Victorian” isn’t really the correct term for the products of 19th century America but then “19th century” covers rather a lot of ground. Mr BibliOdyssey’s most recent post is a stunning collection of title pages from fire insurance maps of the late 19th and early 20th century. Rather than repost any you ought to go and see them for yourself, they’re excellent examples of the best and worst of “Victorian” graphic design, insanely and pointlessly ornate yet often very inventive in their elaborations and stylised letterforms. Being a typophile I’d often feel frustrated when looking at 19th century documents and seeing type designs in use for which there were no contemporary equivalents. There was such a profound reaction against ornamented design in the 20th century that it’s only relatively recently that typography of this period has been reappraised and, in some cases, resurrected. The book from which these examples are taken dates from 1897, and it fascinates for putting names to some of those neglected designs. This is a big catalogue of 740 pages so I’ve been sparing in my selection. Anyone wishing to see more can download the whole thing here.


Despite my affection for curvilinear Art Nouveau, when it comes to typography I’m often drawn to the spikier styles. Atlanta was digitised by P22 in a style they call Victorian Gothic. Their accompanying ornament set replicated that curious shape from Victoria below.



This typeface, or ones which resemble it, is a common one in 19th century newspaper and advertising design but I’d never seen it given a name until now. The catalogue pages have a number of variations which is no doubt an indicator of its popularity. A bold weight of the design was digitised by Scriptorium as a font they call Mephisto.


Rubens is my favourite of all the designs in this catalogue, probably because I always liked the way it looked when it enjoyed a surprising flush of popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. The narrow style made it very useful for book covers (as with the examples here) while those spiky serifs made it popular with art directors looking for a typeface that said “horror”. Wooden Type Fonts recently digitised a version of Rubens but their version lacks the elegance of the original. Anyone else want to have a go?


Lastly the catalogue has many pages of clip art figures and decorations including the pointing hands which people always associate with 19th century design. I’d wondered a few times whether these jagged decorations were meant to be electrical or not. Electricity was a new thing in 1897 so these would have seemed distinctly modern.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Steampunk overloaded!
Penguin Labyrinths and the Thief’s Journal
Masonic fonts and the designer’s dark materials

7 thoughts on “Victorian typography”

  1. Gabriel: This catalogue also has pages of typesetting machinery.

    Marco: That’s damned expensive for a catalogue! The copy at the Internet Archive has some pages missing near the end which is a little frustrating. I think someone may have swiped some of the ornamental stuff.

  2. The image of electric ornaments is wonderful- do you know where they can be purchased or perhaps a higher rex image can be found? I would love to use them in some current designs- Thank You!

  3. I was searching for some Victorian funeral notice inspiration for a magazine headline design and stumbled upon your inspired blog. Very nice work and resources, just my cup of hemlock tea.

  4. Hi Glenn, glad to be of assistance. The Internet Archive is a good resource for this kind of thing, there’s quite a few typography catalogues there filled with unusual bits of detail and decoration.

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