The first truly fat roman typeface is believed to have been introduced by prominent London type founder Robert Thorne, in 1803. This was a period of invention and discovery, when Europe was experiencing an enormous expansion of trade and commerce. As innovation in printing technology improved and enterprising new trades began to flourish, so did the demand for print advertising. Job printers who formerly relied on printing books soon discovered new sources of commercial print work. Thorne responded to this new surge in advertising by designing his “improved printing types” expressly for job printers composing short lines of large text. His bold new, all caps fat face, which looked more like a Didone on steroids, proved to be wildly successful and was largely responsible for altering the appearance of advertising in this era. Although Thorne never published another book of specimens after 1803, he came very close to completing one, and he continued turning out bold new fonts at his Fann Street Foundry until his death in 1820.
The Fat Face Race
After Robert Thorne’s death, the Fann Street Foundry was put up for auction, and purchased by William Thorowgood in 1820 from winnings he received in a state lottery. Although Thorowgood had no previous experience in type founding, he quickly learned his ‘p’s and ‘q’s. Months later, he published 132 pages of Thorne’s composed specimens which remained after his death, including the first showing of his original fat face with the ill-fitting title of “Five-lines Pica, No. 5”. Over the course of the next century, every successful type foundry issued their own revival of Thorne’s original full-figured fat face font. The first italic cut was released in 1808, the first shaded version was believed to be issued in 1810, followed by compressed, elongated, and expanded versions according to Nicolete Gray in her book, Nineteenth Century Ornamented Types and Title Pages. The Bruce Type Foundry released a particularly nice version of a regular and italic in their 1869 Abridged Specimen of Printing Types Made at Bruce’s New York Type Foundry. This italic had many of the handsome attributes of Thorowgood’s first italic, including the lovely swashes and ball terminals of many of the cap letters. Originally called No. 1, it was later updated to Style 101 in their 1901 type catalog. By 1906, typefounders Stephenson Blake acquired the entire Fann Street Foundry holdings, and Thorne’s original fat faces were among them. It was nearly fifty years later however, that Thorne was finally recut and renamed as Thorowgood.
The Move Towards Modernism
The 20th century brought many economic and political changes to the Western world. This fueled reaction from progressive groups of artists, writers, and critics who called for social and economic reforms and rebelled against mass culture and industrialization. A cultural shift towards modernism emerged and gained influence in all aspects of society. Nowhere was this move towards modernism more pronounced than in advertising, book design, and printed arts throughout most of the 20th century. Type foundries responded by releasing dozens of new styles of san serif fonts such as Bernhard Gothic, Agency Gothic, Gill Sans, Futura, and News Gothic.
Not ones to be shy, fat faces came to the dance as well, and this time they were dressed to kill. With new releases from the German foundry Stempel in 1923 (Ratio Modern Extra Bold), the French foundry Deberny & Peignot in 1925 (Sphinx), American Type Founders in 1928 (Ultra Bodoni), Linotype in 1929 (Poster Bodoni), and Monotype in 1931 (Falstaff), the fat face had international appeal. Sizable fat faces were no longer being used exclusively as bursts of attention-grabbing display headlines, but were discreetly used as body copy, or as small, but readable design elements. By their very nature, they could be loud, flamboyant and conspicuous, or speak softly with restrained elegance. Like an addition of spice to a bland dish, the fat face added character and flavor to an otherwise simple design.
Many fashions have come and gone since the advent of Thorne’s first elephantine fat face in 1803, and the many revivals that followed. From the Victorian era to Modernism and back, the fat face has managed to consistently reinvent itself at the hands of legendary designers such as Herbert Bayer, Paul Rand, and Bruno Munari. Over the course of the past 200 years, its impact and contributions to the printed word have few parallels. Surely there will be more to follow.
Revivals, Reinterpretations, and Progressions
One proof that the style continues its popularity are the many new digital fat faces released in the last few years. Some are faithful revivals of old designs, and some are completely new interpretations of the genre, mixing new ideas with those from the fat faces of the past.
Battista is a Thorowgood follower with a set of decorative fill fonts.
As a contemporary interpretation of the more idiosyncratic Didot styles, the Ambroise family is quite different from most in this list, but the Black could be classified as a French fat face. Also unusual: three widths, down to the tightly packed François.
Trilogy Fatface only comes in italic, but there are five widths, swashes, and an accompanying superfamily of contrasting and compatible styles from the same historical period.
Ben Kiel’s Worthe Numerals is a House Industries adventure into the most bulbous and expressive forms of fat face figures.
In addition to these contemporary releases, the typefaces shown and mentioned in this article are shown, as usual, at the top of the sidebar at right. Click through the names and take your own journey into fat land!