You are looking at one of the first Latin-alphabet sans serif typefaces. Well, sort of. Published in 1786, Valentin Haüy’s Essay on the Education of the Blind (Essai sur l’éducation des aveugles) showcases in the entire main text his project, one of the first attempts to create a Latin-alphabet writing system for the blind. His approach was embossing simplified characters onto paper, which could be lightly inked to allow the sighted to read them also. This comes thirty years before the Caslon capitals-only “Egyptian” of 1816 that celebrates its two-hundredth anniversary this year and is the first sans serif typeface known to have been made for general-purpose audiences.
Haüy’s typeface is extraordinary — rooted in script writing, but with a wide spacing that makes it unmistakably print writing, it uses swashes on almost all the capitals, apparently to make them more distinguishable. It’s been discussed in many other sources, most notably by the great James Mosley, whose comments on the now defunct Typophile and The Nymph and the Grot on it and other early sans serifs are a must-read for anyone interested in where sans serifs come from, and also by Joseph Alessio. But the entire book is available for the casual reader to examine on Google Books now in two independent digitisations.
Aesthetically, to my non-expert eyes, it looks remarkably unlike most anything that would be typeset (as opposed to engraved) in the Latin alphabet for about the next hundred years. What (to me) makes it look very modern is its general delicacy and text-face build (one could mistake it for a FontFont typeface from the 1990s) and the single-storey ‘a’ and ‘g’, making it, in effect, an upright italic. (Of course, script typefaces often have some sans serif characteristics, right back to the first.) Interesting details abound: the flourish on the the ‘d’ (c.f. early chancery italic typefaces), the flamboyant wide ampersand, the ‘i’ and lower-case ‘L’ with curls, the swashed upper-case ‘i’. The ‘s’ is a bit long-s-ish, but there doesn’t seem to be use of a separate long and short ‘s’. It looks forward to the early sans serif italics of the late nineteenth century and ATF’s Announcement Roman, and also looks a bit like modern handwriting-influenced upright faces like Sassoon and Andika, but most of all it’s totally unlike the galumphing sans serif display capitals that would come out of British and then German and American foundries starting around the 1830s. (The confusing swashed capital ‘I’ is not unique: it turns up in some handwriting and blackletter styles and even a few adaptations of Akzidenz-Grotesk.)
Regarding its printing, the title page notes that it was printed not only for but by blind children in Haüy’s school. Celebrating this achievement, a copy was presented to King Louis XVI on Boxing Day 1786. Haüy describes this printing method from page 30 onwards.
Unfortunately, of course, Haüy’s system with its low information density looks very nice but was pretty rubbish for actual blind people. One of his students, Louis Braille, at the age of just 15 … well, I think you know that story. Although Alastair Johnston’s judgment of the typeface as “illegible, even to sighted readers” seems a bit harsh. Haüy’s letters (or copies) were used for headings on an early 1829 Braille specimen, incidentally, and photographs of this show what it looks like without inking (essentially the same).
The introduction and conclusion sections of the book are printed in conventional typefaces of the 1780s, that seem like early modern (or later old-style?) faces, going by the curled ‘R’ on many fonts.
You can see good photos of a copy of the book here put on sale in 2013 to give a general sense of what it looks like. Or, indeed, for the low price of €6,500, you could have purchased it. A digital revival of Haüy’s typeface can be had for less: In 2006, Harold Lohner created the very cute and quite faithful Valentin.
Blythwood is interested in things science, health, transportation, industry, Gill Sans and Monotype. An avid Wikipedia editor, Blythwood’s goal is to improve coverage of fonts and printing there. After having contributed a dozen choice posts to the Fonts In Use Collection, this is the first to appear in the Blog.