Möbelhaus Walther Geßwein letter, 1937
There are several interesting typographic details to discover in this old business letter, like the top-connecting ‘ch’ ligature in Koralle that almost looks like an upside down psi (ψ). Or the fact that Koralle, like many of Schelter & Giesecke’s typefaces, came with an uppercase eszett (ẞ), which apparently was so ahead of the times that it got confused with a lowercase one here and ended up in the middle of a mixed-case word (see “Katharinenstraße”). Or the way how medium-wide Koralle and wide Aurora-Grotesk (VII) take turns in the list of products, despite the fact that both series were available in a range of styles and widths. Or the inconsistent spelling of the name “Geßwein” — with ‘ß’ in the letterhead, with ‘ſſ’ in the rubberstamp, with ‘ss’ in the signature …
There’s more to it, though — something eerie, which is not obvious at first sight. The company name is set in Tannenberg schmal, one of the first “jackboot grotesks”, or “New German typefaces”, as they were referred to in Klimsch’s Jahrbuch, released in 1933, months after Hitler seized power. It is named after the Battle of Tannenberg, a symbol of Teutonic nationalism and militarism, and was advertised as “truly German, […] a sign of the times” and an “expression of new German desire”. The letter was sent by the owner of a furniture store in Tübingen, five years into Nazi Germany, and is signed “Mit deutschem Gruss!” (literally “with German salute”), the written equivalent of the Nazi salute. Unlike raising one’s right arm, such a letter ending was never mandatory, and although the phrase can occasionally be found in business communication (alongside the more common and more explicit “Heil Hitler!”), its use was the exception rather than the rule. This circumstance — more so than the use of Tannenberg — suggests that the sender was not exactly opposed to the regime.
The bottom half of the letter holds a carbon copy of the reply by the addressed furniture agent in Stuttgart-Weil im Dorf, confirming the order. He, by contrast, used an innocuous salutation (“hochachtungsvoll grüssend” ≈ “Yours respectfully”). His name is Ludwig Steinthal, and he was Jewish. With the introduction of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, German Jews had been stripped of their citizenship and civil rights. Having been a target of discrimination and persecution including occupational bans before, they were now officially excluded from many public events and places — simply because of their religious affiliation. As of May 1937, Steinthal apparently was still able to somehow pursue his business, but not for long. One year later, he was imprisoned in the infamous Dachau concentration camp. It didn’t help him that he was married to a non-Jewish woman, nor that he fought for Germany in World War I. Until 1945, Ludwig Steinthal was detained in several Nazi concentration camps, but miraculously managed to survive in Theresienstadt. We know this today because his son Hermann shared his memoirs in a book published in 2008.
Ludwig Steinthal didn’t specify gotisch letterforms for his rubberstamp. His name is set in Bravour-Kursiv, a charming advertising face designed by commercial artist, graphic designer and film architect Martin Jacoby-Boy. Like Steinthal, Jacoby-Boy was persecuted for nothing else but being Jewish. After being banned from his profession, he fled Germany in 1933.
Let’s not forget about this history, especially not these days.