[Tom Biederbeck] Nancy Sharon Collins’ The Complete Engraver: Monograms, Crests, Ciphers, Seals, and the Etiquette of Social Stationery, from Princeton Architectural Press, lives up to its comprehensive title. Abundantly illustrated, the book is a testament to the power of engraving — a printing technique most of us know only from wedding invitations and money — and its continuing relevance to personal correspondence. I spoke with the author to find out why engraving still matters … and I learned a lot, beginning with how the word stationery came about.
I was fascinated to learn the origin of stationery. Can you tell us a little about this?
In 1403, the mayor and aldermen of the City of London approved the formation of a Guild of Stationers. By the early 16th century printers had joined. Originally, the stationers were those who sold writing materials in a fixed position, as in today’s term stationary. The stationers were also scribes — to this day, in some parts of the world, there are still independent letter writers who have shops where people can go to have a letter done.
From their earliest appearance right up through the 1950s, the stationer became the gatekeeper for the correct protocol in putting personal correspondence on paper.
A letter is a social compact between two individuals; it requires a response on the part of the recipient. So what is it about engraved stationery that makes communicating special?
The ink in engraving reflects light in its own special way. It’s different from flat printing or letterpress. Real engraving stands proud above the paper. It creates a unique opportunity for the ink to catch your eye. People who receive an engraved card will run their fingers across the ink. For some universally understood reason, people will turn it over and see the telltale bruise on the back.
From The Complete Engraver, page 120. Caption: Sample sheet of decorative initials engraved in varnish-based ink, before 1970s. Styles include black letter (Old English), fancy script, Gothic, and initials enclosed within wreath and escutcheon (column 54).
It’s a happy, warm, haptic experience that satisfies the high-touch/low-tech urge we have today, when we spend so much time in front of our computers.
Your book is wonderfully designed and illustrated. [The design is by Paul Wagner and Elena Schlenker of Princeton Architectural Press.] I love the table of contents — an example of how the book’s design reflects on your subject. What typefaces were used?
The table of contents and other elements in the book are from the Sackers family. Body copy is Bertham, a revival by Steve Matteson of a typeface originally designed by Frederic Goudy. I dearly love this font!
As to the overall design, everyone at Princeton Architectural Press did wonderful work bringing the book into relevancy in a beautiful way.
In the book you explore the resurgence of interest in letter writing. How do you see this interest manifesting itself?
I think it’s a direct response to the amount of time we spend by ourselves in the digital world. Cooking, knitting circles, the book arts that have exploded in popularity — they’re all satisfying antidotes. People want to get their hands dirty, they want to make stuff, because it satisfies our need to connect. Felt & Wire is all over this!
I am often approached by those who say they know young people, 11 to 14 years old, who like to write letters. That’s pretty groovy! And of course there are parents my age — I’m 58 — who still insist their children hand write their own thank-you notes in response to receiving gifts and favors.
As to engraving, it was in this quiet little corner by itself, and it hadn’t been noticed for a while. I think I can credit myself a bit for the renewed interest, because I’ve been talking about engraving tirelessly since 1999. I’m really excited that people are noticing, and I’m thankful that Princeton Architectural Press decided to invest in this book.
Page 100. Caption: Engraved trade card advertising the virtuosity of John A. Lowell & Co., Boston, 1880s–1920s. Image courtesy of Dick Sheaff.
What do you see as the future for engraving?
Engraving and stationery design is evolving from mass-market products in a way that reminds me of what’s happening in book and magazine publishing, and the music industry. The survivors in the music industry have found a new business model — the entry-level experience for a new song or band might be a free or low-cost download.
If you really want to support a band, you’ll buy the box set for $20 or even $50. The same thing’s true of engraving: If you want a beautiful piece of engraving, you can get it at a reasonable cost. You might go to a site like my own Felt & Wire Shop, Petite Suite.
The book has a whole section on “how to do” engraving — not how to become an engraver, but how to organize yourself to get engraving done. Of course you can learn how to engrave. You can order your own plates or even make them yourself; engraving proofing presses are available; you can even get a degree in engraving. I hope the book helps people decide for themselves how to get involved.
The experience you get from writing on engraved stationery is enhanced by the effort and investment you put into it. And there are many more options today for getting into engraving today than there ever were before.
Tomorrow, Felt & Wire features the two new free fonts commissioned by Monotype Imaging in concert with the publication of The Complete Engraver. Download JMC Engraver and Feldman Engraver, designed by Terrance Weinzierl, here.
The Complete Engraver was also recently covered in The New York Times.
Top photo and table of contents photo © 2012 StudioAlex. Other images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press.