Monday, May 5, 2014

Typography Guru Examines Fonts and Designs of US Penny

Bet you didn't know how many typographic and design changes have been made in the penny since the Lincoln cent debuted in 1909 to commemorate the centennial of Lincoln's birth.  At first the idea of a US President's face on a coin was considered revolutionary, since Americans had associated faces on coins with old European monarchies.  But the popularity of the new penny set a new standard that set the design direction for all coins that followed.

Tobias Frere-Jones, the typography guru behind many of the most celebrated and sought-after fonts available today, HAS been paying attention to the design of the penny, and pens his appreciation for the history and changes that have marked the simple, derided one-cent coin.

Hunter Communications Original News Source:
Slate

Link to article:
A Typographer’s Design History of the Unappreciated Penny

Excerpt: "Coins are normally a job for sculptors, and President Theodore Roosevelt chose Victor David Brenner to design a new penny to celebrate the centennial of Lincoln’s birth in 1909. The new coin broke from the tradition of allegorical figures and depicted a specific person for the first time. Such practice had been explicitly avoided since independence, because many felt it tasted too much like the monarchy they had left behind. It seemed that Lincoln’s 100th birthday was the right time to drop the prohibition, and now we find it hard to imagine American currency without presidents.

The design process was marred by tension between Brenner and U.S. Mint Engraver Charles Barber, who had designed earlier coins and likely felt he should have received this commission himself. While proofing the design, Barber and Mint Director Frank Leach shifted Lincoln’s portrait towards the center of the coin, where the detail could be best rendered in striking. Troubled by the blank space above Lincoln’s head, they decided to add “IN GOD WE TRUST” along the top edge. This motto had appeared on U.S. coins for years, so Brenner could not have been surprised at its inclusion, but I can’t imagine he was happy about the tampering.

The lettering records the dissonance between the artist and his client. The “1909” figures are calmly rendered, and suggest a tool driven through clay or plaster. With awkward shapes and erratic spacing, the motto looks more like a part number brusquely stamped in. The motto would not get fixed for 60 years, after 55 billion coins had been produced.

The reverse of Brenner’s design is a beautifully balanced mass of lettering framed by sheaves of wheat, epic and quaint in the same breath. It is the pocket-sized monument that coins are meant to be, speaking for the ages from the vantage of 1909. The craft afforded here also belies the fact that this is the country’s smallest denomination. Brenner’s wheat sheaf design would also be the last time that lettering featured so prominently in U.S. coinage. It remained for 50 years, until Frank Gasparro’s rendition of the Lincoln memorial replaced it in 1959, to mark the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s birth.

It’s not clear who updated the dies from one year to the next, though it seems obvious enough that different hands and tastes were involved. And yes, I was nuts to collect enough pennies so I could track this. Some years feature clenched shapes and tight spacing, others return to Brenner’s airy dignity. In 1934, the figure 3 is rendered with a descending end stroke. This 'oldstyle' form vanishes for the rest of the ’30s, and then reappears in 1943."

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