The first sanserif type

James Mosley

The first sanserif type
James Mosley
Detail of William Caslon IV’s ‘Two Lines English Egyptian’ shown in Blake, Garnett, and Co., Specimen of Printing Types (Sheffield, 1819)
© St Bride Foundation

This is a sample of a printing type of which the first known appearance is a setting of a few words under the heading ‘Two Lines English Egyptian’1 in a specimen of the London typefounder William Caslon IV (1781–1869)2 issued in about 1816. It is a monoline letter, that is one with strokes of even thickness, and its round letters are based on perfect circles. It is the first sanserif type,3 the earliest known example of a style that would become one of the most widely used typefaces of the twentieth century. At the same time, it has faint echoes of the incised characters of Periclean Athens, one of the most purely geometrical versions of the letters from which our present capitals are descended.

Caslon’s ‘Two Lines English Egyptian’ shown in his Specimen of Printing Types (London, 1816)
© Type Archive

Historians of printing types have seen the two ‘linear’ printing types which appeared in England in the second decade of the nineteenth century as an expression of the spirit of the industrial revolution. The even strokes of the sanserif and slab-serif – since both forms have sometimes been called ‘Egyptian’4 an unambiguous nomenclature is necessary – make a striking contrast with the hugely differentiated thick and thin strokes of the contemporary ‘fat face’ roman type. It is true that the unprecedented size and weight of the new types of this decade were made possible by technical advances in typecasting and the construction of presses, and it is likely that their existence is due to the requirements of the entrepreneurs of the world’s most industrialized economy.5 But the question of the origin of these letterforms, and their relationship with each other, is not so simply resolved. To see them, as some have done, as merely the crude, naif creation of ill-educated artisans, a kind of ‘engineer’s letter’, is demonstrably wrong.

Vincent Figgins’s ‘Five Lines Pica Antique’ shown in his 1815 specimen (facsimile). The leaves on which these types are printed are actually dated 1817
© St Bride Foundation (library accession number 38184/32305)

The first slab-serif type appears under the heading ‘Antique’ in specimens of types cast by Vincent Figgins6 which have the date ‘1815’ on their title page.7 It is a geometrical, monoline letter with square, unbracketed serifs that match the weight of the other strokes. A F Johnson commented in his Type Designs (1934) that the sanserif, which apparently appeared in the following year, was the slab-serif ‘with the serifs knocked off’.8 Some support was lent to this idea by the indisputable fact that the slab-serif was immediately adopted by typefounders and printers. Every British typefounder produced the design in a wide range of sizes, and the slab-serif was eventually accepted, not without reluctance,9 by the printers of continental Europe. The sanserif type on the other hand, this truncated variant of the slab-serif, had no apparent commercial success. No contemporary use of the Caslon ‘Egyptian’ type is known,10 and it was not until the eighteen-thirties that the ‘Sans-serif’ of Figgins, and the ‘Grotesque’ of Thorowgood,11 very different types indeed, made the design acceptable to the printing trade.

Vincent Figgins’s ‘Two-Line Great Primer Sans-serif’ (1830), shown in his 1832 specimen
© St Bride Foundation (library accession number 22224)

There is some truth in this, but not much. The sanserif type may well have appeared before the slab-serif, since only two of the known copies of the Figgins type specimen of ‘1815’ include examples of the ‘Antique’ type, and both of these have leaves with the date 1817 in the watermark. Moreover, in 1816 the sanserif letter had already appeared in printed matter for ten years and had been employed in other contexts for more than twenty, whereas practically no true slab-serif – a geometrical monoline letter with unbracketed serifs – is known before its appearance as a printing type. It would seem more likely, therefore, that the slab-serif is the sanserif with serifs added in order to make it acceptable to printers, one of the most conservative of trades. Typographical historians have been equally reluctant, despite the evidence of names like ‘Egyptian’ and ‘Antique’, to accept that the linear types, far from being the naif product of uneducated engineers, might actually have been intended as a reference to the monoline letters of antiquity, but here again the context in which the sanserif was employed suggests that this was almost invariably the case.

Greek monoline inscription set out in the ‘stoichedon’ style, on a stele of white marble (fifth century BC)
© British Museum

Greek inscriptional letters of the fifth century BC are monoline and starkly geometrical. Their purity is slightly diminished early in the following century by the addition of decorative end strokes (serifs). Early Roman letters, derived from Greek models, follow a similar pattern, although the serifs are generally far less obtrusive than they later became in Greece. The inscriptional capitals of the Roman republican period are geometrical in form, often with minimal serifs, or none at all. A dramatic change took place in the age of Augustus, when the adoption of the practice of setting out inscriptions with a broad brush provided the more carefully designed capitals of the imperial period (first to fifth centuries) with their familiar articulation of thick and thin strokes.

Pisanello (Antonio di Puccio Pisano), portrait medal of Cecilia Gonzaga (front) and Innocence and a unicorn in a moonlit landscape (reverse), 1447
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When Roman capitals were revived by Italian artists in the fifteenth century, the monoline ‘republican’ model was sometimes followed, as can be seen from the inscriptions of the medals of Pisanello.12 But the well-cut examples of the ‘imperial’ letter, with its thick and thin strokes, proved to be a more attractive model for the antiquarians and artists like Feliciano and Alberti who early in the second half of the century set the pattern for others. The fortuitous harmony of these calligraphic letters with the pen-formed humanistic minuscule script led to the wedding of the two, and to the perpetuation of capitals and lower-case in the ‘antiqua’ or ‘Roman’ printing type. Later developments in calligraphy and type design only accentuated the contrast of thick and thin, a process that had reached an extreme point when the monoline letter attracted the attention of neo-classical artists in the late eighteenth century.

Neo-classical art is at one and the same time a matter of archaeology – the accurate measurement and depiction of the buildings and artefacts of antiquity – and also of morality. ‘For neoclassical artists the imitation of the antique was not an end in itself but a means of creating ideal works of universal and eternal validity.’13 David’s painting of The Oath of the Horatii (1784–85), with its powerfully grouped figures and simple tuscan colonnade, has been called ‘the visual expression of moral certainty’.14 Robert Rosenblum remarks that ‘in the late eighteenth century, classical architecture could often be interpreted as a source of geometrically pure and hence therapeutic forms. Indeed, this attraction to primary, elemental types dominated much of the late eighteenth-century experience of the classical and the proto-classical, an experience that is most conveniently blanketed under the term Primitivism. From the mid-century on, challenging enquirers of Western arts and letters looked back to the origins of the long evolutionary sequence that had led, ultimately, to what was considered the corruption-whether political, moral or aesthetic-of the contemporary world.’ Added to this was ‘the recurrent eighteenth-century image of classical architecture as something fascinating or even terrifying in its rude simplicity’.15

Jacques-Louis David, Le Serment des Horaces (1784–85)
© Musée du Louvre
George Dance, study of a detail of the Temple of Vesta, Tivoli (1761–63)
By courtesy of the trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum

John Soane (1753–1837), the major English neo-classical architect, is the first and most consistent user of sanserif letters. He may have found a model in the drawings made by his former master George Dance of the inscription of the little Republican Roman Temple of Vesta (or ‘of the Sybil’) at Tivoli, in which an idealized geometrical monoline form is conferred on the much-weathered original. Soane, much influenced by Dance’s ideas, was to build a facsimile of a segment of this temple into the Bank of England: the so-called ‘Tivoli corner’. He had begun to label his drawings with mock ‘inscriptions’, carefully shaded and weathered, soon after his own return from Rome in 1780. From 1784 onwards, these are commonly carefully-drawn monoline sanserifs, the geometrical accuracy being ensured with the aid of compasses. John Flaxman, the most widely known of English neo-classical sculptors, used a sanserif in 1799 and the following years to accompany his concept of Britannia as Pallas Athene. If Soane’s model was to some extent Republican Roman, Flaxman’s was certainly Greek, but it also should be borne in mind that, unusually for his time, he was an enthusiastic collector of Pisanello’s medals.

In 1808, when national monuments were matters for public discussion, a pamphlet was published which advocated the construction of a vast pyramid on the downs to the north of Portsmouth as a mausoleum for heroes. The author, William Wood, urged that its wording should be inscribed … in ‘the earliest roman character, because least susceptible of injury’. Its frontispiece, engraved by H Moses, shows clearly that by that he meant a sanserif letter. William Wood, An essay on national and sepulchral monuments (London, 1808)

Examples of sanserif letters in the work of English neo-classical artists could be multiplied.16 What evidence we have for the date of the entry of this archaic, elemental letter into commercial public use points to the years 1806 or 1807. A ‘joke book’ of 1806 is cited by D B Updike for its comment on ‘fashionable Egyptian sign-boards. An Irishman describing the Egyptian letters which at present deface the Metropolis, declared that the thin strokes were exactly the same as the thick ones!’17 A similar reaction to the use of novel ‘Egyptian letters’ for the painted fascias of shops was described by Robert Southey in 1807. It is not difficult to guess how the sanserif came to be called ‘Egyptian’. Just as Greek architecture was the origin of Roman, but simpler, purer and more primitive, so in its turn it was supposed to be derived from the Egyptian: all three are variations on the Antique. The sanserifs that appear in books in 1806–7, on plates and engraved title pages,18 often no longer have quite the pure monoline form of their models. Insidiously, the engravers destroyed the simple geometry by giving the letter a slight variation of thick and thin; one guesses that many signwriters did the same: all their education in the making of letters must have required this alternation of the thickness of strokes.

William Thorowgood’s ‘Seven Line Grotesque’ (1832) shown in his 1834 specimen
© St Bride Foundation (library accession number 6403)

The same influence was eventually seen in type. The first of the kind that was to be commercially popular, Figgins’s ‘Sans-serif’ of 1830, is a set of well-drawn bold capitals with a slight but distinct thick and thin variation of its strokes. The Thorowgood ‘Grotesque’ of 1832 is more innovative still: it has a lower-case, and it is highly condensed, and thus suited to the packing of information into handbills and posters. These two types are the ancestors of the jobbing types of the later nineteenth century, from which Univers, Helvetica, and some dozens of other types are derived. They have lost most of the archaeological associations that they ever had, and fulfil the idea of the sanserif as a neutral, engineer’s letter which was so attractive to the poet Stefan George and the designer Peter Behrens in Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century. But it is the purer geometry of the Underground Railway sanserif, drawn at Frank Pick’s request by Edward Johnston, or of Futura and the related German types of the nineteen-twenties that is more widely recognised as a symbol of the modern movement. None of these can have been directly influenced by the type of Caslon IV, though the Underground letter strikingly resembles it in some details. What they have in common is the deliberate rejection of the elaborate inflections that the roman letter has acquired in centuries of development and its replacement with clean, rational lines, stripped of redundant detail. The ‘Egyptian’ type of William Caslon IV is both an explicit reflection of classical antiquity and the first of the ‘universal’ letters of the modern world.


In 1819 the typefoundry of William Caslon IV was acquired by the newly established Sheffield firm Blake, Garnett & Co. Their type specimen of that year, made up of material printed for the specimens of William Caslon IV, includes the leaf for the ‘Egyptian’ type.19 The type is not shown in their later specimens, nor in the first specimens of Blake & Stephenson, as the firm became in 1830. It does reappear in 1838,20 however, and is shown in some specimens of Blake and Stephenson and Stephenson, Blake & Co. in the eighteen-forties21 before being finally superseded by the new sanserif types of the later nineteenth century. Its presence in several United States type specimens may possibly be explained by the use of electrotyping to copy matrices.22

Blake & Stephenson’s ‘English Two Line Sans-Surryphs’ in their 1838 specimen, showing the recut C, D and O
© St Bride Foundation
The 1838 version of the type in use for A Series of Diagrams Illustrative of the Principles of Mechanical and Natural Philosophy (London: Chapman and Hall, 1842–43), above the main title
© St Bride Foundation
The 1838 version of the type, as ‘Two-Line Small Pica Gothic’, in the seventeenth specimen book of MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan Co. (Philadelphia, 1895)
© St Bride Foundation

The wording of the first specimen of the type, set in one line, reads ‘W CASLON JUNR LETTERFOUNDER’. Several features indicate the experimental nature of this style of letter where a typefounder was concerned.23 The punchcutting is uncertain and the simple form of the sanserif reveals imperfections more cruelly than a more complex design would have done. A kink in the S suggests that the punch was flawed, perhaps cracked. Some of these flaws can be detected in the later nineteenth-century specimens of the type, and might have been visible in the original specimen, too, if it had not been so heavily inked. Another indication of the tentative nature of the fount is the absence of points after the abbreviations and at the end of the line, where nineteenth-century convention absolutely required them. By the later eighteen-thirties, when the type was revived, square full points had been added, following the style of the points made for slab-serif types.24 By this time, too, at least one letter, the C, had been recut, giving it a clumsy lower part that spoils the symmetry of the original letter.25

The surviving matrices, corresponding to the letterforms shown in the 1838 specimen
© Type Archive

The fount was cast for I M Imprimit26 at the type foundry of the University Press, Oxford, by courtesy of the Printer to the University and of Stephenson, Blake & Co., the then owners of the matrices.27 The caster was Mr Don Turner. This called for exceptional skill, since the matrices are clumsily finished and are pitted on the face. The type foundry at the University Press was established in the late seventeenth century and Caslon’s Egyptian was the last fount made there before the foundry was closed in February 1987.28


This text is a slightly revised and newly illustrated version of ‘Caslon’s Egyptian: the first sanserif type’, first printed by I M Imprimit in a pamphlet produced for a visit by members of the Arbeitskreis Druckgeschichte, on the 25 August 1988. It was edited by John Morgan and Adrien Vasquez (Abyme) in 2023. Thanks to Alicia Chilcott, Sophie Hawkey-Edwards and Bob Richardson at the St Bride Library and Type Archive, Julia Horsfall and Ian Mortimer at I M Imprimit, Flavio Milani, Flora Spens at Sir John Soane’s Museum, and to James Mosley for agreeing to its publication.


‘The first sanserif type’ was published as a companion text to our typeface English Egyptian.

The type in the hands of Ian Mortimer
Proofing sheets printed by I M Imprimit
Details from the proofing sheets, showing the kink in the curve of the S
Galleys of type prepared for the original printing of ‘The first sanserif type’ in the I M Imprimit workshop
  1. The term ‘Two Lines English’ refers to the body size, namely an equivalent to two lines of ‘English’ type, or about 28pt on the later Anglo-American system. ‘Egyptian’ is the name of the type (note from the editors).
  2. In 1807, ‘William Caslon Junr’ or ‘Willian Caslon IV’, the grandson of the first William Caslon, inherited the foundry established by Joseph Jackson which his father had bought when he left the original foundry in Chiswell Street, at this date trading under the name of ‘Caslon & Catherwood’. The stock was bought in 1819 by Blake & Garnett (later ‘Blake & Stephenson’ and ‘Stephenson, Blake & Co.’) of Sheffield (note from the editors).
  3. This spelling of the word ‘sanserif’ seems to originate from a mistake by the Oxford English Dictionary. See James Mosley, ‘The Nymph and the Grot, an update’ (February 2007) on his blog Typefoundry (note from the editors).
  4. When sanserif letters began to be used by the Ordnance Survey, in 1816, for distinguishing Roman antiquities, they were called ‘Egyptian’, and there is evidence that this remained a common signwriter’s term for sanserif letters well into this century. The first slab-serif types to be called ‘Egyptian’ were those of Robert Thorne, which were so listed in the sale catalogue of his Fann Street foundry in 1820. Only one British typefounder used this name, all the others preferring to use ‘Antique’ for the slab-serif, like Figgins. However, the Fann Street foundry’s ‘Egyptian’ was adopted in Germany as a generic term for slab-serif types, just as the same foundry’s ‘Grotesque’ was used for sanserif. Both terms were re-imported into English usage in the twentieth century. Confusingly, ‘Antique’ was adopted in France as the standard term for sanserif type. For examples of early sanserif and slab-serif types see Nicolete Gray, Nineteenth century ornamented typefaces (London: Faber and Faber, 1976), and the same writer’s ‘Slab-serif design in England 1815–1845’, Journal of the Printing Historical Society 15 (1980–81), pp 1–35.
  5. The fat face and slab-serif types were used to add to the impact of the bills that advertised tickets for the state lotteries. Not only is this theme reflected in the wording of the specimens of these types during the eighteen-twenties (‘Fortunate adventurers’, ‘The Lottery draws’ and ‘Win sums’), but a whole page of a twenty-line fat face of Caslon & Catherwood is occupied by the name of ‘Bish’, the most notoriously enterprising of the lottery ticket agents.
  6. Vincent Figgins (1766–1844) began his career at the age of 16 as an apprentice to the type founder Joseph Jackso, who had learned his trade under William Caslon I. When his master died in 1792, Figgins – through lack of means – was unable to acquire his business and set up his own in Swan Yard, Holbord Bridge. He went on to become one of the most successful type founders of his generation. See James Mosley, ‘The Type Foundry of Vincent Figgins 1792–1836, Motif 1 (November 1958) (note from the editors).
  7. The 1815 specimen shows a ‘Four Lines Pica Antique’ (about 48pt) and a ‘Five Lines Pica Antique’ (about 60pt). The book was reproduced in facsimile by the London Printing Historical Society in 1967, edited and with an introduction and notes by Berthold Wolpe (note from the editors).
  8. ‘The sans serif is in fact an Egyptian with the serifs knocked off, and it is probable that that was the manner of its creation.’ Alfred F Johnson, Type Designs: Their History and Development (London: Grafton & Co., 1934), p 206 (note from the editors).
  9. Slab-serif letters were used in Paris shortly after the European peace by the English printer J.B. Smith. The typefounder Gillé wrote contemptuously of them in 1819.
  10. ‘This letter … apparently never used by printers, since no example has been traced’. Nicolete Gray, op cit (p 37). This is true for the 1816 type, however, at least two nineteenth-century uses of the 1838 type have been identified. It is used on the covers of a set of large format engineering manuals titled A Series of Diagrams Illustrative of the Principles of Mechanical and Natural Philosophy (London: Chapman and Hall, 1842–43. St Bride Library accession number SB14726), printed by Bradbury and Evans in Whitefriars, London. The type can also be found on Timothy Worsey Watton’s Outline Charts of General History (1848), printed by William Joesbury in Birmingham. Regarding the latter, see David Joseph Osbaldestin, The Art of Ephemera: typographic innovations of nineteenth-century midland jobbing printers (Birmingham: Birmingham City University, 2020) (note from the editors).
  11. The Fann Street Foundry, founded by Robert Thorne, was bought on his death in 1820 by William Thorowgood (d. 1877) (note from the editors).
  12. On the letters by Florentine artists of the fifteenth century, see for example Nicolete Gray, ‘Sans serif and other experimental inscribed lettering of the early Renaissance’, Motif 5 (1960), pp 66–76 and Paul Stiff, ‘Brunelleschi’s epitaph and the design of public letters in fifteenth-century Florence’, Typography Papers 6 (London: Hyphen Press, 2005), pp 66–114. Persona (designed by John Morgan and Adrien Vasquez) is partly based on this model (note from the editors).
  13. Hugh Honour, Neo-classicism (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), p 111.
  14. Michael Wilson, Eighteenth-century French painting (Oxford: Phaidon, 1979), p 14.
  15. Robert Rosenblum, Transformations in late eighteenth century art (Princeton: University Press, 1967), p 140.
  16. For some examples see James Mosley, ‘The Nymph and the Grot’, Typographica, new series no. 12 (1965), pp 2–19, later published (in a slightly updated version) as The Nymph and the Grot (London: Friends of the St Bride Printing Library, 1999). The author further expanded on this text in ‘The Nymph and the Grot, an update’, op cit.
  17. Daniel Berkeley Updike, Printing types (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1922), vol ii, p 195, footnote 1.
  18. Two examples of 1807 are the title pages to Thomas Hope’s Household furniture, engraved by Henry Moses, and Flaxman’s illustrations to Dante. The purer ‘archaeological’ sanserif had appeared in print in the captions and lettering of the illustrations to a paper by William Wilkins (1751–1815), ‘An essay towards a history of the Venta Icenorum of the Romans, and of Norwich Castle’, Archaeologia, xii (1796). The engraver was James Basire, who followed Wilkins’s drawings with scrupulous fidelity. A good later example is the title page of William Gell’s The itinerary of Greece (1810), which simulates a stele of the fifth century BC.
  19. Blake, Garnett, and Co., Specimen of Printing Types (Sheffield, 1819. St Bride Library accession number 6027, shelf reference 163). This specimen was recently digitised by St Bride Foundation. Their digitised collection of pre-1831 type specimens can be viewed at (note from the editors).
  20. As ‘English Two Line Sans-Surryphs’. Blake & Stephenson, Specimen of Printing Types (Sheffield, 1838. St Bride Library accession number 20262) (note from the editors).
  21. As ‘English Two Line Grotesque’ (note from the editors).
  22. Horace Wells, Cincinnati Type Foundry (Cincinnati, 1840s) and L Johnson (Philadelphia, 1853). The type also makes an appearance as late as 1895 in the seventeenth specimen book of MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan Co. (Philadelphia, 1895. St Bride accession number 26297) as ‘Two-Line Small Pica Gothic’ (note from the editors).
  23. ‘In fact the typefounders were the only professional makers of letters who refused to have anything to do with [sanserif letters] … It seems quite possible that they dismissed the style as a bizarre and amateurish whim that was clearly not going to last. That is why I think that the Caslon Egyptian – which is shown halfway down a page in the Caslon specimen and is given no special emphasis – may possibly have been ordered by a client rather than originated by the foundry, and that the foundry just suppressed its principles, took the money and made the type. Eventually, but not until the later 1820s, the typefounders did give in and started following the trend, with the ‘Sans-serif’ type from Figgins, and the ‘Grotesque’ from Thorowgood … It would be nice if we could find a contemporary example of the Caslon Egyptian used in a real book, not just a type book, since that might give a clue to the identity of the possible client – if there was one. James Mosley, ‘The Nymph and the Grot, an update’, op cit (note from the editors).
  24. ‘There is no punctuation in the original showing, which is one reason, among several, for thinking that the type was perhaps experimental and incomplete. There are no figures.’ James Mosley, posted on Typophile (30 November 2008) (note from the editors).
  25. ‘Several sorts in the newly cast type had changed for the worse. The new C was now a clumsy design, D was narrower than the original, and O had also been remade … Had the first matrices been lost or damaged? We do not know, but it seems clear that whoever supplied the new ones was not a skilled operative.’ Ibid (note from the editors).
  26. I M Imprimit is the private press of Ian Mortimer, set up in 1969 with a single Albion hand press. Mortimer started to print his own wood-cuts and wood-engravings before extending his activities to letterpress printing, building up a large range of foundry types and the largest collection of wood poster types in the UK. The press currently holds six Albion presses and a large Columbian. In 1996 Mortimer was appointed OBE for Services to Fine Printing (note from the editors).
  27. In 1996/7, the materials of Stephenson, Blake & Co. were purchased by the Type Museum (later renamed the Type Archive) in London, with the aid of a unique grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. The matrices for Caslon’s Egyptian are stored in an old iron safe numbered S5 (tray 45). This information has also been written in pencil on the relevant page of the 1816 Caslon specimen which was also at the Type Archive. Since the closure of the archive in 2022, the Stephenson Blake Collection is the responsibility of the Victoria & Albert Museum on an interim basis, temporarily housed by the Science Museum Group in its National Collections Centre in Wroughton. The Stephenson Blake Collection consists of the stock, plant and archive of Stephenson Blake and Co. and comprises 2.5 million artefacts relating to typefounding from the sixteenth century to the twentieth, together with a library of type specimens and business records. Read more at The whereabouts of the punches remain unknown (note from the editors).
  28. It is the only known version of the fount, as none of the original type or its subsequent revivals survived. It was used by Ian Mortimer of I M Imprimit in 1988 for the first setting of the ‘Caslon’s Egyptian: the first sanserif type’. Mortimer also used the fount in his Ornamented Types, the first complete printing and publication of an unique collection of 23 alphabets from the foundry of Louis John Pouchée in the collection of the St Bride Library, with an introduction by James Mosley. Ornamented Types: Twenty-three alphabets from the foundry of Louis John Pouchée (London: I M Imprimit and St Bride Printing Library, 1990–94) (note from the editors).