[Posted on the 12th Day of Christmas) Ever wonder where the interesting type came from on those “old” animated TV shows? Case in point: Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.
Up until the 1960s, it was very common to have an in-house artist do the hand-lettering for opening and closing credits, album covers. posters , and something called lobby cards—which ranged from posters to hand-lettered bios of the cast. If you wanted a hand-lettered look for an advertisement or opening titles, but didn’t have immediate access to a trained lettering artist, you could order what you needed from a photo lettering service. The biggest one was called Photolettering. Its main office was in New York but had locations in larger cities around the country. Beginning in the 1930s, you could order the style you wanted and have it customized to fit a particular space requirement. This was done by using actual hand-drawn alphabets on film strips. The custom fitting was accomplished by an anamorphic lens that could bend, stretch, slant and otherwise distort a headline as it was exposed to photosensitive paper, which yielded effects that we now associate with digital type.
I have a couple of ancient (okay, They're actually 1960s vintage) Photolettering catalogs and searched for the above “Rudolph” style of lettering. There is an alphabet that matches pretty well: “Viva” Vol.2 p.647. (The Photolettering Library was eventually so large it required 3 volumes) The one-line catalog I use is called an index. The above reference was taken from there. The next image is from a font you can actually download called Island of Misfit Toys. That name has to be a giveaway. It’s based upon the title lettering from the original 1964 TV Special. It’s not really the style I thought it was but fits into the same category of hand lettering popular in the ’50s and ’60s. But its close.
Island of Misfit Toys is a free digital font based on the titles in the Rudolph TV Special
So what’s the actual origin of these letters. Well the image on the right side of the collage at the top of the page is from a book designed by Ben Shahn called “A Partridge in a Pear Tree.” Ben Shahn was what has been classified as a Social Realist or Commentary Artist. He was a Lithuanian immigrant who grew up in New York’s Lower East Side where he was exposed to the poverty of other immigrants living in poverty during the Great Depression. His art reflected this and he expressed it in a variety of Media: photography, painting, drawing, lithography and whatever else he put his hand to. His work and philosophy became so popular that he was asked to lecture at Harvard from 1967-68. His lectures were combined into a book called The Shape of Content, which has been used in many Art Appreciation classes.
[Incidentally, “A Partridge in a Pear Tree” was first printed in 1949. The one used here was printed in 1967 and has been part of our Christmas traditions since then.] The actual letter designs bear strong influences from Ben Shahn’s travels in Europe during one summer in the early 1930s. There he was influenced by mediaeval manuscripts, paintings by Giotto and Byzantine iconography, which all show up in his later work. If there is a lesson to be learned from this little excursion through history, it’s that Ecclesiastes was right when he said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
This is a portion of the "Bayeux Tapestry," depicting William the Conqueror's victory over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings (1066 AD) The original is about 231 feet long and 20 inches high. The lettering here bares a strong resemblance to the later lettering style of Ben Shawn. This is probably because Shawn and his wife vacationed in Europe in the early 1930s and toured museums and monasteries throughout France and Italy taking note of the artifacts on display everywhere. The typeface at the bottom is called “King Harold.” It’s based upon the letters on the Bayeux tapestry and is available for free.