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3. Sans serif Bishop Marks from 1673

posted on 17.03.2021, 15:01 authored by Jon MeltonJon Melton
TypeThursday London (in Cambridge) 09 May 2019

Symposium and Type Design Critique

Sans serif Bishop Marks from 1673

Practice-based historical research is utilized within the production of an alphabet of letterforms which explore the context for sans serif Bishop Marks from 1673. The limited published history and original primary examples were studied within the production of an experimental digital typeface of the date-stamp glyphs required within a functional computer font. The letterform modelling and characteristics represent a late seventeenth and eighteenth century typographic serif-less letterform idiom that informs the regular weight of the ETRVSCA Sans typeface (REF Multi-Component Output). The work is physically realized within the production of a letterpress type specimen of the font. This work makes a contribution of ‘new knowledge’ to type design history which has always accepted the sans serif letterform as being principally an early nineteenth-century phenomenon with only incidental and minimal development through the eighteenth century. This presentation proves that deliberately serif-less ‘sans’ typography was commonplace and public-facing throughout the age of the enlightenment, and that the production of hand stampers, originally in metal and later with removable component dates justifies these letters being described as ‘moveable type’.


Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II appointed a Postmaster General to control a postal delivery system that was widely abused and corrupted. The Colonel, Henry Bishop (1611-1691/2), introduced in 1661 a post office date recording stamping process to clearly mark all authorised post. ‘Bishop announced:’ “A stamp is invented that is putt upon every letter shewing the day of the moneth that every letter comes to the office, so that no Letter Carryer may dare detayne a letter from post to post; which before was usual” (Hendy, 1905, pp. 3-4). A forerunner of the much later date-cancelled postage stamp ‘the Penny black’ introduced in 1840 — these ‘Bishop Marks’, are thought to be first cut in metal and later from boxwood with the date of every month. Initially the cut numbers and letters were in a Roman serif face, but from 1673 a (curios) serif-less Roman was cut which appears to have had more affinity to primitive Saxon or early Graeco-Romano forms than the contemporary typefaces of the late seventeenth century. Some Bishop Mark stampers even appear to use a system of movable type date numbers to reduce the quantities of ink stamps needed.

Possibly devised for the ease and expediency of the ink-stamp cutter, or to dispense with the fragility of fine serifs, or perhaps to limit ink squash or clogging — these serif-less forms endured up until c.1787. These deliberate forms followed a classical Roman ideal, using abbreviations of two capital letters to indicate the month, with the Roman ‘V’ to represent ‘U’ in ‘AV’ for August, and ‘I’ for ‘J’ in ‘IV’ and ‘IY’ for the months of June and July. This practice of abbreviating the month in post office hand-stamping continued well into the 20th century until more mechanised forms of sorting and franking letters were introduced in general post offices.

More importantly for type historians these significant examples of a printed serif-less Sans letterforms precede the first sans serif typeface of c.1812-16 by a hundred and forty years. Examples of Bishop’s boxwood ink-stamps do not appear to have survived, although it’s possible examples may well reside in private stamp collections? But tens of thousands of ephemeral ‘Bishop Mark’ letters remain in existence amongst ‘pre-stamp’ collectors — offering the opportunity of a late seventeenth-century sans serif typeface revival. Why then does this deliberate and prolific sans in wide circulation, fail to be recorded within the recognised histories of the sans serif typeface development? A beautiful ‘everyday’ letter which has until now it seems, been completely overlook?

Research Question(s) Were serif-less letterforms prolific and commonplace throughout the eighteenth-century? How can the forms found in ‘Bishop Mark’s inform a Sans Typeface evocative of the serif-less letters of the eighteenth-century?

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