Autumn 2013

A tradition with breaks

Stencil typefaces – late arrivals on the typographic scene – are going in new directions and rediscovering their history.

Over the past decade or so, stencil letters have attracted the attention of growing numbers of typeface designers. They, in turn, have made many new stencil typefaces of ingenuity and even beauty. But given that stencil letters have been present throughout the history of type making, their entry onto the typographic scene has been comparatively recent. As late as 1950, in the specimen for Tea-Chest, Stephenson Blake’s contribution to new stencil typefaces of the 1930s, the copywriter found it strange that ‘stencilled letter-forms have had no place in the spate of type designs which in recent years, has descended with such fury upon the unsuspecting printer and typographer.’

A few years later, in what may be the first published survey of stencil typefaces (‘Stencil types’, The British Printer, October 1958), R. S. Hutchings thought it necessary to announce his subject as ‘a neglected category of type design’ that was still awaiting ‘effective exploitation by type designers’.

Despite his claim of neglect, Hutchings was still able to list 41 stencil types that had been made in the previous three decades, though admittedly his definition of just what constituted one was fairly broad. But one can sympathise with the claim and at first demur to his assertion (not quite true, as it turns out) that stencil typefaces were a twentieth-century phenomenon. Typefaces that typify stencil letters – ionics and clarendons, adapted to stencil work – were not introduced until 1937. Why so late? The answer is not entirely clear, though the history of stencil letters offers a few clues.


Marsh Stencil, catalogue for stencil cutting machines and supplies, Belleville, Illinois, ca. 1947.
stencil disk, invented by Eugene L. Tarbox in 1868 and manufactured by the New York Stencil Works, a company founded that year in New York City by Eugene and his brothers Jerome and Henry Tarbox. The characters are punched out of brass. 255mm dia.


Eric Kindel, editor and associate professor, University of Reading

Read the full version in Eye no. 86 vol. 22 2013

Eye 86 cover

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue. You can see what Eye 86 looks like at Eye before You Buy on Vimeo.

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