'A Tale of Fonts' illuminates the history of the House of Elzevier
Elsevier works with Leiden University scholars to publish book about its historic namesake
By Len Maniace Posted on 1 May 2013
The drawing of a 17th-century print shop, staffed by men in long coats, culottes and stockings, looks quaint today. The place portrayed, however, was the high-tech, ideas-and-information industry of its time, perhaps not unlike the modern-day Elsevier.
The print shop, which included a bookstore and a book bindery, was part of a publishing business that made its home amidst the buildings that housed the University of Leiden, then one of the leading intellectual centers of the western world. Philosophers, historians and scientists flocked to the university in the northern Netherlands to study, to teach and to write. And when they wrote, it was often this publisher who brought their ideas to western world’s attention. In time, those writers included thinkers like Descartes, Huygens and Galileo.
Owned by the Elzevier family, the publishing house operated from 1580 to 1713 and is the organization from which our company takes its name, though the current business is not otherwise related.
Now, in an unusual piece of scholarship and cooperation with the University of Leiden, Elsevier is publishing A Tale of Fonts: Exploring the Heritage of the Elzeviers, a book that provides a history of that family-owned business and what amounts to snapshots of the era’s printing business that was so important to the intellectual ferment of the time.
“The Elzeviers were considered among the best printers of that era, and their location at the University of Leiden was crucial for their success,” said Dr. Paul Hoftijzer, a professor of media studies at the university.
Dr. Hoftijzer wrote the first of the three volumes that make up A Tale of Fonts. His is a 30-page booklet that tells the story of the rise and the fall of the Elzevier publishing business, which also had operations in The Hague, Amsterdam and Utrecht. The book also contains a foreword by Elsevier CEO Ron Mobed.
The other two volumes are catalogs. The first, published in 1658, contains a sample of the company’s 42 different typefaces, ornamental letters and other print decorations from which an author would chose for his book. The second, which dates from 1713, is an auction list of everything owned by the then-failing company: printing presses, punches and molds to make fonts, as well as 5,890 kilos of cast lead type, Dr. Hoftijzer writes.
The quantity and quality of a company’s fonts were a major investment in hardware for printers of that era, and Elzevier owned an extensive collection — not only fonts for European lettering (Roman, italic and gothic), but also for non-Western typefaces, such as Hebrew, Chaldaic, Rabbinical, Aramaic, Arabic, Persian, Aethiopic, Samaritan and Greek, all in various sizes.
The range of typefaces required experts in those languages. They most likely came from the university, part of the complex ecosystem that Elzevier contributed to, which also included skilled typesetters and printers, said Kasper van Ommen, coordinator of the the university library’s Scaliger Institute, whose goal is to encourage research use of the library’s vast special collections. It was van Ommen who came up with the idea and worked closely with Ylann Schemm, Senior Corporate Responsibility Manager and manager of the Elsevier Heritage Collection, to bring it to fruition. [note color="#ffffff" position="right" width=400 margin=10 align="alignright"]
A Tale of Fonts
A Tale of Fonts: Exploring the Heritage of the Elzeviers was created as a gift book. It has a gold-colored cover, with a Florentine marbled pocket that holds three slim volumes. The first is a history of the Elzeviers, their publishing innovation and print types (22.5 cm. x 19.8 cm. bound in black hardboard). The other two are font catalogs. One, from 1658, captures the business at its height (20.5 cm. x 16 cm. printed on rough cream paper and bound with colored thread.) The other, from 1713 and the company's end, contains details on fonts and other print-shop equipment sold at auction by the Elzeviers. (15 cm. x 20cm., printed on cream paper and bound with colored thread). The book will be available later this spring in the Elsevier Store for $20, or about €15.60 or £13. [/note]
“The catalog was how Elzevier showed customers the many different typefaces they could publish in — its way of saying they were capable of taking on any jobs,” van Ommen said. The range of typefaces, many of which had little commercial use outside the academic world, allowed Elsevier to remain the University of Leiden’s printer until 1712, Dr. Hoftijzer writes. That was an important and steady source of business that included student dissertations and professorial writings.
The company’s business went well beyond scholarly publications, however. An enterprising company always looking for a new niche to fill; it published a series of pocket-sized geographical descriptions and good editions of classical authors, and even was known to pirate bestsellers from other countries – something that would clearly put it on the other side of the content piracy issue for the modern-day Elsevier.
By the late 1600s, however, the quality of Elzevier’s work was slipping, even before Abraham III Elzevier took over the firm in 1681. He was more interested in Leiden’s municipal government, where he held several positions, than in the printing business. University of Leiden records, writes Dr. Hoftijzer, “are full of complaints about the university printer’s sloppy printing and the high prices that he demanded.”
Abraham III Elzevier died in July 1712 and appeared to be bankrupt. The company’s assets were sold off at auction in February 1713, which required production of the second catalog that listed the company’s possessions that would go up for sale.“Abraham had lost interest in printing, and there were no offspring interested in taking over the business,” van Ommen said. “Furthermore, people had lost faith in the good Elzevier name by then. To all things does come an end.”
Most of the equipment was bought by Pieter van der Aa, who then opened his own printing business on the same location as that of the Elzeviers. Some of the type is preserved by the Dutch printing and publishing firm Koninklijke Joh. Enschedé in its company museum. Other type material found their way to New York, where it was sold to other printers, leaving Dr. Hoftijzer to speculate that some of the last remains of this great historic Dutch printer could survive forgotten, in some corner of the US.
Producing the book
A Tale of Fonts: Exploring the Heritage of the Elzeviersgrew out of a partnership between the University of Leiden and Elsevier.
Dr. Paul Hoftijzer, a professor of media studies at the university, mentioned to his collaborators at Elsevier that the library had two very rare documents: a catalog of the printer’s various typefaces — and all of the printer’s assets that were to be sold at auction.
Kasper van Ommen, coordinator of the university library’s Scaliger Institute, came up with the idea of doing a collaborative book together with Elsevier. They worked closely with Ylann Schemm, Senior Corporate Responsibility Manager at Elsevier, who manages the Elsevier Heritage Collection. Schemm set up the partnership with the Scaliger in January 2012 to boost usage of the collection by rare book scholars through annual scholarships and collaboration.
The unique design of the font book was the brainchild of Niek de Roo, an Elsevier Amsterdam-based designer who made numerous trips to the University of Leiden Special Collections to study the catalogs as historical and aesthetic artifacts, trundling back and forth between the modern Amsterdam print shop to compare materials, even locating the original Elzevier font type for use in the essay.
Additional design and project management reinforcement came from Natalia Rodriguez, an MA student in science communication at the Technical University of Delft, and Alexia Zafeiropoulou, an MA student in Book and Digital Media Studies at the University of Leiden, who both served as Corporate Responsibility interns at Elsevier.
Preserved for centuries at the University of Leiden, the catalogs are unique documents that tell the story of the Golden Age Elzeviers, Schemm said. “They are a very important source of inspiration for our modern company. After all, what we’re doing isn’t that different — publishing the great scientific minds of our age.”
The book was created as a gift for customers, including editors, librarians and other partners. That was the aim of Elsevier’ s reprint a few years ago of Galileo Galilei's Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche, intorno a due nuove scienze (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences).
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Elzevir or Elzevier?
The name of the family publishing firm was spelled several different ways by contemporaries, as was typical of the Golden Age, there was no real consistency in spelling. The most common spelling isElzevier, according to Donna Sy, who established the online catalog for the Elsevier Heritage Collection.Elsevierwas another common spelling but is now avoided by scholars because of confusion with the modern company. [/note]
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The Elsevier logo
Along with its name, the modern-day Elsevier shares one other important feature: the Non Solus printer's mark. This emblem features an old man standing beneath a vine-entwined elm tree under on which inscribed the Latin term Non Solus (not alone).
The earliest appearance of this symbol goes back to approximately 1624, said Dr. Hoftijzer, whose expertise on the Elzevier’s led the development of the book Tale of Fonts: Exploring the Heritage of the Elzeviers. The printer’s mark may not be original to the company; earlier printers in France, such as the famous Estienne family, also used the symbol of a man standing next to an olive tree. “It’s been a durable symbol of quality that has stuck in people’s minds,” Dr. Hoftijzer,
There is some debate over the meaning of the original Elzevir printer’s mark, according to A Brief History of Elsevier, published by Elsevier on the 125th anniversary of the modern company in 2005. Art historian Lucy Schlüter suggests that the old man represents a wise scholar, a philosopher — evoking Erasmus’ image of Socrates sitting under a tree in a rural setting delivering fruitful and inspiring lectures. In this context the intertwined tree and vine represent a fruitful relationship.
Viewed this way, the image could represent the symbiotic relationship between publisher and scholar. The addition of the Non Solus inscription reinforces the message that publishers, like the elm tree, are needed to provide sturdy support for scholars, just as surely as scholars, the vine, are needed to produce fruit. Publishers and scholars cannot do it alone; they need each other. [/note] [divider]
The Elsevier Heritage Collection
Elsevier has 2,000 rare books and 1,000 distinct titles published by the original Elzevier family publishing house from 1580 to 1712. Most of these are kept in museum cases in Elsevier's Amsterdam headquarters. You can view the the catalog and book covers online at elsevierheritagecollection.org. [divider]
Reporting for Elsevier Connect
Len Maniace is an Executive Editor for Global Internal Communications at Elsevier. He worked 32 years as a journalist, mostly with Gannett in New York (The Journal News), reporting on science, medicine, environment, health-policy and government, as well as serving as assistant city editor. He later covered breaking news in New York City for theNew York Post. Outside of work, he leads an environmental sustainability program for a volunteer, nonprofit group in his New York City neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens. He is married and has two sons.
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