House Numbers & Chinoiserie

The style of common American house numbers was influenced by Chinese design.

There is a fairly ubiquitous design style to the address numbers on American houses. While there are some variations to the design it’s essentially a brush script typeface.

The earliest example of this typeface is the 1927 H. W. Knight & Son catalog of letters & numbers, a catalog of physical type to be used in signage, monuments, headstones, etc. Described as simply “Door Numbers” with no comment on the design, the catalog offers two different styles of numbers with the other being more of a traditional serif typeface. It’s the brush script set of numbers though that we see most frequently, but why?

A collection of houses with variations of the typeface found in the Knight & Son catalog.

Chinoiserie

From the late 17th through the 18th century there was a European fascination with things from the East and in particular China. Europeans emulated the Chinese decorative style and incorporated it into their own work. “Chinoiserie” is essentially French for “Chinese style” and came to encapsulate this orientalist movement of European produced creations that were designed in a (sometimes loose interpretation of) Chinese style. In the 19th century there was a Chinoiserie revival which lasted into the 1920s. The Art Deco movement was strongly influenced by designs from China (just look at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre). Which brings us back to H. W. Knight & Son in 1927.

Some examples of Chinoiserie and how the Chinese design style influenced the Rococo style of the 18th century.
The Chinoiserie revival of the 19th century extended into the Art Deco of the 1920s.

The design of the H.W. Knight house numbers was influenced by the Art Deco Chinoiserie style of the day. Looking at traditional Chinese calligraphy as well as more modern Chinese inspired fonts it’s easy to draw a connection between these house numbers and Chinese designs. In 2006 Hoefler&Co. created the font Bayside which is a new font inspired by the H. W. Knight & Son typeface.

Drawing on the script numbers from the the 1927 H. W. Knight & Son catalog, Hoefler&Co. created the font Bayside.

Uppercase & Lowercase

The terms we use for different letterforms come from how they were stored.

In the beginning, there were capital letters (majuscule letters). The written languages of the Ancient Greeks and Romans were both in all caps. The Roman square capitals and the Roman calligraphic script eventually generated Uncial script. Uncial was used between the 4th and 8th centuries and continued the style of all caps. Around the late 8th century however, the Benedictine monks of Corbie Abbey in France began using a new style of writing which became the Carolingian script. Carolingian could be written faster than Uncial script because it used a new style of letters: lowercase (minuscule letters). What this meant was that some European countries now had two different styles for each letter of the alphabet. These different letterforms meant the same things, and were pronounced the same ways, but they looked different.

While these letterforms started off isolated to their respective styles of writing, over the centuries they began to commingle. This merger of letterforms was partially inspired by the decorative initial caps in illuminated manuscripts. It wasn’t until the 14th century that grammatical rules began to define when to use a majuscule letterform in otherwise minuscule text (such as capitalizing the start of a sentence, or someone’s name, etc).

Uncial script on the left (a portion taken from The Book of Kells) compared to Carolingian script on the right.

Majuscule minuscule, uppercase lowercase

Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press to Europe in 1439. The printing press allowed individual metal letters to be assembled together to print information. All of these metal letters were organized into trays/drawers/cases. The majuscule letters were used less often and so were placed higher up. The minuscule letters were used the most and were placed the closest to the worker setting the type. Because of their position these higher elevated majuscule letters became known as “uppercase” while the easier to reach minuscule letters became “lowercase.”

A 20th century type drawer/case.

An explanation of uppercase and lowercase letters and how these terms originated with the printing press.

Added bonus: Not all languages have uppercase and lowercase letters. Unicase languages include Arabic, Hebrew, and Georgian to name a few. That said, while Arabic doesn’t have the capitalization rules that Latin derived languages now have, Arabic does utilize the IMFI writing system. Based on the position of the letter in a word or sentence (initial, medial, final, or isolated), one of four different shapes are used. So instead of the two letter form variations that the Roman alphabet has Arabic has four but for different reasons.

Comic Sans

The typeface designed for children that, through misuse, has became the butt of designer jokes.

In 1994 Microsoft designer Vincent Connare was tasked with creating a new typeface for the children’s program Microsoft Bob. To appeal to kids, Connare created a typeface that mimicked the letterforms found in comic books. Thus was born, Comic Sans.

Comic Sans was widely distributed with Windows 95 as well as with every Macintosh by 1996. This meant that almost everyone who owned a computer had access to Comic Sans. People were free to use the font in anyway they saw fit. Comic Sans, the playful typeface intended for children, soon found itself being misused on everything from local government memos, to resumes, to lost pet signs, etc. It’s these kinds of misuses that made Comic Sans the butt of so many jokes and the target of so much derision. Thus began Comic Sans’ ignominious distinction as one of the worst fonts ever made.

Just a few of the ridiculous uses of Comic Sans in the wild.

Greater Accessibility

Despite people’s low opinion of it, Comic Sans has advantages over other fonts. In mimicking the handwriting style of comic book fonts the letters of Comic Sans have irregular lines. The letters aren’t perfectly straight nor do they have or perfectly even curves. These irregularities make Comic Sans a more accessible font for people with dyslexia. Numerous dyslexia associations have said that Comic Sans is the best font for dyslexics because of its “character disambiguation” and “variation in letter heights.”

Ultimately it’s easy to make fun of Comic Sans because of how people have misused it, but these jokes say more about the person who chose to use Comic Sans than the font itself. Comic Sans is a font designed for children, not for general use. Most people aren’t designers and they’re simply picking something different, something fun. But as a rule of thumb, unless you are designing for children, it’s probably best to not use Comic Sans.

Indiana Jones and the Letter “J”

The letter “J” was the last letter added to the alphabet and probably wouldn’t have been a part of the crusaders’ trap.

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Indy has to retrieve the Holy Grail in order to stop the Nazis and save his father – a classic MacGuffin. Between him and the Grail however are a series of traps constructed by knights of the First Crusade. One of these traps is a floor with flat stones individually marked with various letters of the alphabet. He is “to proceed in the footsteps of the word” and only step on the floor stones that spell the name of God. The name of God in this case is Jehovah but Indy makes the mistake of stepping on the letter “J” whereby the floor crumbles. He then remembers that in the Latin alphabet the first letter in the name Jehovah is actually an “I”.

the last letter of the alphabet

Jehovah in Latin was originally spelled “Iehouah” with a capital “I” because the letter “J” hadn’t been invented yet. This also means that Jesus’s name wasn’t “Jesus” in his lifetime. In Hebrew he was Yeshua or Yehoshua, or in Aramaic he was Isho or Yeshu. For a long time the letter “J” was just a fancy way of writing the letter “I”. It wasn’t until 1524 that Italian grammarian Gian Giorgio Trissino proposed separating the two letter forms to become two separate letters with two separate sounds, and in so doing made the letter “J” the last letter added to our alphabet.

This raises a typographical problem with the film. The letter “J” is part of the trap but it didn’t become a part of the alphabet until after 1524, a few hundred years after the First Crusade which was from 1096-1099. So we have to conclude that either:

  • the knights didn’t build the trap for more than 400 years after the First Crusade, or …
  • every now and then the immortal knight of the Grail updates the trap to include new letter forms over the centuries to keep the trap up to date with the times, or …
  • the writers of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade didn’t do much alphabet research and incredibly audiences were willing to overlook such a flagrant error.