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How Tobias Frere-Jones Discovered NYC’s Lost Neighborhood Of Type

In the 19th century, nearly all type foundries were clustered in Lower Manhattan–for good reason.

In the aftermath of his dramatic split with erstwhile partner Jonathan Hoefler, type designer Tobias Frere-Jones has been keeping busy. He has launched a new blog at Frerejones.com, and in his first post, he explains how he discovered an entirely new district in the heart of New York. Forget Tribeca, Soho, or Chelsea: In the early 19th century, New York once had an entire neighborhood dedicated to typography.

Noticing in the pages of some old type specimen books that many of the 19th-century type foundries were located close to one another, Frere-Jones tracked down the address of every foundry active in New York between 1828 and 1909, then mapped them on Google Earth. What he found was that all of the buildings of the period have been demolished, and even many of the streets are gone. But nearly all type foundries were clustered around lower Manhattan (serendipitously, near Fast Company‘s offices).

Title pages from the specimen books of James Conner’s Sons United States Type Foundry (1891) and Farmer, Little & Co Type Founders (1882)

“But why were they concentrated here, and not scattered throughout the city like the warehouses, the breweries, the stables, and the rest?” Frere-Jones writes. “This wasn’t the old Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, all packed together at the end of the island. The city was two and a half miles long by the middle of the 19th century, with full development extending to 14th Street.”

There’s a good reason for it. All of the type foundries of the time were, understandably, clustered around the newspaper presses. Type was big, heavy, and made of metal, so it made sense to keep it as close as possible to a foundry’s biggest customers. And why were the newspapers there? Because that’s where the newspapers’ “most frequent subject and adversary” was, according to Frere-Jones: City Hall!

The foundries, with City Hall and New York’s major newspapers

“So it seems that New York’s ‘Type Ward’ was placed here by the blind arithmetic of history,” Frere-Jones says. “If the local government had sought its permanent home 10 or 30 or 50 years later, City Hall would be somewhere else, with the newspapers and type foundries following.”

If Frere-Jones keeps on posting articles like this, maybe what we’ve lost in a typographer we’ve gained in an eminently readable type historian. Check out the full post here.

About the author

John Brownlee is a design writer who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. You can email him at john.brownlee+fastco@gmail.com.

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