Special sorts (also called pi characters, peculiars or arbitraries) were those characters needed to set a book which were not contained in the regular font. They had to be individually made — we are in the realm of hot metal here, hand setting or Monotype. The Font Glossary at fonts.com defines it under pi character.

 a. face, b. body or shank, c. point size, 1. shoulder, 2. nick, 3. groove, 4. foot.

a. face, b. body or shank, c. point size, 1. shoulder, 2. nick, 3. groove, 4. foot.

“Sort” was the word for each individual piece of type, cast in metal to a regular height and depth. The depth would be determined by the type size — e.g. a 12 point type would be 12 pts. deep (dimension c. in the diagram) unless it had the leading added to it — a book set in 12/14 type (12 point type with 2 point leading) might have a 14pt depth, so that the compositor didn’t have to bother inserting a 2pt lead between the lines. This would be referred to as 12pt type on a 14pt body. In this context a 2pt lead would be a long strip of metal 2 pts. wide: everything had a physical manifestation in those days. Type height would be the same across all jobs so that all the type would stand at the same height allowing it to be printed with an even impression, though the pressmen would still have to beat it down with wooden battens and insert slips of paper to get all the types and illustrations perfectly level. Type height in UK, Canada and USA was 0.918 inches; it was slightly higher in European countries.

The sorts would be originated by drawing or by combining elements from different fonts. The image would be used to engrave out of a block of metal a recessed image of the sort. This matrix was similar to the matrixes for all the other characters in the font. The job of typecasting was to call up the correct matrix, squirt some molten type metal into it (lead with some tin and antimony), and eject a piece of type in correct sequence. If the matrix for the special sort couldn’t be accommodated into the array of fonts for the job, the individual sort would be inserted into the galleys later by hand.

photoThe special sorts matrices shown in the photo give an idea of what the matrix would look like. The circles are simply the bottoms of some of them; so you have five up and five down in the picture. As you can see, the matrix contains a right-reading recessed image of the sort: the type cast from the matrix will be reversed, wrong-reading, so that when inked and printed it will appear right-reading on the page.

I have these special sorts matrices because when I came over to the USA in 1974, I brought with me a manuscript which had started in production in Britain, but had had to be transferred to USA because of short-working imposed by the government to conserve electricity because of a national coal miners’ strike. Special sorts had already been made before we pulled the job, and, being special, were of course of no use for any other book. The book was eventually set by Linotype in Binghamton, NY. These matrices being thus useless, I strung them on a leather thong and wore them round my neck for some time as a decorative reminder of a craft already in decline.