Ratdolt’s specimen. From “A Short Introduction to Graphic Design”, http://www.designhistory.org

The earliest type specimen is a broadside from Erhardt Ratdolt of Augsburg, from 1486. In the early days of printing printers would make their own type for their own exclusive use. By the 16th century however the profession of designer/punch cutter had become an independent business, and successful punch cutters/type founders would supply types to several printers. Obviously in a world without standard fonts a specimen sheet was an essential tool for doing business: otherwise nobody would be able to tell what your type looked like.

Today we are used to the generic type specimen book: for instance The Linotype Collection. My copy is from 1989, hardly “today” I acknowledge. Sadly it does not come in the form which used the word “Hamburgefonstiv” as so many did in this Germany-dominated industry. Each example lists all the characters in all the fonts which they offered for sale to typesetters in upper and lower case.

In the world of hot metal every typesetter or composition department — and there were lots of them — would produce their own type book. This was essential not just to let customers see what typefaces you had on offer, and in which sizes you could do them (because you needed to create a full set of matrices for every size you used, and offering every possible size would tie up all you capital before you had managed to set any type). There were also variations between one man’s Garamond, say, and another’s, so the type book was an essential tool for the book designer. The designer might like the cut of the Garamond at this plant, but finding that the 9pt size wasn’t available, would need to switch to an alternative supplier or face changing the design for the book. Here’s an example from The Cincinnatti Type Foundry.

Over the years the variability of font cutting became less and less but we didn’t get to true standardization in font design till the advent of film setters. In the earliest such machines the font would be carried on a film negative with the size being altered by changing the focal length while exposing the characters one at a time onto a photosensitive page. Once we went fully digital of course everybody was working from the same Garamond, Times Roman, Helvetica etc. as everyone else. The flexibility of the digital format has unsurprisingly encouraged type designers to create their own variants, so that paradoxically having a firm standard design as facilitated a vast efflorescence of variants.

This post from Medieval Manuscripts Provenance shows an equivalent “type specimen” sheet produced by a manuscript scribe.