by Art Chantry ( firstname.lastname@example.org)
ross f. george was probably the most familiar, most influential, most ubiquitous and the most important calligrapher, lettering artist, type designer and graphic designer of the last century. sure, we all know about herman zapf and frederic goudy and even billy-bob helvetica. but, this ross f. george guy launched a million ships. he taught america how to do lettering. we still use his typeface designs today everywhere in our digital universe as well. but, nobody seems to recognize ross f. george. why is this? i think it was because he was living in seattle. back then, seattle was so far off the beaten path that people in new york thought we made a living trapping furs. in fact, i still meet new yorkers who think that even today.
ross f. george was one of those entrepreneurs, a show-card writer “commercial artist” that existed in abundance during the first half of the century. these small fry guys learned their skills mail-order (those little ads in the back of magazines – “draw binky”, “be an artist, earn big money!”, “be your own boss!”. guys like this set up shops in their home towns and simply drew ‘show-cards” (often called “sho’cards” back then.) these were hand drawn cardboard sales signage and street signs and business cards and ads and murals whatever the customer ordered. they were do-it-all one stop shops for ‘art’. and they DID it all.
but, ross f. george was more ambitious than most and invented a custom set of of drawing ink pen nibs. each tip design made drawing a certain sort of artistic line a snap – each nib a different size and style. he called this the ‘speedball’ system for pen and brush. he had them mass produced and put them in art supply shops in attractive shelf and counter displays. he quickly learned that nobody knew how to use them. so, he went about putting together a companion booklet that taught you how to use these wonderful pen points to do the most wonderful things.
these little books were called the “speedball textbook for lettering and posters design for pen and brush”. they were full of lessons on how to draw letters and stuff using the pens he sold. he also crammed this little book FULL of cool examples, (by both himself and other pals) and hundreds of clip art illustration example images and the most amazingly novel typeface designs. every couple of years (starting way back in the 20’s or earlier), he would put out an updated version of his little book with a few new images and maybe a couple of hip new modern typefaces, while removing anything that looked so ‘old fashioned’ as to be out of style. he’d slap a new cover design on it and sell them in his display for around a buck. this issue i show you here is the 15th edition (1948.) i have over a dozen of these book, each one different.
basically, instruction books these little speedball books were not unusual. hundreds of other lettering artists and commercial artists had also put together little books of instructions – even sold them mail order. this was how graphic design was actually taught throughout most of the 20th century. (the idea of taking classes in ‘graphic design’ didn’t really become familiar until the 1970’s, the term ‘graphic designer’ [though it existed] didn’t become standard use until the 1960’s.) a ‘sign painter’ was always able to find work – even during the depression. in fact, woody guthrie supported himself as a signpainter while he hobo’d around america collecting songs. but, ross f. george’s speedball system was the cheapest and easiest to access. you could pick it up anywhere – anybody could buy his nibs and copy what he did in the book (to a point). the result was that his work was THE textbook for commercial art and type design for the ‘american century’.
flipping through on of these books (they are actually still in production today – albeit a much toned-down version) is like an avalanche of imagery we’ve all seen a million times. he made no effort to protect his copyrights (such an idea was still foreign to commercial artists – and even fine artists), so all of this stuff became ‘public domain’. as soon as people could use a photostat camera, they were directly copying his work and pasting it into their layouts. most of his typeface designs are still everywhere today – even in digital formats. since there were no copyrights on them, they were just taken by the professional corporate thieves and sold willy-nilly. many of his typeface designs are standard issue with your purchase of ‘whatever’. i spot his designs everywhere, even in cheezy tv used car ads. his typefaces are probably the most used this side of helvetica.
but, nobody knows much about this guy. there is usually a photo of him demonstrating in his book. and he lived and worked in seattle. but, that’s about it. one friend of mine (norman hathaway) has found examples of some of his showcards reproduced in old magazines. but, his name has been pretty much ignored from the history of graphic design.
why? well, there is a notoriously powerful east coast/nyc bias in the writing of the history of this graphic design stuff. the old truism that “if it didn’t happen in new york city, it didn’t happen” still holds true today – even though we now know that is a ridiculous attitude. new york (and therefore high academics) completely ignore any graphic design work done west of chicago, and barely admit chicago existed before the 1960’s. that is finally starting to (very very slowly) change. more and more massive volumes about design on the west coast is finally starting to be produced (saul bass, ed roth, california airbrushers, movie posters, etc.) so, that historical injustice (and sheer blindness) is starting to be remedied (not fast enough in my opinion, however.)
having lived in and near seattle most of my life, i have not been able to find out ANYTHING at all about mr. george. i know of nobody who recalls him or even knew he was based in seattle. there is no mention of his existence around these parts. but, then seattle is one of those cities that bulldozed itself and rebuilt every ten years or so. 90% of the population in seattle was born somewhere else. the average seattlite doesn’t have a cultural memory that stretches beyond the turn of the century (that’s 2000, not 1900). so, i think a critical history of the work and career and ience of ross f. george would make a really fine volume and research project (hint hint.)
AC:i’ve been collecting these sorts of books for almost 40 years. after the digital revolution, all of them became suddenly pretty worthless, though….academia has the most amazing blinders on. they still teach graphic design in the art department! or the industrial design department! or the journalism department! or the architecture department! i even taught at one school where the graphic design program was part of the interior design department!!! this stuff is still being figured out, no matter what NYC tells you….there’s so many of them that they become a blur. anything by E.C. Matthews seems to be a great ‘garbage dump’ sort of approach to lettering. there is one lettering dude who is so revered that he’s a sort of guru. his books are collected and treasured for the life philosophy he goes into. he’s almost a cult. i can’t remember his name, tho….i got a few atkinson books. also good are anything by herb agnew, the hunt brothers and (of course) the godly dan x. solo. but, then i like the trashy stuff. if you want beauty, look elsewhere….
…ross was a student of the revered hand letterer william hugh gordon. george worked with him to develop new nibs in order to increase speed when creating display lettering. that whole style of lettering was a huge business in the early part of the 20th century, as there was no easy way to obtain large sized or decorative lettering at the time, as most typesetting was primarily geared for text setting. creating large letters was difficult if you were a pen letterer (not a problem for brush wielders) as you had to ink both sides of a stroke, then go back and fill it in afterwards. george worked with his former teacher to develop a pen that could hold enough ink to enable wider pen strokes, in addition, their reservoir tip lessened the need to constantly dip your pen for more ink. once they cracked it – ross patented the design and took it to the hunt pen co. in new jersey. hunt was started by nib-making englishman who were the first to sell points that rolled smoothly across the paper. they were hugely successful and licensed george’s design.
ross created the booklets, helped manufacturer ink and ran a stable of lettering artists that provided lettering for silent films, slides, and advertising. ( Norman Hathaway )