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« Cristoforo: Reviving Columbus and font quality

Many years ago, the very first digital font I ever worked on was a version of Hermann Ihlenburg‘s 1892 typeface Columbus, for American Type Founders. I had an interest in it because it was used in the logotype for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, which I had long enjoyed. I never did anything serious with it, both because I did my revival by eye without benefit of scans or good quality originals, and because I didn’t know what I was doing back then. [UPDATE: I funded this typeface on Kickstarter in mid-​2012! As of Feb 2013 backers have received pre-​release versions of the regular and italic, but they are not “done.”]

Type specimen

Specimen — click for higher-​res sample

Ihlenburg is pretty darn obscure, btw. He had the misfortune to be prolific back in the late 19th century, when type designers got very little recognition, and typefaces were just starting to be given unique names. The main available info about him is in a 1993 article David Pankow wrote about Ihlenburg for the American Printing History Association’s journal, on the occasion of an archive of Ihlenberg material being assimilated by the Cary library at RIT (Pankow was then curator of the Cary, and editor of the APHA journal).

Fast forward almost 20 years to 2010-​11. While unpacking some boxes, I ran into some photocopies I had made of some good quality type specimens of Columbus, from early ATF specimen books. This was handy, because the earliest ATF book I have is about 1906, and the design had already been dropped by then. A quick search online verified that nobody had done a decent digital version yet. There’s a free version called by its original name, Columbus, by a fellow named Sam Wang, and an $18 commercial font called Beaumarchais from Scriptorium that is particularly awful, worse then the free font. Each has about 100 glyphs.

So I’ve been working on and off on doing a better version from digitized scans. It’s not “done” exactly, but it is already a whole lot better than either of the other versions currently available. I’m still tuning spacing and additional glyphs. I plan about 260 total glyphs, of which about 106 are in good shape right now, including alternate swash caps, which were not done in the previous digital revivals. I am using my old typeface as a placeholder and replacing glyphs as I fix them up.

I did a little bit of work on this font during the type busking at TypeCon New Orleans, and got some good feedback on the eszett and the spacing while I was there (thanks to Gary Munch et al).

I can’t call it Columbus, however: ATF’s trademark lapsed, and Monotype trademarked the same name for a 1992 Patricia Saunders typeface (celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ famous arrival, while Ihlenburg’s typeface was so named for the 400th anniversary). My previous attempt had for a while been called “Columbine” but that has taken some unfortunate connotations, so for now I’m calling it “Cristoforo,” after the sailor’s first name.

I’m still not sure what I’ll do with it. For now I am licensing it on special one-​off terms to a very small handful of companies doing material related to the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. Maybe I’ll do a commercial release at some point, who knows?

Here are samples of my work-​in-​progress and its nominal competitors. I’ll leave telling which is which as an exercise for the viewer—make your guess before you hover your cursor over the images, or read the comments.

Font 1 sample

Font 2 sample\

Font 3 sample

6 commentsto “Cristoforo: Reviving Columbus and font quality”

  • August 1, 2011
    Dan Gayle wrote

    What would you call the style of the lower case f? I see that a lot, and always assumed it was a Linotyp-​ism, but this would be earlier than that?

    [I’ve heard fhat tight Linotype-​style f called a “buttonhook” f; I don’t know how standard that usage is. It kind of bugs me in this typeface. I’m thinking about making an alternate lower-​case f with a more outgoing arch. The buttonhook style also makes the “ff” ligature problematic to design: the one I have right now kinda sucks, though I’ve been happy with the other f-​ligs I’ve made for the typeface to date. (The Linotype existed by then, even if it hadn’t taken over yet, btw.) I have the vague idea that letter overlap was a challenge even in foundry metal type, but this may be my ignorance on the issue. — T]

  • April 23, 2012
    Craig Eliason wrote

    What’s up with the crazy-​wide /​s/​?

    [That’s just the way it rolls, Craig! Wait until you see the variant S from Columbus Initials, which I will be building in as a swash alternate… seriously wack!—T]

  • May 4, 2013
    Alex C. wrote

    An interesting usage (c.1910) on a letterhead. Picture here:

  • June 2, 2013
    Thomas Phinney wrote

    Alex, that is fascinating! I had not previously seen any diacritics in the original typeface, so your image is incredibly helpful for that reason alone. I have revised my acute, grave, circumflex and caron accents throughout the typeface thanks to this!

  • July 18, 2013
    Alex C. wrote

    Glad to be of service, Thomas. It’s surprising how much you gleaned from a single grave accent.

    By the way, the creator of that letterhead sure loved his typefaces, in 1910! An interesting counter-​example to the modern ‘rule’ of using as few ‘fonts’ as possible. There are *nine* different typefaces in use, from script to possibly geometric sans-​serif, even a slab-​serif, with several display types; with five different ornamental separators. Every line is different. I’ll bear this in mind before admonishing anyone for ‘overuse’ of ‘fonts.’


  • July 18, 2013
    Thomas Phinney wrote

    Any clue as to how something would have been handled by the original designer is immensely useful.

    As for large numbers of jumbled fonts in one piece… well, that was the Victorian era norm for advertising and the like. But unless you are specifically trying to evoke that era, best not to go there today!

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