In typography, a slab serif (also called mechanistic, square serif, antique or Egyptian) typeface is a type of serif typeface characterized by thick, block-like serifs. Serif terminals may be either blunt and angular (Rockwell), or rounded (Courier). Slab serifs were invented in and most popular during the nineteenth century.
Slab serifs form a large and varied genre. Some such as Rockwell have a geometric design with minimal variation in stroke width: they are sometimes described as sans-serif fonts with added serifs. Others such as those of the Clarendon genre have a structure more like most other serif fonts, though with larger and more obvious serifs. These designs may have bracketed serifs which increase width along their length before merging with the main strokes of the letters, while on geometrics the serifs have a constant width.
Display-oriented slab serifs are often extremely bold, intended to grab the reader's attention on a poster, while slab serifs oriented towards legibility at small sizes show less extreme characteristics. Some fonts oriented towards small print use and printing on poor-quality newsprint paper may have slab serifs to increase legibility, while their other features are closer to conventional book type fonts.
As the printing of advertising material began to expand in the early nineteenth century, new and notionally more attention-grabbing typefaces were needed. Poster-size types began to be developed that were not merely magnified forms of book type, but very different and bolder. Some were developments of designs of the previous fifty years, such as bold and ultra-bold types such as fat faces, which were related to Didone types but much bolder. Others had completely new structures: reverse-contrast letterforms, sans-serif and slab-serif were new departures at this period. Writing in 1825, the printer and social reformer Thomas Curson Hansard wrote with amusement that slab-serif and other such display types were 'the outrageous kind of face only adapted for placards, posting-bills, invitations to the wheel of Fortune...Fashion and Fancy commonly frolic from one extreme to another.'
Following Napoleon's Egyptian campaign and dissemination of images and descriptions via publications like Description de l'Égypte (1809) an intense cultural fascination with all things Egyptian followed. Suites of contemporary parlor furniture were produced resembling furniture found in tombs. Multicolored woodblock printed wallpaper could make a dining room in Edinburgh or Chicago feel like Luxor. While there was no relationship between Egyptian writing systems and slab serif types, either shrewd marketing or honest confusion led to slab serifs often being called Egyptians, and many early ones are named for the subject: Cairo, Karnak, and Memphis. The common metonym "Egyptian" is derived from a craze for Egyptian artifacts in Europe and North America in the early nineteenth century, which led typefounders producing Slab Serifs after Figgins' work to call their designs Egyptian. However, the term Egyptian had previously been used to describe sans-serif types in England, so the term 'Antique' was used by British and American typefounders. The term Egyptian was adopted by French and German foundries, where it became Egyptienne. A lighter style of slab serif with a single width of strokes was called 'engravers face' since it resembled the monoline structure of metal engravings.
Slab serifs declined following the growing popularity of sans-serif faces, with which they always competed, and the revival of interest in old-style serif fonts as part of the Arts and Crafts movement. However, they have been regularly revived and redesigned since the nineteenth century both in modernised forms and in retro use inspired by the exuberance of Victorian design, a style of design known as Victoriana. Notable collections of original wood type are held by the Hamilton in Wisconsin and the University of Texas at Austin, collected by Rob Roy Kelly, writer of a well-known book on American poster types. Adobe Systems has released a large collection of digitisations inspired by nineteenth-century wood type.
Because of the clear, bold nature of the large serifs, slab serif designs are often used for small print, for example in printing with typewriters and on newsprint paper. Joanna, Excelsior, TheSerif, FF Meta Serif and Guardian Egyptian are examples of newspaper and small print-orientated typefaces with some slab serif characteristics, often most visible in the bold weights.
The term 'slab-serif' itself is not that old: an early citation of it dates to 1954.
Sub-classifications of slab-serif
There are four subgroups of slab serif typefaces:
Clarendon typefaces, unlike other slab serifs, actually have some bracketing and some contrast in size in the actual serif. Many have similarity to 19th century serif designs in bold weight, with considerable variation in stroke weight. Examples include Clarendon and Egyptienne.
The most common slab serif typefaces, Neo-grotesque have no bracketing and evenly weighted stems and serifs. Examples include Rockwell, Memphis and Lubalin. The exact letterform types vary, with some similar to neo-grotesque or realist sans-serif fonts while others have a more geometric design.
In the Italienne model, also known as French Clarendon type, the serifs are even heavier than the stems, forging a dramatic, attention-drawing effect. This is known as reverse-contrast type. It is popularly associated with wild-west printing and use in circus and other posters, and is commonly seen in Western movies. It was most popular from the 1860s until the early twentieth century, particularly in the United States, although the basic concept originates from London printing of the 1820s. It has often been revived since, for example by Robert Harling as Playbill and more recently by Adrian Frutiger as Westside.
Typewriter slab serif typefaces are named for their use in strike-on typewriting. These faces originated in monospaced format with fixed-width, meaning that every character takes up exactly the same amount of horizontal space. This feature is necessitated by the nature of the typewriter apparatus. Examples include Courier (on the Neo-grotesque model) and Prestige Elite ( on the Clarendon model).
A considerable variety of other names have been used, particularly in the 19th century: at the time the separation between typeface name and genre had yet to become established, so it is not clear if a name describes a specific typeface or is meant to refer to a subgenre. For example, slab serifs on the French Clarendon model were also called 'Celtic', 'Belgian', 'Aldine' and 'Teutonic' by American printers, as well as 'Tuscan', a name which refers to slab serifs with diamond-shaped points on the sides of the letterform.
- "Sentinel: historical background". Hoefler & Frere-Jones. Retrieved 15 July 2015.
- Challand, Skylar. "Know your type: Clarendon". IDSGN. Retrieved 13 August 2015.
- Hansard, Thomas Curson (1825). Typographia, an Historical Sketch of the Origin and Progress of the Art of Printing. p. 618. Retrieved 12 August 2015.
- James Mosley, The Nymph and the Grot: the revival of the sanserif letter. London: Friends of the St Bride Printing Library, 1999.
- Carter, E., Day. B, Meggs P.: “Typographic Design: Form and Communication, Third Edition”, page 35. John Wiley & Sons, 2002.
- "Rob Roy Kelly Wood Type Collection". University of Texas. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
- Biggs, John (1954). The Use of Type: The Practice of Typography. Blandford Press.
- "Sentinel's Ancestors". Hoefler & Frere-Jones. Retrieved 14 August 2015.
- Frere-Jones, Tobias. "Scrambled Eggs & Serifs". Frere-Jones Type. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
- "Tuscan no. 132". Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection. University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
- "Teutonic". TTKWTC. UTA. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
- George Bruce & Co. of New York, 1828 (& other) specimen books. Many examples of early slab serif type alongside other period display types.