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A Guide to Blackletter

As the demand for books began to increased, the tradition of writing them out by hand in the very cursive Carolingian minuscule proved to be highly inefficient. A more straight angular style called Blackletter, or sometimes Gothic was developed in the mid-12th century to help speed up production. Blackletter was first used in Italy, France, and the low countries before spreading to Germany, but by the time it took hold there most of Western Europe was already moving on to the Roman based Antiqua style.

Blackletter in the form of Textualis was carved into type when Johannes Gutenberg printed the first Bible in Mainz in 1455. By 1480 it had been largely replaced by the Blackletter face Schwabacher, which remained very popular for about fifty years. At the turn of the 16th century Maximillan I, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire issued a new series of books and he commissioned a new Blackletter typeface specifically for them. This new face, Fraktur was so popular it became the staple of the German printing industry well into the 20th century. It was so commonly used that all Blackletter faces are very often incorrectly referred to as Fraktur. A more cursive script called Curslva was also employed by printers. While Schwabacher, Fraktur, and Curslva were the three dominant styles of typeface used in German speaking lands there were many variances within each grouping. By the time postcards came into production, Fraktur was not only being used on cards within the German Empire but in Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Estonia, and Latvia as well. Some postcard publishers in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland also used this face. Schwabacher did not completely die out in the 16th century because its more cursive form allowed it to be used in conjunction with Fractur in the same manner as italic lettering is used with Roman typefaces.

The calligraphic references in the Fraktur style invoked a pre-industrial folk heritage that the German people closely related to. This was especially true as a nationalist urges united the German States into an Empire. The populace closely identified themselves with this face and in turn they became identified with it. It was almost unpatriotic to publish a postcard using any other face and it also represented the local color that tourists came to expect. Antiqua had long been used alongside Blackletter but it had come to be thought of as a foreign script. This sentimental attachment played into the hands of the Nazis who embraced all iconic symbols that set Germany apart. They first embraced this face as a home grown foil against the cleaner fonts developed by the communists and degenerates of the Bauhaus, but when Nazi ideology incorporated the notion that Jews had dominated the German printing industry centuries ago they changed their doctrine. In 1941 Adolph Hitler declared that Gothic script was the equivalent of Jewish letters, and that all printers must switch to Roman based fonts. Despite this decree, Blackletter became so associated with Nazism in the postwar years that it was never used again as a standard typeface. Today however postcard collectors are faced with millions of antique postcards that have Blackletter printed on them. While the 26 letter Roman alphabet is used, the designs of these fonts are often different enough to make any text printed with them extremely difficult to impossible to read by anyone unfamiliar with the style.

The chart below starts with the Roman alphabet displayed in sans serif followed by a Schwabacher face and then six in Fraktur, the last being cursive. This is just a sampling of typefaces as there were many different designs, but it should be helpful if a deciphering of this script is needed. Note that in old Blackletter no distinction was made between i and j.

Alphabet Alphabet Alphabet Alphabet Alphabet


When Blackletter was first used for writing it was not uncommon to combine letters into a single character for the sake of efficiency. It must be remembered that the notion that words have a correct spelling is a modern concept. Fonts themselves often had embellishments added for decorative enhancement. The most common of these pairings were often translated into typeface though the designs of these ligatures can be quite varied as they tend to imitate handwriting. When Guttenburg carved his first set of letter blocks he made 300 characters to cover the 26 letter alphabet. The most unusual of these is the esszett or sharp s, which does not clearly resemble a font combination though it is meant to represent s and z. It is generally used in place of a small ss after long vowels but the grammar concerning it is constantly evolving.