From the Reading Room: The Text Font of the First Folio

Contributed to Early Modern at the Beinecke by Reed Reibstein, an undergraduate student in the Yale University History of Art Department and a student in Professor David Kastan’s Fall 2009 class, Materializing the Word: The Book as Object, Technology, Concept, and Event, 1500-1800.

From the Reading Room: This series of postings highlights the research of students, research fellows, and other scholars working in the Beinecke’s early modern collections.


As the compositors in William Jaggard’s print shop plucked countless sorts out of their cases, composing page after double-columned page from 1621 to 1623, they could not have suspected that they were handling a font that would be the object of more study than perhaps any other before or since. The font certainly would not have appeared remarkable in any way; it was cast on a pica body, the most common size of the era, and fonts made from the same punches had been owned by more than thirty printers since 1570. Moreover, the font was weathered, having been in use probably for well over a decade.

Surprisingly, it was precisely this battered condition that made it so fruitful for detailed analysis: the numerous visible defects in the sorts of the First Folio’s text font have proved the most powerful tool for reconstructing the book’s printing history. Charlton Hinman in The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare devoted 98 pages in his first volume and much of the second to an analysis of the Folio’s type, making the text font the subject of an extraordinary amount of research.

Despite an extensive analysis of its distinctive sorts, few Folio scholars (including Hinman) have examined the origins and characteristics of the font itself, and the limited information available in the literature to date is more a result of generalization than of detailed scrutiny. I measured the dimensions of the text font in the Beinecke’s First Folio (BEIN 1978 +83), finding twenty lines of type to measure 82.7 mm.

Visual and historical evidence have led me to suggest that the font is the second pica roman of Pierre Haultin (as described by H.D.L. Vervliet in The Palaeotypography of the French Renaissance), cast for Jaggard’s use probably around 1603 or 1608 by an unknown typefounder who likely inherited the matrices from Pierre’s nephew Jerome Haultin. The font was old and in poor condition when it was used to print the Folio, which supports the view that Jaggard and his pressmen did not see the Folio as an unusually important book.

If the results of this research are to be accepted, they will correct two particularly enduring statements made about the font by Horace Hart in 1902: The font appears to be of French origin, not Dutch, and it was not commissioned specifically for the printing of the Folio but rather had been in use for fifteen or twenty years by 1623.

Images drawn from Beinecke call number: 1978 +83. Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, histories, & tragedies. Published according to the true originall copies. London: Printed by Isaac Iaggard, and Ed. Blount, 1623.

1 Response to “From the Reading Room: The Text Font of the First Folio”


  1. 1 H. J. Neuhaus May 31, 2010 at 8:00 am

    Congratulations to Reed Reibstein! This is an important contribution. It deserves to be published. Our understanding of Early Modern English typography is still preliminary, although there is a respectable history of scholarly research. OpenType Font technology now presents a platform to replicate, reconstruct and thereby understand “original spelling”.


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