Why were blackletter typefaces abolished in Germany?

Why were blackletter typefaces abolished in Germany?

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Blackletter typefaces were exclusively used in German and German-friendly countries for several centuries. They were often commonly and errornously called "Fraktur" in German, but the correct name was gebrochene Schrift while Fraktur was only one (but the most used) typeface.

Wikipedia Commons, Public Domain

Wikipedia's take on the topic is roughly this:

On January 3, 1941, the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or more precisely Martin Bormann, issued a circular to all public offices which declared Fraktur to be Jewish letters and prohibited their further use. German historian Albert Kapr has speculated that the régime had realized that Fraktur would inhibit communication in the territories occupied during World War II.

But this seems a strange reason for people that valued their own ideology over everything else. Especially the allegation of “Jewish letters” strikes me as odd, seeing how Fraktur originates in the early 16th century and was commissioned by Maximilian I, an emperor that kicked the Jews out of some regions in 1496 and in 1509 passed the “Imperial Confiscation Mandate” which ordered the destruction of all Jewish literature apart from the Bible. Seems pretty in line with what the National Socialist German Workers' Party did.

So why was Fraktur abolished, then?

Blackletter was once widely used throughout Europe, as it was quicker to write and more condensed than its predecessor, Carolingian minuscule. This was important at the time, because people wanted to read about more things, but writing was laborious, and paper and parchment were expensive. The downside is that Blackletter is less legible.


Things changed after the printing press with movable type - it no longer mattered how long it took to write something - and the Renaissance. Looking for legibility and beauty, people invented new typefaces like the Roman/Serif family, inspired by older scripts such as Roman square capitals and Carolingian. These became popular and spread throughout Europe, and are still in wide use today. Germany was an exception, sticking with Blackletter until 1941.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Inscription_displaying_apices_(from_the_shrine_of_the_Augustales_at_Herculaneum).jpg">Fraktur, which was in wide use from the mid 16th century on. Germany resisted the trend of moving away from Blackletter, where the typeface's use was fuelled by various culture wars, from the Reformation (Catholic texts were printed in Antiqua, and Protestant texts in Fraktur) to the Napoleonic wars. The dispute became political, and Fraktur became associated with the German nation. As mentioned, in 1941 Nazi Germany officially abandoned it in favour of Antiqua, in an edict that claimed that Fraktur was developed from Schwabacher, which contained "Jew-letters":


(Not for publication).

On behalf of the Führer I notify for common attention that:

Regarding and calling the so called gothic typeface as a German typeface is wrong. In fact, the gothic typeface consists of Jew-letters from Schwabach. Like they later gained control of the newspapers, the Jews living in Germany had seized control over the printing shops at introduction of the printing press, so that the Schwabacher Jew-letters were heavily introduced in Germany.

Today the Führer decided in a meeting with Reichsleiter Max Amann and book printing shop owner Adolf Müller, that the Antiqua typeface is to be called the normal typeface in future. Step by step all printing products have to be changed to this normal typeface. As soon as this is possible for school books, in schools only the normal typeface will be taught.

Authorities will refrain from using the Schwabacher Jew-letters in future; certificates of appointment, road signs and similar will only be produced in normal typeface in future. On behalf of the Führer, Mr. Amann will first change those papers and magazines to normal typeface, that are already spread abroad or are wanted to be.

Signed M. Bormann

There is no evidence of any association between Jews and Schwabacher, so this edict cannot be taken at face-value. Some historians suspect the push came from Goebbels and the need to use a typeface that is familiar to everyone in occupied Europe; others suspect it was due to Hitler's own dislike of Fraktur, as he expressed in a declaration made in the Reichstag in 1934:

Your alleged Gothic internalisation does not fit well in this age of steel and iron, glass and concrete, of womanly beauty and manly strength, of head raised high and intention defiant… In a hundred years, our language will be the European language. The nations of the east, the north and the west will, to communicate with us, learn our language. The prerequisite for this: The script called Gothic is replaced by the script we have called Latin so far…

Whatever the reason, the move brought Germany in line with the rest of Europe in using primarily Humanist types for long-form text.

Schwabacher was actually the one called Judenlettern (jew-types) by some Nazi. It looks a lot like Fraktur, so that's probably the source of that myth. Fraktur was on its way out at the time the Nazis came to power (replaced by modern looking types), and they actually wanted to revive it for a while. Hitler did not like it, though, because he thought it to be too “unmodern”, so it was never revived (There were plans to decree Fraktur-typemachines for every office for special documents).

Key Nazis did not believe in Hitler's aesthetic reasoning and thought it really was about the readability of the text by the people of conquered territories, along with easier learning for future generations.

German Wikipedia on Frakturschrift

The Blackletter Typeface: A Long And Colored History

The Blackletter typeface (also sometimes referred to as Gothic, Fraktur or Old English) was used in the Guthenburg Bible, one of the first books printed in Europe. This style of typeface is recognizable by its dramatic thin and thick strokes, and in some fonts, the elaborate swirls on the serifs. Blackletter typefaces are based on early manuscript lettering.

They evolved in Western Europe from the mid twelfth century. Over time a wide variety of different blackletters appeared, but four major families can be identified: Textura, Rotunda, Schwabacher and Fraktur. It’s beyond the scope of this article to go into each one, but if you look at the letter “o” in the chart below you will see the difference.

Image Credit: Wikipedia (with small change by the author)

While Gutenberg used blackletters for his bible and books, this signaled a new era in typefaces used for printing. Blackletters are difficult to read as body text and Roman and Italic faces were easier to print with movable type. For these reasons, in the 1500’s, blackletter became less popular for printing in many countries except Germany and the German speaking countries.

Germany continued to use Blackletters until the early twentieth century. In the 1920’s it was considered to be antiquated by German designers and publishers and fell out of favor and was replaced by the “New Typography” of sans serif typefaces. In 1933 Hitler declared the new typography to be un-German and declared Fraktur to be “Volk”, i.e. the people’s font. The Nazis continued to use Fraktur extensively until 1941 when it was replace with more readable fonts. Some people associate all blackletters as Nazi fonts but this is clearly an uneducated view and wipes out several hundred years of the typefaces’ history. Check out the Eye Magazine article on the meaning of type for more on this topic.

Blackletter In Action

As already mentioned, these typefaces are not easy to read in body text so they are best used for headings, logos, posters and signs. If you’ve received a certificate, diploma or degree there is a strong chance some or all of the text was set in Blackletter. Other familiar sightings include newspaper nameplates where it may be considered the font lends gravitas to the publication.

Blackletters have more recently become associated with beer labels, heavy metal bands, gangsta’ rap and oh, Disneyland.

If you’d like to lend a medieval look to your design, there are now a huge number of free blackletter fonts available to download.

External Resources

Typeoff have an excellent Blackletter resource page.

Related Articles:

Have you seen any recent designs using blackletters? Have you seen any websites using them? Are these typefaces that you would consider using in your own work?

An unnamed lettering system from 1935

About a week before the course, I was able to borrow original plans made by the Deutsche Reichsbahn-Gesellschaft in 1935. These were for a system of “German” lettering, presumably for use on train station signage. I asked the students to compare the lettering in their photographs with the letters on these plans, to see how many Berlin S-Bahn blackletter signs used the model in the first place, and to figure out how true those signs that were using these models are to the plans.

Figures 2–4: Scans of the three sheets displaying the plans for the Reichsbahnschrift. These drawings were produced by Deutsche Reichsbahn-Gesellschaft in Berlin. They are entitled »Deutsche Schrift« (German script), and were drawn in May 1935 by a Mr. or Ms. Friedling. Sheet one measures 109 × 73 cm, sheet two 111 × 73 cm, and sheet three 93 × 55 cm. Berlin. Private collection of Lars Krüger, Berlin.

Figure 5: Enamel direction sign at the Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station. It was produced in Kreuzberg at the Emaillierwerk Gottfried Dichanz, Berlin SO36 (the enamel workshop of Gottfried Dichanz). The sign’s lettering uses the Reichsbahnschrift.

A History of Typeface Styles & Type Classification

Typography is a complicated subject to learn, but starting with the history of type styles is a great way to gain an understanding of why there’s so many fonts, and why they look so different! Typefaces are divided up into classifications based on the era or characteristics of their design, which helps narrow down your options when choosing a font for your projects. Being able to identify a typeface style can help you make educated design decisions and choose the best font for your work depending on its use. In today’s post I give a brief overview of the main typeface classifications of serif and sans serif fonts that have emerged throughout the history of movable type.

The first fonts

In the middles ages books were hand lettered in the Gothic style that had been developed by scribes, until the invention of the movable type press by Johannes Gutenberg. The first typeface carved by Gutenberg was based on the hand writing style of the time and was used to print the first books in Europe, including the Bible.

Blackletter (aka Gothic) – 1400s

There’s a whole series of subcategories of Blackletter typefaces each with its own characteristics, but they’re all based on the original calligraphic style with tall, narrow letters and sharp angular lines. Fonts such as Gutenberg and Fraktur are popular modern interpretations of the first print typefaces.

Serif fonts

As movable type printing became the standard across Europe different typeface styles were developed, but these early typefaces were still based on early hand written scripts so they retained the characteristics of brush/pen lines and serifs on the entry and exit of each stroke.

Humanist (aka Venetian) – 1400s

In Italy the German blackletter style was soon replaced with typefaces inspired by Roman inscriptions. Still based on hand lettering, these fonts have the characteristics of angled crossbars on the letter ‘e’ and a high stress which relates to how a scribe would hold a pen. Centaur and Jenson are modern fonts in the Humanist style.

Old Style (aka Garalde) – 1500s-1700s

With typefaces now being carved to form printable fonts, typographers began to experiment and design their own type, rather than mimic existing scripts. Fonts such as Garamond and Goudy Old Style are from this era and are characterised with a move towards more upright letters and straighter crossbars compared to previous Humanist typefaces, as well as more variation between thick and thin strokes.

Transitional (aka Realist) – 1700s

The trend of more upright letters and greater contrast in strokes continued into the Transitional era, which is the period between Old Style and Modern font designs. Transitional fonts such as Baskerville are more elegant with broad strokes becoming much thinner within the character and the stress is now perfectly vertical.

Didone (aka Modern) – 1800s

Fonts from the 18th century that took the type design trends to the max were known as Didone or Modern. These typefaces have extreme contrast with broad strokes reducing to thin hairlines, along with unbracketed serifs that abruptly change from thick to thin without a transitional curve. Didot and Bodoni are the two most recognisable Didone typefaces.

Slab (aka Egyptian) – 1900s

Newspaper headlines and product advertising resulted in more attention grabbing type styles in the 19th century, which lead to typefaces being made more robust to withstand the industrialised printing process. Slab serifs have thick block lines at the end of their stokes. They are sometimes curved as with Clarendon, but most often unbracketed like Rockwell.


It’s clear to see the development of serif typeface styles over hundreds of years, but the 19th-20th century saw an explosion of type design where many of the fonts we use today were made. New sans-serif designs stripped away the handwritten characteristics completely to create modern typefaces that were easier to read at longer distances.

Grotesque (aka Gothic) – early 1900s

The first sans-serif typefaces were known as grotesque (as in “ugly”), due to their rejection of the elegance of historic serif styles. Some Grotesque fonts have a double-story layout for the letters ‘g’ and ‘a’, as seen in Franklin Gothic. There’s also a little flair left over from the serif era with early grotesques having a little contrast in their strokes.

Neo-Grotesque – late 1900s

Neo-Grotesque is a sub classification of Grotesque typefaces which refers to the later designs from the 1900s. These fonts completely abandon the traditional characteristics to make them simpler and minimalistic. There’s little or no contrast in the strokes and the terminals are usually perfectly straight, giving them a more geometric appearance. Helvetica and Univers are some of the most popular Neo-Grotesque typefaces.

Humanist – 1900s

While some typographers were crafting Neo-Grotesque typefaces, others still wanted to retain some elements of “human” writing, so Humanist sans-serif typefaces also emerged in the 1900s. Similar to Humanist serifs, this style includes some stroke modulation to give the letters a friendlier appearance. Gill Sans and Optima are popular Humanist sans-serif fonts.

Geometric – 1900s

Just like the Modern serifs, Geometric typefaces are the result of taking the design trend to the edge. Geometric fonts go a step further than Neo-Grotesques with their simplicity by basing the letterforms on geometric shapes. These fonts are ultra modern, but their structure makes them awkward to read, especially in lowercase. Futura and Avant Garde are great examples of this style.

A Nazi font banned by Nazis? Fraktur and its legacy in the must-listen design podcast of this week

"Fraktur is often associated with being the official Nazi font and is still being used by Neo-Nazi groups in Germany today. The fact that it was, ironically, banned by the Nazi Party is just a part of its long and strange history" writes 99 Percent Invisible of its latest podcast to embrace.

"Typography can silently influence: It can signify dangerous ideas, normalize dictatorships, and sever broken nations. In some cases it may be a matter of life and death. And it can do this as powerfully as the words it depicts" notes Wired's Ben Hersh in the insightful feature "How Fonts Are Fueling the Culture Wars."

"You probably know blackletter as the script of choice for bad guys, prison tattoos, and black metal album art—and you wouldn’t be wrong. Blackletter looks esoteric and illegible now, but it started off as a normal pattern that people across Europe used every day for hundreds of years. It stayed that way until pretty recently. It reigned as the dominant typeface in the English-speaking world for several generations, and remains popular in parts of the Spanish-speaking world today. One particularly ominous use of Blackletter type in Nazi Germany."

But this story is more complicated that it seems. "Nazi leadership used Fraktur, an archetypal variety of blackletter, as their official typeface. They positioned it as a symbol of German national identity and denounced papers that printed with anything else. In just a few years, blackletter went from ordinary to a widespread taboo—the same way the name 'Adolf' and the toothbrush mustache have been all but eradicated."

"The Nazis played a part in this. In 1941, the regime re-characterized Fraktur as *Judenletter, aka Jewish letters, and systematically banned it from use. The long history of Jewish writers and printers had tainted the letterforms themselves, they argued, and it was time for Germany to move on. Historians speculate that the reversal had more to do with the logistics of occupying countries reliant on Latin typefaces, but the result was the same. No printed matter of any kind could use Fraktur, for German audiences or abroad. Even blackletter handwriting was banned from being taught in school. Think about that: The government of one of the world’s great powers banned a typeface. That is the power of a symbol."

More history lessons follow: the first Fraktur typeface arose in the early 16th century, when Emperor Maximilian I commissioned the design of the Triumphal Arch woodcut by Albrecht Dürer and had a new typeface created specifically for this purpose, designed by Hieronymus Andreae.

Fraktur quickly overtook the earlier Schwabacher and Textualis typefaces in popularity, and a wide variety of Fraktur fonts were carved and became common in the German-speaking world and areas under German influence (Scandinavia, the Baltic states, Central Europe).

In the 18th century, the German TheuerdankFraktur was further developed by the Leipzig typographer Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf to create the typeset Breitkopf Fraktur. While over the succeeding centuries, most Central Europeans switched to Antiqua, German-speakers remained a notable holdout.

From the late 18th century to the late 19th century, Fraktur was progressively replaced by Antiqua as a symbol of the classicist age and emerging cosmopolitanism in most of the countries in Europe that had previously used Fraktur.

This move was hotly debated in Germany, where it was known as the Antiqua–Fraktur dispute.

The Fraktur typefaces remained in use in Nazi Germany, when they were initially represented as true German script official Nazi documents and letterheads employed the font, and the cover of Hitler's Mein Kampf used a hand-drawn version of it.

However, more modernized fonts of the Gebrochene Grotesk type such as Tannenberg were in fact the most popular typefaces in Nazi Germany, especially for running text as opposed to decorative uses such as in titles. These fonts were designed in the early 20th century, mainly the 1930s, as grotesque versions of blackletter typefaces.

The Nazis heavily used these fonts themselves, though the shift remained controversial and the press was at times scolded for its frequent use of "Roman characters" under "Jewish influence" and German émigrés were urged to use only "German script".

On January 3, 1941, the Nazi Party ended this controversy in favour of the modern scripts including Antiqua. Martin Bormann issued a circular to all public offices which declared Fraktur (and its corollary, the Sütterlin-based handwriting) to be Judenlettern (Jewish letters) and prohibited their further use.

The Fraktur legacy is explained in 99 Percent Invisible's design podcast, produced by Kevin Caners & Joe Rosenberg with many contributors -Susan Reed, head of Germanic Studies at the British Library, Florian Hardwig, graphic designer and the editor of Fonts in Use and more- sharing their insights of what is perhaps one of the most interesting stories on typefaces and the psychology of type.

What is the name of the typeface that Johannes Gutenberg created?

The lack of accreditation in Gutenberg Bibles goes beyond stating the name of the printer. The typeface created for the Bible was, as all other elements in the book, largely focused on the scribal tradition and optimization of space.

Johannes based letterforms on the liturgical scripts of the era – Textura Quadrata, a form of Blackletter. It is characterized by tight spacing and condensed lettering, which helped reduce the materials used in the making of a printed book.

On a related note, other names for the Blackletter script are Gothic script, Gothic minuscule, “Old English”, also sometimes referred to as Fraktur. Fraktur is a notable script of this type, but it does not represent the entire group of blackletter typefaces. “Old English”, on the other hand, is not to be confused with the Old English language (or Anglo-Saxon). Over time a wide variety of blackletter fonts appeared, but four major families can be identified: Textura, Rotunda, Schwabacher and Fraktur.

The specific style of Blackletter for the Gutenberg Bible is called Donatus-Kalender (D-K) – rarely used in metal type since Gutenberg. The original typeface used by Johannes’ press is recognizable by its dramatic thin and thick strokes, some elaborate swirls on the serifs, and the impression of the texture of a woven pattern across the page.

Given Gutenberg’s practical nature, it comes as no surprise he didn’t claim the typeface as his own by giving it a specific name. In modern times, however, the rise of digital fonts brought several faithful reproductions of the typeface you might want to check out: Gutenberg B, Gutenberg C, Bibel, 1456 Gutenberg B42 font family, 1454 Gutenberg Bibel, Gutenberg Textura, etc.

Futura in Advertising and Design

Futura is part of a group of fonts that work well both as body copy and display. You’ve probably seen Futura being used in many different industries, from film posters to advertising and album covers. The Futura font is used in many ads and logos, including Ikea (before its brand redesign in 2010), Absolut Vodka, Domino’s Pizza, Nike, and Volkswagen. In movies, it’s been used in V for Vendetta, American Beauty, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gravity, and in many of Wes Anderson’s films.

The famous artist Barbara Kruger layers the Futura bold font, in the oblique version, over her artwork. She challenges viewers to reflect on sexism and consumerism. A Cyrillic version of Futura Medium font was released by Anatoli Muzanov for the 1980 Summer Olympics. Another example using the Futura Medium font is the comic strip Barnaby and the science-fiction film City of Embers.

Volkswagen advertising has been a big part of the Futura history as many believe it maintained the popularity of the typeface. � Volkswagen Advertisement Playboy December 1969” by SenseiAlan is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Futura had great commercial success and inspired many other geometric sans serif typefaces. More recently, we’ve seen Avenir and Brandon Grotesque. Shortly after its release, Futura had already been replicated to adapt to American demands. Vanity Fair redesigned its magazine with an all Futura version in the late 1920s. Vogue commissioned a custom version of Futura for its own redesign. Other type foundries like Linotype commissioned W.A. Dwiggins to design a typeface that was loosely based on geometric forms but with a humanistic style. His version was called Metro. Within a few years, many type foundries had versions of the Futura font in their catalogs.

More recently, the Futura font has been redrawn and upgraded by many type foundries. URW++ has released several families, a Futura book font, and a Futura light font version. ParaType foundry has also released different weights of Futura and added Cyrillic characters. Some versions like Futura PT include seven weights, a Futura book font, medium, bold, and extra bold for condensed fonts. Futura Futuris includes a Futura light font weight, along with three other weights and condensed fonts. This last typeface also includes black in reverse characters.

The Futura font has influenced the creation of many other geometric fonts like Avenir. “Specimen of the typeface Avenir” by GearedBull is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5.


One of Vox’s original trio of categories, calligraphics includes typefaces with a pronounced hand-crafted or incised origin. We can distinguish between five types of calligraphic fonts – scripts, glyphic, gaellic, graphic and blackletter.


Script typefaces are, as the name implies, mimicking a style of rapid handwriting that uses pointed or broad-nibbed pens, brushes or other similar instruments. While there are variations in width and x-heights, scripts usually feature cursive slants, letter joints and ligatures, and are considered among the more dynamic typographic groups.


Sometimes referred to as incised (or incise), these typefaces make generous use of tapering downstrokes and tend to focus on their capital letters, in some cases dropping the lowercase entirely. They draw inspiration from the aforementioned Roman square inscriptions, which were often found on stone or metal surfaces, and thus required a particular structure that would be more easy to apply.

Examples: Trajan, Copperplate Gothic


Graphic, or manual fonts use a hand-drawn reference which is later replicated with a writing instrument, though with a focus on design and at a slower speed than with scripts. Unlike the latter, in graphic typefaces the letters exist independently and without connections between one another. Manuals are usually reserved for large displays or headlines, and like their glyphic counterparts above, sometimes exist in uppercase only.


Gaelic typefaces were not included in the 1954 revision of the Vox classification, and had to wait until 2010, when the AtypI voted in favour of adding them to the calligraphic group. Though rarely used in official form anymore, these insular scripts were widely adopted in Scotland between the 16th and 18th centuries, and continued to appear in Irish typesetting until the middle of the 20th century. Nowadays they frequently appear on signage and greeting cards due to their decorative style and historical significance.


Blackletters, or fractures, are based on the medieval broad-nibbed pen style of writing which developed from Carolingian miniscule as a response to societal development. At that time, universities were being established all across Western Europe, and an increasingly-literate populace had a growing need for specialized literature, and the typography to go with it.

Defined by their angular, condensed and often broken forms, blackletters were initially characterized as a form of graphic type by Vox, since they also use a slow technique with the wrist above the writing surface. As part of the 2010 revision of his classification, however, AtypI gave them a separate category, and also made-sure to separate non-Latin typography in an additional segment.

Examples: Textura, Rotunda, Schwabacher, Fraktur, Fette Fraktur

Decorative / Display / Rust

Last but not least, we have a somewhat broad category that encompasses some more lighthearted and playful typefaces.

We use many of these in poster design, advertising, and corporate typography, where their ornamental nature can stand out. We did manage to add our own bit of custom typography design and innovation to the mixture thanks to the Fontfabric Rust fonts series with its signature handcrafted look and extensive assortment of additional features.

The Gradual Disappearance of the Long S in Typography

"It's sometimes hard to see the difference between the long S and the letter F. The horizontal bar goes all the way through the vertical stem of the letter 'f' but only extends to the left of the vertical stem of the long S in printed works."

"The long 's' is derived from the old Roman cursive medial s, which was very similar to an elongated check mark. When the distinction between upper case (capital) and lower case (small) letter-forms became established, towards the end of the eighth century, it developed a more vertical form. At this period it was occasionally used at the end of a word, a practice which quickly died out but was occasionally revived in Italian printing between about 1465 and 1480. The short 's' was also normally used in the combination 'sf', for example in 'ſatisfaction'. In German written in Blackletter, the rules are more complicated: short 's' also appears at the end each word within a compound word.

"The long 's' is subject to confusion with the lower case or minuscule 'f', sometimes even having an 'f'-like nub at its middle, but on the left side only, in various kinds of Roman typeface and in blackletter. There was no nub in its italic typeform, which gave the stroke a descender curling to the left&mdashnot possible with the other typeforms mentioned without kerning.

"The nub acquired its form in the blackletter style of writing. What looks like one stroke was actually a wedge pointing downward, whose widest part was at that height (x-height), and capped by a second stroke forming an ascender curling to the right. Those styles of writing and their derivatives in type design had a cross-bar at height of the nub for letters 'f' and 't', as well as 'k'. In Roman type, these disappeared except for the one on the medial 's'.

"The long 's' was used in ligatures in various languages. Three examples were for 'si', 'ss', and 'st', besides the German 'double s' 'ß'.

"Long 's' fell out of use in Roman and italic typography well before the middle of the 19th century in French the change occurred from about 1780 onwards, in English in the decades before and after 1800, and in the United States around 1820. This may have been spurred by the fact that long 's' looks somewhat like 'f' (in both its Roman and italic forms), whereas short 's' did not have the disadvantage of looking like another letter, making it easier to read correctly, especially for people with vision problems.

"Long 's' survives in German blackletter typefaces. The present-day German 'double s' 'ß' (das Eszett "the ess-zed" or scharfes-ess, the sharp S) is an atrophied ligature form representing either 'ſz' or 'ſs' (see ß for more). Greek also features a normal sigma '&sigma' and a special terminal form '&sigmaf', which may have supported the idea of specialized 's' forms. In Renaissance Europe a significant fraction of the literate class was familiar with Greek.The long 's' survives in elongated form, and with an italic-style curled descender, as the integral symbol &int used in calculus Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz based the character on the Latin word summa (sum), which he wrote ſumma. This use first appeared publicly in his paper De Geometria, published in Acta Eruditorum of June, 1686, but he had been using it in private manuscripts since at least 1675" (Wikipedia article on Long s, accessed 09-11-2009).

&diams According to R. B. McKerrow, An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students (1927), the effective introduction of the reform in England was credited to the printer and publisher John Bell who in his British Theatre of 1791 used the short s throughout. "In London printing the reform was adopted very rapidly, and save in work of an intentionally antiquarian character, we do not find much use of [long] s in the better kind of printing after 1800" (McKerrow p. 309). Though it would be amusing to do so, there seems to be no reason to accept the legend that Bell initiated the change in his edition of Shakespeare because of his dismay at the appearance of the long s in Ariel's song in The Tempest: "Where the bee sucks, there suck I."

A Smart Blackletter Font: 7 Questions for Gerrit Ansmann

Gerrit Ansmann is a physicist from Germany, who worked on the freely available blackletter font Unifraktur Maguntia, which now has a large character set and makes extensive use of smart font technologies such as OpenType. In this interview he gives us some background information about this project.

As a physicist, what fascinates you about typography and type design? And what was your motivation to create such a feature-rich blackletter font?

I always had an interest in computer graphics, which was intensified when it became useful for creating scientific illustrations and when Bézier curves, splines and similar were part of my elective numerics courses. Moreover, type design is an appealing art form to me due to its mathematical nature. But that’s not what actually lead me to working on blackletter fonts.

As a physicist, I naturally belong to the target audience of roleplaying games, and my roleplaying game of choice was Call of Cthulhu, whose main arena is our world in the 1920s and which features a lot of investigations. Thus people like me who want to create scenarios for this game often need to create fictive newspaper clippings and similar from that period and older. Being somewhat perfectionistic, I learnt a bit about blackletter typesetting and produced texts reproducing historical typesetting, in particular the long s and blackletter ligatures.

Unfortunately, most blackletter fonts that allowed for such an authentic typesetting did not support Unicode or OpenType, and so I had to find out where special characters were located for each font and manually insert them into the texts. Unifraktur Maguntia was an exception to this, but—like most blackletter fonts—was based on a dissatisfying digitalisation, e.g., words like Luftfahrt featured bars of f and t at three different heights, and the J and I were just scaled versions of each other. As the font was open, I began with fixing some prominent issues, discovered more issues, fixed them, decided to throw away everything and to re-digitialise the historic source, and so on. In the beginning, my motivation was that I could eventually create a brief guideline for historic blackletter typesetting, which would not require the user to use some esoterically placed special characters, but rely on OpenType features or similar.

Soon, another motivation arose: Almost all creators of blackletter fonts seemed to go for quantity rather than quality, and I wanted the world to have at least one good and free blackletter font that allowed to do everything that one could reasonably want to do with it.

On which historical sources is the font based? How much of it is kept close to the original(s) and how much was reinterpreted or created new?

The primary historical source is Mainzer Fraktur by Carl Albert Fahrenwaldt from 1901. It provides most letters (and ligatures) of the standard German alphabet, except J, Ä, Ö, and Ü, which were only beginning to emerge for blackletter typsetting when it was created. From the few remaining glyphs of the original typeface, I adapted a few and redesigned the others—in particular the numerals and some basic punctuation characters—as their style was roman and not blackletter. For reasons that still elude me, this was typical for historic blackletter fonts, which is why I later added numerals in the style of roman typefaces as an alternative.

All other elements were newly designed, based on the existing glyphs, if possible, and inspired by the original Maguntia and other blackletter typefaces. This redesign includes the modern variants, numerals, diacritical marks, and several special characters.

Legibility vs. Tradition: Is the font made for traditional and/or modern blackletter typesetting and how do you deal with the legibility problems of today’s readers regarding Fraktur fonts?

On the one hand, many glyphs and features only exist for the purpose of reproducing historical typesetting—allowing a user to render an equivalent to every fraktur text is one of the main goals I was striving at. On the other hand, I created modern variants of ten letters that are typically misread by readers unfamiliar with blackletter as well as a round s without a swash for use in the beginning or middle of a word, where historically a long s was used in most cases. However, when creating the modern variants, I tried to adhere to the design principles of the original typeface and therefore, for example, I did not create a modern T (as I could not come up with a satisfying design) and the modern N is still very far from a roman-type N. So the modern variants are a trade-off between readability and preserving the blackletter style, hopefully a good one.

A paragraph using the traditional and modernized glyph designs

Traditionalists want to keep blackletter designs and their typesetting rules for German to stay the way they were in the first half of the 20th century, while others would argue that modernizations are a good way to keep the blackletter style alive. What is your opinion on modernized blackletter designs and typesetting rules?

I do not think that anybody should design or use a certain typeface just to keep some style alive. Use a typeface if it fits your needs design one, if you enjoy the process or if you think that somebody else needs it—in which case it would be this need that would be actually keeping the style alive.

That being said, I think that both, modernised and traditional approaches, have their place: If you just want the typeface to say “traditional” or “German”, and readability is a valid concern, modernisations are fine if you want the typeface to say “historical” or “old”, and you can trust your audience to decypher the text in a reasonable time, use the long s, the traditional letter forms, ligatures, and so on. However, I have no sympathy for pointlessly bizarre mixtures or failed attempts at being historical that could have been avoided with one minute of Internet research. The most common of these mistakes is plainly replacing every s with a long one, but there are also things like the new Warsteiner logo, whose t looks like a blackletter k, if anything, but neither like a blackletter nor a roman t.

Today, Fraktur fonts are rarely used for typesetting German and when they are, there is often an intentional or unintentional connotation with Nazi Germany. Is that something we can even overcome? What uses do you have in mind for Unifraktur Maguntia or how would you like to see it used?

In my experience, fraktur has its niches in Germany where it isn’t automatically associated with Nazis, for example in the contexts of tradition, history, or ceremony. Outside Germany, it can have similar niches, in particular in countries who used fraktur historically—e.g., I observed a considerable amount of fraktur in Prague. For the rest of the world, there are at least some people to whom fraktur just says “German” (which alone unfortunately makes for a Nazi connotation), but again the context and also the location is crucial. However, for other uses, I do not think we will or need to overcome a certain Nazi connotation—for instance, “historical” or “old” are not labels that one would normally see attached to one’s political views. Ironically and hopefully much to the Nazis’ dismay, one of the Maguntia’s features is a wide support of “international” characters and thus the capability of writing names of non-German origin in blackletter, e.g., for the needs of a German folklore society—I would really enjoy seeing the Maguntia being used to write the name of, say, a carnival princess of Turkish origin.

Also, many features and glyphs are not aimed at reproducing historical German typesetting but that of other languages such as Latvian, Czech, Slovak, and Sorbian. That being said, I did not focus on a single type of application, but rather hope that the Maguntia gives users the freedom to do what they want for their application—be it creating a menu for an Austrian restaurant in Portugal, a facsimile of some historic text, the Polish translation of Asterix and the Goths, or even a political cartoon.

Can you highlight some of the smartfont features of Unifraktur Maguntia?

The smartest feature is arguably the heuristics for the long s which uses the surrounding letters to decide whether an s is long or round and changes it accordingly. This isn’t perfect, but if you aren’t happy with the results, you can correct them with a zero-width non-joiner and still leave the majority of the work to the automatism. I should mention there are fonts out there that go further and implemented an entire dictionary (which are however not free and do not work in all applications). A similar automatism is implemented for the round r, a variant that can be found in very old typesetting.

We also separately implemented the two types of ligatures distinguished by historical blackletter typesetting—required and typographical ones—, which facilitates the implementation of letterspacing, which dissolved the latter type of ligatures but not the former.

Mainly for modern typesetting, I implemented a feature that removes the—in my opinion disturbing—swashes from round s that do not occur at the end of the word.

The majority of the remaining features are not that smart, i.e., just simple substitutions, in particular the aforementioned modern forms, historic variants, and four kinds of numerals: blackletter and roman as well as proportional and monospace.

In which apps and situations will the font work? What are the requirements and where are the limits?

Little surprisingly, a program that fully supports OpenType with feature selection is the best and allows you to quickly tune the font to your needs. If you have OpenType, but cannot or do not want to select features, there are ready-to-use variants which correspond to the activation of certain feature sets and try to emulate German historic typesetting at a specific time or cater modern readers, respectively. If possible those features are hard-coded and thus work, if there is no OpenType support at all. As a last resort, all special characters can be accessed through Unicode’s Private Use Area.

On another note, if you go to small resolutions, you will notice that hinting technology isn’t really made for most blackletter typefaces. I put some effort in this direction, harmonising line widths, positions, and manually marking a lot of stems, but I am not willing to perform hinting on the bitmap level.

Watch the video: Erhard Landmann - Jede alte Schrift auf der Welt ist in Altdeutsch geschrieben


  1. Molar

    and where at you the logic?

  2. Aberthol

    Very well.

  3. Svec

    I advise you to visit the well-known site, on which there is a lot of information on this question.

  4. Hayle

    Did you come up with such an incomparable answer yourself?

  5. Abdul-Hafiz

    Yes, in my opinion, they already write about this on every fence :)

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