The Blackletter Typeface: A Long And Colored History

Blackletter 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.

BlackletterChart

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

BlackletterTypeface

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.

Gutenburg

Gutenberg Bible Image Source: Wikipedia

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.

NewspaperNameplate

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

corona-extra

Corona Beer Labels

MOTORHEAD

Motorhead Album Cover

SnoopDog

Snoop Dogg Album Cover

Disneyland

The Disneyland Sign

Free Fonts

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.

Cloister Black

CloisterBlack

Deutsche Zierschrift

DeutscheZierschrift

Germanica

Germanica

External Resources

I love typography has a nice article about Moyenage, a blackletter typeface for a modern age.

Creative Pro discusses Amador, a new blackletter font.

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?

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  • markmccorkell

    Makes me think on Blackadder! Baldrick?!

  • Roy

    Perhaps you were trying to avoid controversy, but I’m surprised you left details of the Bormann Decree of 1941. This is when Hitler’s regime announced that blackletter was a Jewish invention and would henceforth be banned from use. All government propaganda was suddenly being published with Latin scripts; typewriters were retrofitted with roman characters. Hitler realized that the world was having trouble reading the old German script. If he was to succeed in gaining wider influence, he recognized that his regime would be wise to begin publishing their propaganda in Latin scripts.

    The für deutsche Schrift und Sprache, founded in 1918, is still in support of preserving the old German script: http://www.bfds.de/

  • http://www.gonzalezmora.com GonzaloGM

    Fraktur is gorgeous :) If you want to read a little bit more about the history of blackletter, there’s a great article on Retinart about blackletter.

  • http://www.heyraena.com raena

    How can we forget this classic example?
    http://www.news.com.au/perthnow/story/0,21598,25054502-5012990,00.html

    I jest, I jest.

  • http://www.lbrbsolutions.com Dorsey

    The photo Raena points us to is a good example of why the heavy Germanic fonts lost favor. I had to read the accompanying article to learn what the tattoo actually said. That seems to cancel out the purpose of the tattoo, doesn’t it? Sort of like: “if you have to explain a joke, it’s not funny?”