“Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas”: Startling Specimens in the Type Catalogues of MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan

“Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas”: Startling Specimens in the Type Catalogues of MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan

Thomas MacKellar (1812‒1899), the man above at left, principal partner in the well-known Philadelphia type foundry MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan, looks like a sober fellow. He resembles one of the Smith Brothers of cough drop fame (not the Smith brothers who supplied the “Smiths” in the firm’s name), was praised by the Philadelphia Typothetae in 1894 for his “high scientific attainments” and philanthropy, and wrote hymns and serious poetry. His firm declared that “mere quaintness without utility” had no place in its products.

Philadelphia and Its Environs, 1887

But start exploring the firm’s catalogues and you may feel that you have stepped through a portal—or a looking glass that fills your head with ideas as “Jabberwocky” filled the head of Alice. The specimen texts may remind you of the uncanny advertisements in a Harry Potter film, or the sign in front of a musty herb shop in Bell, Book and Candle. The specimens speak of “Nature’s Crochet Granary,” the “Perpetual Fiddlestick Assurance Company,” the “Annual Ball of the Web-Footed,” and “Telephonic Nursery Explosives.” To put it another way, the books read as though Poe, Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and Jules Verne had dropped in to help with the catalogues. There are satirical names like those in Dickens; at least two (Gradgrind and Skimpole) come from Dickens. (There is also a nod to Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures, Douglas Jerrold’s burlesque on married life.) It is not surprising that Alastair Johnston, the author of Alphabets to Order: The Literature of Nineteenth-Century Typefounders’ Specimens (British Library, 2000), explored type specimens as forerunners of Dadaism. (See his post on the book.)  He says that MacKellar “gave the other typefounders permission to write stream-of-consciousness texts.”  (He also notes that MacKellar had been apprenticed at a satirical paper in New York.) In a Project Muse review of Doug Clouse’s book MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan: Typographic Tastemakers of the Late Nineteenth Century (Oak Knoll Press, 2008), James Mosley refers to the “anarchic poetry of the incidental texts” with their “sometimes disconcerting facetiousness.”

Quite a few specimens lean toward science fiction. The 1876 Centennial had showcased the current state of the sciences and arts, rather than the distant (in time and space) future imagined at later international expositions. The new telephone was a sensation, but how might it be used? Perhaps for a telephone concert. It is not that there was no taste for new horizons, or for stretching the imagination. As the Centennial display began, Kiralfy’s Alhambra Palace opened with a ballet based on The Tour of the World in Eighty Days―admittedly, a contemporary, not a futuristic, story. (By the way, the Alhambra was on Broad Street, which was described by Verne as “the finest boulevard in the world” in All Around the Moon, chapter 24.) A few years before the Centennial, the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph had offered English translations of several works of Verne. Some of them were made by the man above on the right, Stephen William White (1840‒1914), an independent “phonographer and translator.” White eventually held several important offices in the Pennsylvania Railroad organization. He had been a commercial rather than a literary translator, unlike his fellow Evening Telegraph translator of Verne, William Struthers (b. 1854), who was related to members of a well-known (note the reference to the new public buildings, i. e., City Hall) family of marble dealers, but was himself a poet, admirer of Walt Whitman, and music critic.

Philadelphia and Its Environs, 1876

Norman Wolcott and Kieran O’Driscoll, who have described the careers of the two translators, made the reasonable assumption that the two men knew each other. Did either one know MacKellar? It seems unlikely that he was unaware of their translations.

Below are sets of speculative specimens from three catalogues. Please click to open them for legibility. To avoid treating the forty or so advertising/headline specimens as separate files, pages have been created, using elements from the three books. The texts are all authentic; a few sample numbers have been removed. The pages are fake and flimsy, but why not have a little fun? In the post mentioned above, Alastair Johnston lined up several MacKellar specimens to produce a “visual poem.”

Please note the Venus Magnetic Express Company in the 1885 section, because the “pneumatic gutta-percha projecting cylinders” used to blow packages “safely and accurately” “to distant Planets” seems to take us into the realm of steampunk, and because Jules and Michel Verne also liked pneumatic tubes, using them to transport people across the ocean, or to deliver meals.

  1. Eleventh Book of Specimens of Printing Types. . . (1885)

Eleventh Book of Specimens

2. Shniedewend & Lee Co.’s Specimen Book and Price List of Type Manufactured by MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan Co. (1888). This was published in Chicago―but one specimen mentions Swampoodle (not a made-up name, but the area where Shibe Park once stood).

Shniedewend & Lee

3. MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan’s 1892 Specimens of Printing Types. . .

1892 Specimens of Printing Types

If these are advertisements for things that did not exist, should they be considered as Philadelphia advertisements? Certainly, because a specimen book is one big advertisement.

Sources of title illustration: Typothetae, 1894; John Mundell & Co., Philadelphia, Solar Tip Shoes, advertisement from Leisure Hours, 1888; Wikipedia.

For another example of counterfactual fun and games from this period, please see the post on The Centennial, OUR SHOW, and the Streets of Philadelphia.




4 thoughts on ““Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas”: Startling Specimens in the Type Catalogues of MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan

  1. Trying to imagine what a telephone concert would be. The different ring tones of phones orchestrated? Or a different instrument being played at the other end of each phone? Reminds me of the exhibit at the Huntington Gardens this year where the sounds of all the satellites circling the earth were composed into a “concert.”


  2. Thank you for your comment! Strange as it might seem, this was apparently a concert transmitted by telephone. THE WASP, a satirical magazine from San Francisco, published in April 1877 a page of cartoons suggesting uses for the telephone. One showed a singer whose performance was being transmitted to an audience at another location. That was a joke, but, as Shakespeare says, jesters often prove to be prophets. And three cheers, as always, for Huntington Gardens! I can see Mrs. Siddons as the tragic muse, looking up and to the side as though she were straining to hear the music of the satellite sphere.


  3. https://peoplesmuseums.tumblr.com/ When you read some of these surreal pages, perhaps you can see them as poetry. Perhaps you might like to read them aloud, with the dramatic effects they inspire. That was the excellent idea carried out yesterday evening by The People’s Museum of Philadelphia and the art department of the Parkway Central Library. The book display was popular, and so was the podium.


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