1930s typographic flash cards

"A Scientific and Delightfully Interesting Way to Learn and Remember the Important Type Faces Frequently Found in Modern Printing"

Ralph W. Polk was an educator in the field of printing back in the days when letterpress was the reigning technology and offset lithography was just coming along. His classic book, The Practice of Printing is still making the rounds in used book stores and online.

Polk was the head of the printing department of Cass Technical High School in Detroit when my father was a student there. One of the coolest things I have from my dad’s past is a set of flash cards called “Polk’s Know-Your-Types Card Game,” designed to help printing students learn to recognize and identify typefaces. Type samples in the form of characters, words or sturdy aphorisms showed on one side of each card, with the name of the font on the back. There are something like 250 of them; the classics are there — Century, Goudy, Bodoni, Cheltenham, Futura — sharing the deck with a few faces that probably had more of a presence in the letterpress era, like Brittanic and Metro. Now, today’s printers can lay type and images on paper in a way those of Polk’s time could only imagine, but the industry’s move beyond solid metal type and into photo and then digital imaging means they can do it without knowing the difference between Futura Bold Condensed and Gillies Gothic. To me, the most interesting thing about Polk’s Know-Your-Types Card Game is how it gives us a snapshot of a time when graphic design and printing were often practiced with the same hands.

The photos here are only a small sample; fronts and backs are matched in photo pairs, so go ahead and test your own typographic knowledge!

Scott BirdsallComment