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Monday, 14 March 2011

Courier: Font and Typewriter

Courier, the font you see before your very eyes, has been called the world’s best-known typeface. For some, most especially those of us who grew up using manual typewriters, it is also - as one enduring vestige of our younger age - perhaps the best-loved. Wikipedia points out this “monospaced slab serif font was specifically designed to resemble the output from a strike-on typewriter”.

Courier was created for IBM in 1955 by Howard G. “Bud” Kettler (above), originally for typebar typewriters, but later - by shortening some serifs and narrowing numerals - adapted for the golfball in IBM Selectrics. Since IBM didn’t ensure its exclusive rights to the font, it was imitated by other typewriter makers and became what has been described as “an early version of shareware”. And in its widespread present-day use, from Word Document to blogging and beyond, the Courier font - along with the QWERTY keyboard – helps to maintain some sort of link between the typewriter and the computer. Like the keyboard, the font is an element which comes packaged with every electronic operating system.
Kettler (born 1919, died September 1999) had served in the US Navy during World War II and signed on with IBM in 1952 from a background in small town newspapers and printing. He had owned a print shop, had used typewriters and had operated linotype machines to typeset copy. He knew typography like the back of his hand. One of his former IBM colleagues described Courier as a “crystal goblet type design” and as “the most successful of all” – he said Kettler believed the reader should see just words and not be conscious of characters.
Many typewriter lovers believe if they must use this modern technology, writing in Courier might at least give them something which approximates to the look of the right type of type. Understandably, this has proved insufficient for many typewriter enthusiasts, and in the past few years, technology has allowed a rise in the “fontification” of actual typewriter typefaces, along with a passion for “typecasting”. I consider Richard Polt something of a crusader in both of these areas, and to the uninitiated reader I thoroughly recommend they visit Richard’s website, The Classic Typewriter Page ( , on which he offers free downloads of typewriter fonts, or his blog, The Writing Ball ( , which is typecast.
But back to Courier. Given its heritage, Kettler’s font cuts close to a personal bone. In its prototype phase, Courier was called Messenger, but Kettler decided, “A letter can be just an ordinary messenger, or it can be the courier, which radiates dignity, prestige and stability.” (Courier has Old French and Latin roots and connotations with diplomatic and secret services.) Such a shame! I’m no ordinary Messenger, I’m proud to say, and I’m equally proud to say there is at least is one typewriter called a Messenger (a latter-day Imperial) and one called a Message (Beaucourt). But we’ll come to those later.
There’s something a bit unusual about typewriters called Couriers. While, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Monarch (by Remington) and Zephyr and Skyriter (by Smith-Corona) are brand names recycled by the one manufacturer, Courier was used by at least three of the more famous makers: by Oliver - in both its first (American) life and in its later (British) life – as well as by Smith-Corona and by Olivetti.
Will Davis has written extensively on the various reincarnations of Monarch typewriters. From such a glorious beginning, the Monarch name was eventually, in 1959, attached to Dutch-made Remington portables. Smith-Corona morphed the Zephyr of 1938 into the Skyriter some 20 years later, then used both names on British-made portables in the late 60s-early 70s. As you will see from Alan Seaver’s Machines of Loving Grace website (, there are many variants of Smith-Corona Sterlings.
Smith-Corona also called one of its British-made portables a Courier: this is an attractive cross between a Skyriter and a Silent-Super. Olivetti named one of the early Glasgow-made versions of the Lettera 22 a Scribe, then had a very distinct variation made in Mexico and sold in the US through Sears Roebuck as a Courier. Unlike other Olivetti portables, this one had a rust-red crinkle surface and white keytops. Tina Fey posed with one of these in a cover story of the spring 2004 edition of Bust magazine.
The subject of renaming models for Sears Roebuck consumption is broad and interesting enough for a post all of its own, and would embrace a vast number of machines, including the Rem-Blick, Smith Coronas masquerading as Towers and Sears’ 1955 $176.000 deal with Jack Tramiel to assemble Czech-made Consuls in Canada, which I have touched on in an earlier post.
Perhaps the most interesting use of Courier was on the Austrian-made Oliver (the paperplate here is from Georg Sommeregger’s website,
Somehow this attachment of the Courier name to Olivers was extended through to the post-World War II period, when Oliver portables were still being made in England. The one at the top of the post is from my own collection:
This portable is, of course, part of that very extensive “Euro” family which includes not just Olivers made in Britain and in Italy (see current Australian eBay listing above), but Voss, Patria, Swissa, Byron, AMC and Japy/Beaucourt models as well. Although Richard Polt put together an excellent family tree in the March 2010 edition of ETCetera, this range still seems worth looking at as a future post. But mention of Japy/Beaucourt brings me back to the Imperial Messenger (sadly, a un-Messenger-like dull grey; but made in Britain, not Japan, I'm happy to say), and the Beaucourt Message (seen here as a Gazelle on Will Davis’s European Typewriter project site, from the late Tilman Elster’s collection – my model is in light blue and grey):

1 comment:

Richard P said...

What an interesting entry that ties together so many things I knew and didn't know.

Gotta say I love that photo shoot with Tina Fey. She has a very funny piece in the latest New Yorker about writing for SNL, by the way.