Why is a typeface named Jim Crow?
January 27, 2022 2:53 PM   Subscribe

"Why is a typeface named Jim Crow? In the digital era we use typography effortlessly, scrolling through hundreds of options, serif and sans serif, bold and thin, choosing fonts for their aesthetics and legibility. Oftentimes software makes font choices for us, and we go along with the default. It can be easy to think of typography as neutral, disassociated from politics and culture. But of course, typography is made by people, and thus cannot be separated from human history." Sarah K. Kramer on typography, race and the story of J for Jim Crow (The Believer). posted by MonkeyToes (7 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is a really interesting article.

I was especially pleased to get to learn about the Boston Brothers, and now I want to find some of their work. (The link in the article to the AIGA slideshow is a great starting point.)

(The visual design for this story is great, but one thing I find odd is that, in print examples, the darker shading of each letter is at the top, but in all the background images, it's at the bottom. That may be intentional, showing how it would look inverted for printing, maybe? But it throws me.)

Also the introduction to Tré Seals is welcome and fascinating. Only 3% of designers in the US identify as Black? WOW.) I am inspired and awestruck by the way he transformed Jim Crow into Ruby (at the suggestion of Rory Sparks).

Just fascinating stuff. I am so glad to know about this. Thank you so much for posting this (with the great collection of supplemental links), MonkeyToes!
posted by kristi at 3:40 PM on January 27 [6 favorites]


Yeah, I had problems with the flipped gradation on the letters, too.

To all the graphic design people out there, is there anything to the look of the letters that suggest the racial connotations clearly denoted by the name of the font? All I could see was the transition from black to white or white to black depending on how you read the characters. Sort of an abstract depiction of “blackface”. Is it the name of the font that is driving this interpretation? It’s very interesting to now have to wonder about more than just the look of a printed page and the choices made by the people designing the page and the people who both created and named the elements of that design.
posted by njohnson23 at 4:58 PM on January 27


the darker shading of each letter is at the top, but in all the background images, it's at the bottom. That may be intentional, showing how it would look inverted for printing, maybe?

Ya it’s likely a negative from a phototypesetting process. From the bleeding light around the letters I’d guess it was scanned.
posted by wemayfreeze at 6:12 PM on January 27


The first question that came to my mind was just how old is this typeface?

And stepping back from that is the history of the phrase Jim Crow itself, which is as layered as a world sized onion -- as is history itself, when you stop and look at things in detail.

Blackface minstrelsy has long been an intensely studied academic topic for decades now because of its complications and contradictions. The first minstrel shows were wildly if not riotously popular with the all white all to mostly male working class audiences from the 1830s through the early 20th Century. Were they representations of deeply racist caricatures that made those poor sods feel superior? Absolutely. But they also represented another thing to those men: freedom. Freedom from the constrictions of social, class and cultural roles -- all projected upon the ultimate Other.

For examples:

Why black face?

The ambivalence of appropriation

Ironically, the first blackface performers were immigrant Irish and Jews, neither of who were considered white in the early 1800s. And they were followed and largely replaced by black men themselves. Layer by layer grew a very ironic onion indeed.

See also Bert Williams

What’s Love Got to Do With It?: Love and Theft in the 21st Century

That is just dipping a toe in the pool.

From Stephen Foster to Al Jolson to Elvis Presley through Dylan through whichever white singer or rapper is the soup du jour; from ragtime to jazz to rhythm and blues to hiphop and beyond, mask upon mask upon mask, American music is rooted in the bedrock of blackface minstrelsy. It is the worm Ouroboros at the heart of our common culture and history -- something much more than a crudely drawn cartoon but rather the tip of the iceberg that most deserves our common study and reflection.
posted by y2karl at 7:49 PM on January 27 [4 favorites]


Fascinating and thoughtful article. (The Stevie Wonder album makes me want to ask all sorts of followup questions.)

I'm also tempted to call dibs on Gothic Shade as a future band name.
posted by eotvos at 8:11 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]


It can be easy to think of typography as neutral, disassociated from politics and culture. But of course, typography is made by people, and thus cannot be separated from human history."

See also Gill Sans made from sculptor typographer Eric Gill who fucked his daughters, sister and dog (and whose statue of Prospero and Ariel still adorns the front of the BBC's headquarters).
posted by rongorongo at 10:23 PM on January 27 [5 favorites]


The first question that came to my mind was just how old is this typeface?

"Jim Crow, the typeface, has its origins [originally named Gothic Shade] in the mid-1800s, not long after Jim Crow, the blackface minstrel character, was invented in 1828 by white entertainer Thomas Dartmouth 'Daddy' Rice ...

... even before it was named Jim Crow, Gothic Shade was being used to advertise minstrelsy.

... Gothic Shade was rechristened Jim Crow in 1933."
posted by escape from the potato planet at 3:46 AM on January 28 [1 favorite]


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