American Type Founders (ATF) was a business trust created in 1892 by the merger of 23 type foundries, representing about 85% of all type manufactured in the United States. ATF was the dominant American manufacturer of metal type from its creation in 1892 until at least the 1940s; it continued to be influential into the 1960s.
Type founding before ATF
By the beginning of the final decade of the nineteenth century type founding was in a state of crisis. With the introduction of the Linotype, which could cast whole lines of body type in-house, demand for hand-set type was down. Throughout the late 1880s prices were maintained by an informal cartel of foundries, but as the number of foundries increased and with the invention of hot metal type, prices dropped dramatically. Additionally, type at this time was not standardized, either to body size or to base line, and printers resented the incompatibility of types from different foundries. Leaders in the industry, notably Joseph W. Phinney of the Dickinson Type Foundry in Boston, set up a committee to address these problems, eventually recommending consolidation.
Consolidation and early years
By the late 1880s, there were some 34 foundries in the United States. In 1892, 23 foundries were brought together to form the American Type Founders Company. Key to the success of this merger was the inclusion of MacKellar, Smiths, & Jordan Co. of Philadelphia, with assets of over $6 million, the Cincinnati Type Foundry of Henry Barth, which brought with it the patents to his Barth Typecaster, and Benton, Waldo Foundry of Milwaukee, which included Linn Boyd Benton and his all-important Benton Pantograph which engraved type matrices directly instead of using punches and allowed the optical scaling of type. With the inclusion of the Barth Caster and the Benton Pantograph, ATF immediately became the largest and the most technologically advanced foundry in the world.
Conditions for the first few years were chaötic, with member foundries continuing to operate as if they were independent firms. Real consolidation didn’t begin until 1894, when Robert Wickham Nelson, principal owner of the Throne Typesetting Machine Company and a new stockholder in ATF, became general manager. He immediately began to liquidate unprofitable ventures, eliminate duplications, and force the various branches to do business under the ATF name instead of retaining their former ones. Linn Boyd Benton’s son, Morris Fuller Benton, was given the job of purging obsolete and duplicated type faces from the catalogs, and standardizing the point size and base-line of the types made. Nelson, realizing that display and advertising type (rather than the body type that was set so efficiently by the new line-casters) would be the mainstay of the foundry type business, immediately began an extensive advertising campaign and commissioned the production of new type designs. Joseph W. Phinney was put in charge of the design department and he supervised the introduction of Cushing, Howland, Bradley, and the William Morris inspired Satanick and Jenson Oldstyle, the last of these being hugely successful. Young Benton was then commissioned to finish Lewis Buddy’s Elbert Hubbard inspired Roycroft, another successful introduction.
While Phinney often used free-lance designers, like Will Bradley, T.M. Cleland, Walter Dorwin Teague, Frederic Goudy, and Oz Cooper, the bulk of ATF’s catalog through the 1930s was the creation of Morris Fuller Benton. Though he never became well known, even within the printing industry, Benton enjoyed a record of successful type introductions unparalleled by anyone, much to the profit of ATF. Benton, though he did not invent either idea, was the most successful designer of revivals of historical type designs (such as his re-cutting of Bodoni and Garamond) and he perfected the creation of “type families” (such as Century or most successfully Cheltenham) where a basic face would be offered in italic, light, bold, extended and condensed variations.
Another key player at ATF at this time was the advertising manager (and informal corporate historian) Henry Lewis Bullen, who created a typographic library of historical examples for designers to draw upon. This collection was turned over to Columbia University in 1936. The books are integrated into the main Columbia collection, but there is an archive of ATF materials as well in Columbia's special collections.
In 1901, Nelson consolidated casting operations in a purpose-built factory in Jersey City and the branches remained only as distribution centers. By the 1920s, ATF had offices in 27 American cities and Vancouver, British Columbia, where it sold not only type, but pressroom supplies and printing presses (their own Kelly line and those of other manufacturers) as well. In 1923, at a cost of $300,000, ATF produced its largest and most superlative type catalog. Sixty thousand of these were distributed, and to this day they are considered to be masterpieces of the art of letterpress printing. By the time Nelson died in 1926, ATF seemed to be on the path to permanent profitability.
Nelson’s successor as president, Frank Belknap Berry (originally one of the founders of the Cleveland Type Foundry), was unpopular with the board and he was soon replaced by Joseph F. Gillick, whose first move was to shut down ATF’s subsidiary Barnhard Brothers & Spindler in Chicago and bring their casting operations to Jersey City. Though the years immediately after Nelson’s passing were disappointing, 1929 was the most profitable in ATF history.
Depression and bankruptcy
Unfortunately for ATF, unlike printing consumables (like paper and ink), which must be purchased anew for each job, type wears slowly and its purchase can be postponed in hard times, while capital investment in new presses simply dries up, and so ATF was especially hard hit by the Depression. Also, the company had been over-extended in the boom years, too much credit had been extended to the trade, inventories were bloated, and the corps of executives (many left over from pre-consolidation days) were older and without vision. With the financial downturn after 1929 ATF began to see serious distress. In 1931 hours were cut at the factories. The following year, sales were down another 25% and salaries were cut. When major accounting errors showed that company to be even less profitable than was thought, Gillick was forced to resign.
Thomas Roy Jones, a businessman with no experience in type founding, replaced Gillick. By 1933 the situation was desperate. Sales of type were less than 30% of 1926 levels while purchases of Kelly presses had plummeted to a mere 6.8% of what they had been. In October 1933 Jones filed a voluntary petition for bankruptcy. ATF was placed under the control of its creditors (chiefly consisting of several banks) and drastic measures were taken. Operations were consolidated, the Jersey City plant was closed and the typecasting operations moved to the Kelly plant in Elizabeth. Salesmen were put on a commission basis. Inventories were cut, faces discontinued, and production of several models of Kelly press as well as the Klymax Feeder was shut down. ATF was released from court supervision in 1936 and in 1938 a sales study was made making the following observations: the Kelly press was obsolete, body type was now the exclusive province of line-casters and display type would have to be the mainstay of type production, almost half of what ATF was selling was other manufacturers products that could easily be made in their own facilities, the acquisition of or merger with another firm in the letterpress industry would be desirable, as offset was a rising technology ATF needed to invest in that business.
In 1938, ATF purchased the Webendorfer-Wills Company and began producing their models of offset press. ATF sold these presses under the Chief name, marketing a Little Chief, Chief, and Big Chief. Large press (as opposed to duplicator) production continued until the late 1970s when the 25” Profiteer was discontinued as the basic Webendorfer design became obsolete. Once again, ATF had made the mistake they had with the Kelly press of complacently taking profits from a successful product, not investing in improvements, and eventually seeing this product become irretrievably overtaken by the competition. Beginning in the 1970s, arrangements to sell large offset presses under the Chief name were made with other manufacturers, first with MAN Roland and then with Solna.
War work and postwar direction
During the Second World War, the ATF plant in Elizabeth was converted almost entirely over to military production. Barth Casters were used to make firing pins and ATF operated two plants in Newark making ordnance.
After the war, ill-conceived efforts were made to diversify. A furniture manufacturer, Dystrom Corporation, was acquired. A competitor, Lanston Monotype, was purchased in 1969, but nothing came of this, the assets being sold off later to M&H Typefounders.
The decline of foundry type in this period might well be illustrated by the size of ATF specimen books. While the magnificent 1923 catalog was typical of its day at 1148 pages, subsequent editions were ever smaller. The 1934 catalog was only 207 pages, while the 1941 catalog was only slightly smaller at 191 pages. By 1956 the “descriptive index of types” was down to only 24 pages, but this recovered a little by 1966’s catalog of 30 pages. The last ATF catalog, published in 1976 and distributed right to the end, was down to only 14 pages and, by the 1980s, came with an insert listing the faces that were no longer available.
Some innovations did take place during this period however. The brilliant lettering artist Charles H. Hughes was engaged to produce a new version of the popular Century Type that would reproduce the same in offset and letterpress and the result was the lovely Century Nova (1965). ATF also produced the first optically scanning typeface, OCR-A font, in 1969 and this remains the standard on printed bank checks to this day.
A venture was made into photocomposition with the ATF Hadego Typesetter. Introduced in 1958, the first model was the "A". Not many were produced because the character fit left much to be desired. The most common model was the "B". Character fit was improved by employing the Friden Flexowriter "Justowriter" escape mechanism to six units. The last and most advanced model based on the Friden mechanism was the "B-8", where an eighth unit was added to the escape mechanism by means of a series of electro-mechanical relays that could add the eighth unit to some wider characters, like capital "M", without changing the basic mechanical escape mechanism of the model "B". The last phototypesetter designed and produced by ATF was the Photocomp 20, so named because of its rated speed of twenty 11-pica newspaper lines per minute. It featured four stepper motors (1) to move the film across, (2) to move the type disk, (3) to advance the film to the next line, and (4) to set the size of one unit of escapement. Type disks contained four fonts, each including 17 pi characters. Its controller was the first ATF controller utilizing integrated circuits in place of relays. Circuitry was based on Motorola DTL integrated circuits. Machine styling of the Photocomp 20 was by Richard Arbib. Only 17 machines were sold: one in Vienna Austria, and the remainder in North America.
ATF produced type disks with all their popular type faces. These disks were concentric rings of fonts on a transparent plastic material in negative form. Usually these disks contained roman, italic and bold versions of the same face. There was even a disk with the only Canadian type design at the time, called "Cartier". The ATF Phototypesetter was sold world wide—in Canada, Germany, Italy, Denmark, France, Belgium, England, etc. In Denmark, several newspapers were produced on ATF Phototypesetters by a company named "Reprodan". As technology improved, ATF failed to keep pace and eventually the line was discontinued.
In the mid-1950s the small offset (duplicator) market was dominated by Addressograph-Multilith’s Multi-1250 almost without competition. A study undertaken by Whitin Machine Works, a manufacturer of textile making machinery looking to expand out of an industry depressed by the introduction of synthetic fabrics, suggested that “quick printing” done with duplicators was a growing market. Whitin thus acquired ATF in 1957, began to manufacture a small (10 x 15” sheet size) duplicator at their Whitinsville, Massachusetts facility, and to market this under the name ATF Chief 15. The basic design was by Louis Mestre, and it incorporated many large press features as he had free use of Webendorfer patents. As it gave large press performance, it was an immediate success with commercial printers (who were disdainful of duplicators), and the Chief line remained the best of the small presses until the introduction of Heidelberg’s T-Offset in the late 1980s. A larger Chief 17 was introduced in the 1960s and the 1970s saw “common blanket” two color models of both the 15 and 17. Both Chief models were made and sold in Europe by Gestetner Cyclograph Company, and were also marketed in the United States by the Itek and Ditto corporations.
Though the Chief could produce superlative work, unlike the highly popular A.B. Dick 350, it required a skilled operator. Unfortunately for ATF, the quick printing industry had less use for such quality work and more need of a “fast and dirty” duplicator like the 350 and so its market penetration was limited.
In 1966 White Consolidated Industries acquired the Whitin Machine Works and with it control of A.T.F,.
ATF later purchased the competing Davidson line of duplicators and changed their name to ATF-Davidson. Breaking their pattern of low investment in upgrading technology, ATF actually developed improved models of the Davidson and this line remained competitive right to the end. The Davidson however, was an unusual design (with two, rather than the usual three cylinders) and its popularity remained limited.
Divestiture of the foundry
By the 1980s the foundry in Elizabeth, New Jersey was down to only six employees and duplicator manufacture was the principle business of ATF-Davidson. In 1986 foundry was sold off to Kingsley Machines, a maker of foil-stamping type, and the merged company was renamed Kingsley/ATF. Immediately a bid was made to enter the field of digital typography with a software subsidiary being set up in Tucson. With its enormous library of type, and its patents on the optical scaling of type, a digital library of ATF types seemed to be a good investment. As the original drawings of the faces were mostly lost, these fonts had to be scanned from brass matrices, a daunting prospect. The work was well done, but slow, and only four faces (Wedding Text, Thompson Quill Script, Bernhard Fashion, and T.M. Cleland’s border designs) were ever issued before Kingsley/ATF sought bankruptcy protection in 1993. An auction was held on 23 August 1993 and all the assets of the foundry were sold off, most of the priceless matrices going to scrap dealers. ATF designs remain the property of Kingsley Holding Corporation and are now licensed through Adobe and Bitstream.
Though ATF is now defunct, some of their original type casting machines and matrix engraving equipment are still in use at The Dale Guild Type Foundry in Howell, New Jersey. This equipment was saved through efforts coordinated by Theo Rehak, the last person trained to run these machines at ATF's Elizabeth, New Jersey facility.
ATF-Davidson and successor corporations
By the early 1980s, the Chief line needed updating and a crash program was undertaken to produce a press that could compete with the A.B.Dick 9800 series. The SuperChief was thus introduced in 1986 with many flaws. Most of these were worked out, and the basic design was re-launched in 1988 as the X-Press line. Unfortunately, this was too late to save the reputation of the Chief line and the company shut down in July 1990. After a period of confusion, Jim Hughes of Printer’s Parts Store purchased the assets of the company and operated under the name of ATF-Graphic Products, selling presses that were on hand and supplying spare parts. Wishing to revive the Davidson line of presses, the Chief line was sold off to Jim Wheet who now supplies parts for existing presses under the name ATF Services Inc., while it is unclear if Printer's Parts remains interested in reviving the Davidson line of presses.