The middle spur of the minuscule “l” in French type designs, historically up to today.

Jacob CasalJacob Casal Posts: 99
edited April 2019 in History of Typography
In doing some research I was reading through the historical brief of HTF Didot. About halfway down the page there are a couple of captions that talk about a spur placed midway the left side of lowercase /l/s. It evidently held traditional value.
I have done a bit of searching, but am having trouble finding more info about this detail of French typography. Does anyone know more about its usage: Why? What caused its decline in use, or are there still designs meant for general text that have this? If one were to include this detail in a typeface today would it be relegated to “a variant of the regular /l only, never the default”?
Perhaps it would cause a reader to stop for a moment at the unfamiliar detail, or be confused for another letter like /ƚ or /ł.
It is a small thing, but interesting. Any thoughts?


  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,059
    I have always understood that its purpose was to identify typography set in the typeface as exclusive royal property, a kind of copyright protection. So unauthorized use would be clearly visible (no need for the Thomas Phinney of the day)—and thence the gallows.
  • Craig EliasonCraig Eliason Posts: 1,348
    I've heard the story Nick said, about the romain du roi, a story just seductive enough to make me suspect it's apocryphal. Does Mosley mention the issue in his work on the romain du roi?

    An analogous feature that has lasted longer but also has an inconsistent presence is the spur on the same spot on an eszett. 
  • @Nick Shinn @Craig Eliason A good start, both of you.
    Forgive me as I run through a train of thought here.
    In terms of royalty and execution we simply look at the context. As I see it from your posts we start with the romain du roi, the latter faces using the detail as a derivative tradition. So we're traveling from monarchical times, through the Reign of Terror, Napoleon, and the constitutional monarchy and so on. I am not familiar the the evolution of French law during these times, but while I could see it formed as a bit of elegance to show a royal stamp, perhaps a form of copyright insurance is a step to far.
    Think as a type designer in the turmoil of the revolution, you still have your job to do, and we see the detail exist past throughout the turmoil. Perhaps the detail, so exclusive to royal type, was locked away either as a symbol of the old monarchy or stored for a more peaceful time. What was to stop it (the romain du roi) from not being locked away and used among general printing: a sort of “we’ll use this however we please!” But that didn’t happen. More likely, what stopped general type designers from adding the detail when the royalty lost their exclusivity?
    I was unaware of Mosley before your post, but came across two interesting factors in relation to your comment:
    First—I don't know if this is what you were referring to—a typophile post by Mosley:
    Second, a pdf showing a closer look at the romain du roi (pay special note to the left spur of the /l, the /f, and the /ſ [long s]):
    As for the /ß, it is at heart a ligature of the /ſ and /s, yes? So the variation of its spur’s presence makes some sense, being left over from the /ſ. The topic of the /ſ and its design in relation to other characters could be a whole other conversation, one I’d rather not dive into here, but I'm glad you brought it up: in the pdf we see the spur of /ſ and /l are the same, but not the same as /f. Perhaps we have been ignoring a third option as far as its origin goes: it was just used to create more harmony among the letters first and then stuck nationally second. As Mosley notes in the cited thread:
    Copyright. Everybody seems to know that it was forbidden (under pain of death, wrote Philip Meggs) to copy the romain du roi. But that is just not true, or was not in the 18th century. (A quite close copy of one size came out within a few years and was on sale in France for decades.) However, during the Revolution when it was found that the English were faking official posters and sowing confusion with them in order to destabilize the régime, it was decided to use the old royal type, with its distinctive letter l, for all official publications, and the design of this ‘National type’ (as they now called it) was protected by law. At the restoration of the monarchy, this protection was retained, and extended to all the special types made for the state printing operation. I have a feeling that, despite all the many changes of régime, this law may still operate in France. So be careful. The digital Grandjean currently in use by the IN [Imprimerie nationale] (and used for the 2002 catalogue) was made for them by Frank Jalleau. I have made one of my own, for purely personal use.

    That is the only time I see him mention the /l as well. This surely covers the romain du roi, but what of the other typefaces with the spurred /l, and the second part of my post was about its use in modern times. Would a designer trying to revive one of these types be deterred by the law that may or may not still be in place?

    But I’ve talked too much, what are your thoughts?

  • @Florian Hardwig Am I wrong or did Swiss Typeface remove this spur from more recent versions of Sang Bleu ?
  • That’s correct: SangBleu Serif was retired in 2017 and has been replaced with a new series. None of its members has a spurred l. Likewise, La Police is no longer available. Curse of the Sun King?
  • Craig EliasonCraig Eliason Posts: 1,348
    Sécante, c'est moi!
  • I have always understood that its purpose was to identify typography set in the typeface as exclusive royal property, a kind of copyright protection. So unauthorized use would be clearly visible (no need for the Thomas Phinney of the day)—and thence the gallows.
    I have read the same, and that the spur was named "cornua". Interesting if there exist Polish oddities with both a cornua and a slash.
  • Assuming it's the Latin form for «horn», cornua would be the plural (with cornu being the singular).
  • Thank you for all of your comments! All of it has helped me with my research.
    It was good to see how modern designers handled the feature in the crisp world of digital type—interesting that it was removed from later versions of SangBleu as well. Yeah, when one thinks about it a little further it makes complete sense for such a law to not hold up through time, and even if it did it would not be at the top of police priorities.
    At the end of the day Craig’s note about the analogous spur of the eszett best translates to the spur of the /l: a vestigial feature only finding use in a select few typefaces today. That’s not how it always may be, but how it seems for now.
  • What I find most irritating about that /ell/ is not even its spur, but rather its capital-style serifs. I wonder how that spur would look on a proper lowercase /ell/...
  • @Christian Thalmann Yes, I see what you mean. It’s like when a sans serif font makes the lowercase /el and /I identical, but predating that. We do have one example of a proper /el among the digitized fonts Florian posted: Rameau. Here’s a closer look on Linotype’s page for it:
    Two stand out among those listed on the HTF Didot historical brief: Le Luce (third) and Marcellin-LeGrand (fifth). It is a little hard to say for the final le Gauthier.

    Personally, I actually like the idea of the right facing spur as it feels a little less crowded than on the left. Of course, this may not carry out well when next to more text. Here are some digital drafts I made for a project I’m working on (by no means final). I organized them as the HTF Didot page did for comparison, though mine are a single base form:
    A rough idea at the very least.
  • Certainly the spur should be of the same nature as /longs/, or failing that, /n/. For your Didot, only horizontal spurs make sense to me. I also don't see why the spur should be an offstroke rather than an onstroke, given that mid-stem onstrokes are a thing (as in /longs/) but offstrokes are not. That leaves only your #1.
    It doesn't look bad in your sample, but I wonder what it would look like in running text. Also, Didot as a base is playing the game in easy mode, given that the serifs are so subtle. The triangular onstroke of Garamond would no doubt be a greater challenge.
  • Oh well I can’t turn down a challenge! But I also don't want to break an EULA. While I can’t go in and change the glyph itself just for this example (as far as I understand at least), I can at least tack on a spur in Illustrator. Here is a rough look at Linotype’s Stempel Garamond with a spurred /l. Even rougher since it’s just outlines. It has no /ſ but does have an /ß, however, the spur of the /ß is too long to simply transfer over, and there are nice little idiosyncrasies among the letters as is. Thus, I made a spur similar to but stubbier than the /ß. I made it at 1000 points and scaled it down. Admittedly, if real, I feel like it would need tweaking to bring more unity between the spur and ascender.

  • Yves Perrousseaux wrote the following in Histoire de l’écriture typographique : Le XVIIIe siècle, tome I/II (2010).

    Le l minuscule est doté d’un ergot (on dit aussi une « sécante ») positionné à gauche du fût, à la hauteur du haut de l’œil du caractère (la hauteur d’x). Cet ergot sur le l mi- nuscule devint, par la suite, une caractéristique des caractères exclusifs de l’Imprime- rie royale. On a beaucoup discuté à propos de cet ergot. Entre autres idées formulées : Louis XIV l’aurait imposé pour caractériser le caractère typographique de son règne ! Le monarque avait probablement bien d’autres sujets plus importants en tête que l’existence ou non de cette particularité stylistique. La raison la plus vraisemblable est que cet ergot (qui est un reste du ductus calligraphique) permettait (au typographe qui redistribuait les types après usage, dans les cassetins de la casse) de distinguer, au toucher, ce l minuscule (dont l’empattement supérieur est – pour la première fois dans l’histoire de la typographie – débordant des deux côtés du fût) du I capitale.

  • Jacob: Thanks for the demo! BTW, you could always use EB Garamond as the base; you can modify that with impunity.
    I like the spurs in your large sample. They still irritate me in the running text, but at least they parse as /ell/ without interference. I guess one could get used to them with a bit of patience.
  • Denis: Thanks for the source! That’s probably the most succinct way to sum up this peculiar feature.
    Christian: Anytime! :) Yes, it gets a bit awkward down there.
  • Another contemporary typeface with this feature, from France: Bluu/Bluu Superstar (Jean-Baptiste Morizot, 2013/2017).
  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 2,586
    Your left-side diagonals in y and v could probably be just a few units heavier. It is OK for them to be a smidge heavier than the verticals; it will help them look visually the same weight.
  • Jacob CasalJacob Casal Posts: 99
    edited April 2019
    I know it’s still not that many typefaces, but it’s a pleasant surprise that there are a decent amount out there that do implement it. I like the fresh take the two Bluus add.
    @Thomas Phinney Haha, you’ll have to take that critique to Linotype I'm afraid. :) I just used Stempel Garamond as a demonstration, but its not my font. I made the spur for the /l and placed it over type turned to outlines in Illustrator, scaling down as needed. But, I am working on a typeface so I’ll keep your words at heart. (Your video on optical tricks was very helpful by the way, saved me from a couple of visually “crossing” handles for curves.)
  • Craig EliasonCraig Eliason Posts: 1,348
    edited April 2019
    Even stranger to my eye in a face with a tall x-height/short ascenders!

    Edited to add: or rather, when placed higher on the stem than the midline head serifs!
  • Found this vernacular signage today in Exmouth, UK. The t is also mind-blowing but obviously some sign painter saw the spurred l somewhere and decided it was a good fit.

  • Interesting and very charming one !
  • That “t” is wild!
  • I wonder when it was made. Those tittles on the /i are really small too. What a neat little freehanded(?) sign.
  • Ramiro EspinozaRamiro Espinoza Posts: 834
    edited October 2019
    The recently published book on punchcutting by Nelly Gable (Drawing the Movement) is set in what it looks like a digital revival of one of Louis Perrin's typefaces, designed by Franck Jalleau, also featuring the 'French spurs'.
  • Another contemporary typeface with this feature is Salamandre by Franck Jalleau.
  • Florian HardwigFlorian Hardwig Posts: 247
    edited November 2019
    The aforementioned SangBleu Serif by Swiss Typefaces has been merged with the styles previously known as Romain Headline, and is now available again in revised form as SangBleu OG Serif. All roman styles have the royal l.
  • Stephen ColesStephen Coles Posts: 989
    edited January 2020
    FYI, we just posted Letterform Archive’s hi-fi capture of the “Spécimen des Caractères Romains Employés par l’Imprimerie Royale, de 1640 a 1846” comparing roman and italic alphabets from Garamont (Jannon), Grandjean, Firmin Didot, Jacquemin, Londres, and Legrand, all but one of which (Garamont, 1640, of course) include the medial spur.

    From the conversation above, perhaps this table was shown on H&Co.’s site, but I don’t see it there now. Here is Mosley’s blog post about it.
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