"Scotch Rules"

Mark Simonson
Mark Simonson Posts: 1,672
edited April 2023 in History of Typography
Back in the seventies, and even into the eighties, there was a certain type of border style that was popular, especially in magazine design (e.g., Rolling Stone where they had a scotch rule frame on every single page). It is typically made up of a thick and thin pair of rules, placed closely together. In the most common ones, the thick part is 3-4 points and the thin part is a hairline, but other styles were possible, such as having the thick part very thick. You still see them, but they seem to have gone out of style by the nineties. I think they were also popular in the 1920s.

I've always known these to be called "scotch rules". I don't remember where I learned this term. I was wondering where it originated or if it's even used anymore. Searching the internet was useless, turning up things like rules for making scotch drinks, or playing hopscotch, or (if I add "type" or "typographic") scotch typefaces. Nothing about rules as in "borders".

In the 1923 ATF catalog they are found in the brass rules section. Lots of styles were available, including the above, but they are just called "brass rules", with no special name for this particular style.

Does anyone know where the term "scotch rule" came from? Do people still call it that? 


  • George Thomas
    George Thomas Posts: 638
    edited April 2023
    James Felici's book, The Complete Manual of Typography, defines a Scotch rule as: "Scotch rule A double rule, the upper one of which is usually heavier." No origin information.

  • Scott-Martin Kosofsky

    I don’t know for certain the original of “Scotch rule,” which I also remember from years ago, but I always suspected that it was related to Scotch Roman, reflecting the thick/thin characteristics of those types. The term “Scotch,” as applied to type design, was actually an American invention, first used by the Boston type founder S.N. Dickinson. You might find a definitive answer if you follow the references given by James Mosley in his superb blog post on the subject, here: http://typefoundry.blogspot.com/2007/02/scotch-roman.html.

  • Craig Eliason
    Craig Eliason Posts: 1,412
    I see an entry for it in a "shop talk" glossary published in Editor & Publisher, March 9, 1935, so it's at least that old. 
    That's it's labeled as shop talk reinforces the idea that there's a kind of "oral tradition" in craft that may have a long history before it ever gets recorded in print. 
    In the article, three definitions of Scotch rule are offered: "column rule in two parallel lines," "rule with hairline paralleling 2-point line" (Mark's understanding), or "thrifty management" (which I take to be an ethnic joke). 
  • Ruixi Zhang

    Linotype Decorative Material (1929 reprint) calls this thick-thin double-line rule “Oxford rule” (p. 67), after “plain rule” (pp. 59–63) and “two- and three-line parallel rules” (pp. 64–66, i.e., uniform thickness or “even weight of face”). There’s no mention of “Scotch rule”. The word “Scotch” seems to refer to Scotch headbands, ornaments, initials, and page panels.

    Incidentally, I’ve just realized the ubiquity of this style of border in antique Chinese books (古籍, many digitalized at shuge.org). Books that were printed using woodblock (刻本), written top-to-bottom, almost always had a thick outer rule and a thin inner rule on every page. But the rules seemed to have specific functions—the outer thick rules formed the edges (邊欄/边栏) of the typearea while the inner thin vertical rules were part of the interline rules (界行). So I’m not sure they are the same as “Oxford rule” in the West.

  • K Pease
    K Pease Posts: 182
    Well, one thing that comes to mind is that the '70s and '80s were a time of commercial paste-up products like line tape. In addition to just thin black tape, they also had transparent tapes with a range of fancy borders printed on them, and they would be popular even for something as simple as this just to keep the two lines perfectly equidistant. This is conjecture, but perhaps someone using it frequently for this pattern called it "Scotch rule" by way of "Scotch tape".
  • Mark Simonson
    Mark Simonson Posts: 1,672
    edited April 2023
    We weren't using Scotch Tape on paste ups. :smile:

    The kind of rules I used in the seventies and early eighties (especially when I needed hairline rules) were Chartpak or Letraline rule tapes (I still have some—see below) and Formatt rule sheets, which were thin, translucent material with adhesive backing on a carrier sheet. These had to be trimmed out to be used, sort of like the decals that Lego uses, but they were more consistent than the rule tapes, and better for Scotch rules than the tapes.

    Anyway, I think your "Scotch Tape" theory is unlikely. It that's where it came from, why would it only apply to the thick/thin pair style of rule, and not any other styles of rule/border tapes?
  • Florian Hardwig
    Florian Hardwig Posts: 264
    edited April 2023
    Quigley Publishing Co. used the term in 1919, for a pair of opposing thick-thin rules.
    Meggs used it in 1982 to describe Bodoni’s use of “double and triple thick-and-thin elements”.
    In U&lc vol. 15, no.3 from 1988, Roger Black notes that “now magazines are replete with Oxford rules (a thick and a thin) [and] Scotch rules (thick, with a thin on either side)”.
    To Collier (1989), Oxford rules and Scotch rules are synonymous terms for “rules composed of thick and thin strokes” and advises to “combine them in opposite pairs”.
    In the Aldus PageMaker manual (1991), Anderson defines them as “double and triple line patterns” and includes one example with a pair of even-weighted lines.
    Erfert (1992) reproduces clip art from Adobe’s Patterns and Textures Disk 1 and subsumes all kinds of double and multiple lines under Scotch rules, including thin-thin, thick-thin-thick, xthick-thick-thin-thick-xthick.
    For Moye (1995), Scotch rules “are a thick and thin composite (or multiple) rule”.
    According to Barnhurst (2001), “Scotch rules, sets of double lines, with one thin and one thick”, replaced simple, single lines in newspaper typography of the 1810s and 1820. He doesn’t mention whether they were called like that back then.