Typefounding on the frontier: The first Canadian types


Imagine you are a 19th-century English missionary posted to a remote community in Manitoba, then part of Upper Canada, and your job is to evangelize the natives—only half of whom can read English. There are several local languages but they share no common orthography and there are no printed prayer books, Bibles or other materials in the languages of the locals. How, then, do you preach the gospel? James Evans (1801–1846) was just such a missionary and admirably rose to this challenge, learning several languages, inventing a new system of orthography and, in the true frontier spirit, producing his own type from bullets and the lead lining of tea chests. These were the first Canadian types. Matrices were made by carving letterforms in endgrain Oak, ink made from lampblack and fish oil, paper made from birch bark, etc.

If you’re curious about Evans’ work, you’ll be interested in the experiment Ross Mills carried out over at Tiro Typeworks: Ross, a type designer who works in the digital medium (and, with his Tiro partner John Hudson, has created digital fonts for the Canadian syllabic scripts Inuktitut and Cree) has tried to duplicate Evans’ method of fashioning matrices, type, and paper and has recorded the experiment in photos, which you can see here. Read more about Evans’ evangelical work here.

—Paul Razzell