The origin of ragged-right typography

Posted: January 11, 2017 in Anarchism
Tags: , , , , , ,

The latest issue of Le Bulletin du CIRA (72), Automne 2016 (Centre de Recherches sur l’Anarchisme) has a brief but enlightening note, “L’invention de la typographie en drapeau” (pp.34-35), on the origins of ragged-right type: the style was invented in 1894 by the influential 19th-century American individualist anarchist (and typesetter) Benjamin Tucker, editor and publisher of the long-running anarchist paper, Liberty, and author of Instead of a Book.

Benjamin TuckerAt the time, fully justified type was almost universal, and handset type was still very commonly used, especially by small papers and magazines. With that means of typesetting, to produce justified type you have to insert additional spacers between words to produce lines of the same length, a time-consuming process.

To save time, Tucker came up with the idea of getting rid of the additional spacers and having the type justified only on the left margin, rather than fully justified. This was a radical enough innovation that Tucker devoted the front page of the March 24, 1894 issue of Liberty to justifying (sorry, couldn’t resist) the use of ragged-right type (“left justified” type in computerese). Here’s the opening of the first paragraph of “A Typographical Reform.”:

The first impression upon the minds of the readers of Liberty as they open their issue of this paper will be that the editor has either gone crazy or been seized by a mania for writing blank verse, but I hope and believe that further examination and a sober second thought will convince them that, far from being the freak of a lunatic or poet, this paper is the inauguration of a most useful, prosaic, practical, and enormously useful reform, — an invention indeed (if it can be called such) which, if generally adopted, will add fully one-third to the importance of the invention of printing itself.

Your guess is as good as mine as to how Tucker came up with “one-third”; nonetheless, his invention of ragged-right type was a significant typographical step forward. Justified type is still the rule, but ragged-right type is commonly used (as in this blog) and oits invention really was a significant step forward.

It’s but one of a great many useful innovations made by anarchists over the years. One can’t help but wish that more of them, especially those in the political and social sphere, had been put into practice.

 

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