Steven Heller | Essays

Vanity Fair Type: 1930 Style

Vanity Fair cover illustrated by Paolo Garetto, December 1931

In 1929, Vanity Fair magazine, the jewel in the crown of Condé Nast’s publishing empire, made typographic history. Influenced by Modern design trends throughout Europe, especially the Bauhaus, art director Dr. Mehemed Fehmy Agha introduced Paul Renner's Futuraand also did away with all capital letters in headlines on columns and feature articles. The result was at once jarring and elegant — illustrating the capital M of Modernism, through the sole use of lowercase letters. It was also an indication that Frank Crownishield (then editor of Vanity Fair), a highly respected literary figure and social bon vivant, and Mr. Nast, one of the most powerful men in mainstream publishing, trusted their Ukraine-born art director enough to let him challenge convention.

The lower case "experiment" certainly helped visually define Vanity Fair as a progressive force on the publishing scene for years to follow. However, in truth, its lowercase legend lasted longer than the reality. After only a year or so, just as suddenly as capitals disappeared, they reappeared in the March 1930 issue and the editors published a full-page editorial titled, "A Note on Typography." Such an explanation of design policy was a first for American magazines. The fact that Crownishied decided to "present the case pro and con capital letters in titles, writing finis to an experiment," was evidence of the stature of art direction and design in the Condé Nast empire. Today the following text is a model of design erudition and a textbook example of how graphic design can be discussed on a public stage.

Imaginary Interviews by Miguel Covarrubias, from December 1931 issue

Here is the article as it first appeared in Vanity Fair, March 1930:

A Note on Typography

Vanity Fair presents the case pro and con capital letters in titles, writing finis to an experiment.

Vanity Fair has for the past several months omitted capital letters in the titles and subtitles of its articles and illustrations. The hawk-eyed reader will note that this issue of Vanity Fair returns to capital letters. Posterity anyway will be grateful for a review of the considerations that have led Vanity Fair, first to dispense with capital letters in its headings and now, after a trial period of five issues, to return to them.

Typography without capital letters was introduced in Europe soon after the Great War and has been working westward ever since. It has not been used so much in text, but in all situations where the value of display is paramount it has been extremely popular. Thus, the intense competition of advertising, where the least optical advantage makes itself felt at once, has already made some modern typography familiar to Americans.

Capital letters are obviously Roman in origin, going back to the beginnings of our era. Small letters, on the other hand, are derived from the alphabet of medieval script, of scholarly longhand, dating from the time of Charlemagne, about 800 A.D. Its characteristics are governed by the natural movements of freehand writing and therefore in stylistic opposition to the simple stone-engraved capitals of the Roman alphabet. With the Renaissance and the revival of classical learning in the fifteenth century, the Roman alphabet was merged into writing, and later into printing, wherever capital letters were indicated. It would now seem illogical to continue to submit to what was simply an historical accident, a symbol for the conceit the Renaissance felt in its newly acquired sophistication in the culture of Rome. Probably, as a matter of fact, the mere omission of a capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence or a title is the least significant or permanent item in the program of the new typography. Any art, particularly any art with a function as utilitarian as that of typography, consciously or unconsciously conforms itself in the peculiar temper of the living and contemporary civilization.

The realization of this end takes the form of the arrangement of pictures on the page, of various kinds of type, of new methods of photography, of decorative treatment, of the massing of type on the page, and so forth. And incidentally the omission of capital letters in titles. All this is really compulsory for any magazine that pretends at all to a place in the modern parade. Nothing would amuse and shock the modern reader more than to pick up a current magazine composed in the fussy and dignified convention of magazines of the 1880’s.

The eye and the mind can adapt themselves to new forms with surprising ease. An innovation stands out at first like a sore thumb but before it has passed its infancy it has become invisible to the conscious eye. The unconscious eye, however, is another matter. It is vaguely dulled by the stale and hackneyed, it is antagonized by the tasteless and inept, and it is completely stopped by the involved and illegible. The unconscious eye is a remorseless critic of all art forms, it awards the final fame and final oblivion. Thus, the conscious eye may endorse at the very moment that the unconscious eye is absolutely condemning. And, on the other hand, the conscious eye may continue to complain irascibly of innovations for some time after the unconscious eye has given them its final approval.

In using, and continuing to use, the new typography, Vanity Fair believes that it knows very well what it is doing. In modifying one of the conventions of the new typography by returning to the use of capital letters in titles, it is obeying considerations that outlast any mere “revolution in style.”

Three main factors dominate typography: first, appropriateness, as affected by the time, the place and the function of the material; second, attractiveness, ingratiating the eye and so the mind; and finally and most importantly, legibility. The page may look as handsome as you please but if there is to be any authority in words and ideas the page must be read. A title set entirely in small letters is unquestionably more attractive than one beginning with a capital or with every word beginning with a capital, but, at the present time, it is also unquestionably harder to read because the eye of the reader is not yet educated to it. The issue is thus one between attractiveness and legibility, or between form and content, and Vanity Fair, not wishing to undertake a campaign of education casts its vote by returning to the use of capital letters in titles, to legibility, and to the cause of content above form.

It may be said here that Vanity Fair has always and will always cast its vote in that way. While it has tried to perfect its appearance, it has continued to believe that to refuse to be a Magazine of Opinion is not necessarily to be frivolous. Better things are said in one moment of even-tempered gaiety than in a lifetime of spleen.

The notes on this page are not alone to announce a change in typographic style, an event sufficiently self-evident and hardly worth announcing. They are even more particularly to re-affirm some old pledges of Vanity Fair and to submit to the final tribunal of its readers the credo of present policies. The assumption of its readers’ interest may be naïve but Vanity Fair rests in the belief that it is not unwarranted and subscribes itself, your very obedient servant.

Lowercase captions
Compromise: A headline from December 1931 issue with only one capital letter

Posted in: History, Media, Typography

Comments [9]

I met Dr. Agha in 1957 when he was a guest speaker in
Des Moines, Iowa for the Art Directors Club. I was with
LOOK magazine at the time. They had their direct mail
dept. located in the city where LOOK started as a Sunday
Supp. fpr the Register. Dr. Agha was very impressive and
dressed tp the hilt! His talk was about his famous
lolly pop campaign. Great article, as usual, Mr. Heller.
pat Taylor

Interesting read.

Futura has always been one of my favorites. I frequently use it as I begin a project as a place holder for text, though rarely finish with it.
It is interesting to read the statement:

"... if there is to be any authority in words and ideas the page must be read."

The flip side of this can be found in the likes of David Carson who said something to the effect that if someone wants to read it, they will regardless of "readability". I find this to be true, yet there is always an almost knee-jerk reaction with people when confronted with type that even barely blends into its surroundings.
I always take there response seriously but can't help myself and respond, "Really? Read it to me." They always can and it seems like it has more to do with patience than the treatment.
Courtney Stubbert

Good Stuff!!! Along the lines of Courtney above:

In modifying one of the conventions of the new typography by returning to the use of capital letters in titles, [Vanity Fair] is obeying considerations that outlast any mere “revolution in style.”

Also check out a recent discussion with Harold Evans on content and design.


Joe Moran

The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.

I find it interesting that vanity fair written in lower case letters on the cover of the October 1929 issue, works on a more formal level. It underlines the innocence of the angelic-looking youngster who is wreathed in leaves and flowers. Agha even picks up the pink color of her lips in the banner behind Vanity Fair. This is a “revolution in style.”

If Dr. Mehemed Fehmy Agha and Frank Crownishield were influenced by the Bauhaus, then it is important to mention that the Bauhaus
was greatly influenced by Goethe. In The Bauhaus 1919-1931, Herbert Bayer writes about a new typography: “Why should we write and print with two alphabets? Both a large a and a small sign are not necessary to indicate one single sound.

A = a

We do not speak a capital A and a small a. We need only a single alphabet”

Great work Steven. Thank you for sharing: A Note on Typography with us.
Carl W. Smith

An aside, since you show this cover of 1931: Have you noticed how wide and more even VANITY FAIR is spaced, compared to the current one whose tight spacing inevitably makes combinations like .AN.TY .AI. stand out?

P.S. Thanks for the link to Cornell University Library.

great Master otl aicher wrote his book "world as a project" entirely with lower case for various reasons like legibility, hierarchy and history.

capitals are a particular drama specially for German designers and typographers...

but aachen high case is so beautiful... XD

well done, steven

The use of all lower case letters on headlines or a cover logo back then was a bold move by an art director. As Mr. Smith posted above, Herbert Bayer (and Laszlow Moholy-Nagy) of the Bauhaus had only recently (around 1925?) been experimenting with the absence of capital letters. Bayer created a capital-letter-free typeface called universal that same year. (see the wikipedia entry for Herbert Bayer)

The use of Futura was probably refreshing at the time having only just been released by Mr. Renner (in 1929). He had brought back some of the useful characteristics of typefaces (text figures, italic/oblique, alternative characters) which had been mostly eliminated during the period of realism (Akzidenz Grotesk 1898) when typefaces went through, I guess you could call, a kind of cleansing period. So it was modern, beautiful and sophisticated.

James Reyman

Vanity Fair and Harper's Bazaar get all the hype when it comes to their historic illustrated covers. Granted, I'm biased, as I have spent a lot of time in our archives, but have you seen Billboard magazine's illustrated covers from 1894 through the 1930s?

Some can be seen on Facebook:

or on Wiikipedia:
Josh Klenert

I love the advertising styles of the 1930's. Often today, there are certain artists whose art is compared to advertising. Apparently it's supposed to be an insult. However I really think that advertising of the '30's is a fantastic and wonderful art form.


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