Etiquette at TypeCon. Why?

July 22, 2008

I was delighted that my lecture, “Etiquette and Typography” was so well received at TypeCon 2008 in Buffalo this past weekend.

To my great satisfaction, a diverse number of individuals—old, young, male and female—so many people came up or wrote to thank me for my lecture that I began to think about why.  

It was with great interest that I watched Ken Barber’s presentation from House Industries;  much of the iconography for the product they make comes from the time period that I discussed.  

Mid-century America was a special time, filled with optimism and opportunities for economic and social advancement.  The clothes, houses, interiors, manners and work ethics symbolize this optimistic and upwardly mobile period.  After a half century of world strife it was a relief to think of poodle skirts, bowling, prosperity and good hygiene.  As I mentioned in my talk, there is comfort in order and the pursuit of order was the pursuit of happiness for the United States in the 1950s and 60s.

My favorite photograph of my dad is pictured here.  My dad entered the coast guard during clean-up operations after WWII to utilize the G.I. bill which then paid for his college education.  His first job, and, the job he did until retiring very recently, was to open up markets all over the world for the purpose of selling used clothing (rags) and army surplus.  When I was growing up dad would travel to everywhere except South America and Russia.  He sold or stopped-over in Western Europe, the Middle East, the entire African continent, Japan and Hong Kong (China was closed then so trade was not possible and travel there for his purpose would be futile.)  There are African countries on his passport that no longer exist.

But what I love about this photo, and I have discussed this with dad since, is that there he stands in a suit and a tie on the ruins of a civilization destroyed.  Granted, the Acropolys has been in ruins for centuries but as a symbol for the way he felt when he traveled the world with his brief case of American samples must have been a form of mastery.  America had saved the world and the world was grateful.  

The cynic in me says, okay, the world was grateful for the American dollars he brought.  But he always felt welcome abroad which is a far cry from sentiments about America now.  

My point is that we felt hopeful and proud so we dressed and acted like this, too.

Why then, I wonder, is this sudden interest in manners and protocols and symbols of an American time that has been derided in movies and popular culture?  Why are we attracted to hand lettered types and fusty-dusty engraving?  Are we just yearning for simpler times when America was perceived to be great?  I wonder


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