BLOOMINGTON — If the surname of Bloomington-born Frederic W. Goudy somehow rings a bell, it’s probably because you’re familiar — if but only in passing — with the Goudy family of typefaces. Amazingly, 65 years after his death, several of his classic types, such as Goudy Old Style and Copperplate, remain in common circulation.
One could argue that Goudy, who spent his early formative years in Bloomington, was the most prolific and influential designer of type in American history; by the end of his life, the “great letter shaper” had created no less than 124 typefaces.
For those unfamiliar with this field, a typeface involves a set of characters, including letters, numbers and punctuation marks, of the same design. Many readers will be familiar with some of the more popular (albeit non-Goudy) typefaces, including Arial, Helvetica and Times.
The self-taught Goudy adhered to the principle “form follows function,” and as such rejected the cluttered and overly ornamental typeface styles common in the 19th century, and instead championed clean, legible and often starkly beautiful lettering. Some of his other types include Californian, Camelot, Forum, Hadriano and Kennerly.
He was born on March 8, 1865, at the family house on the 600 block of East Jefferson Street. His father was a public schoolteacher and later principal (interestingly, the family went by Gowdy until learning of the Scotch-Irish spelling). They lived in Bloomington until 1879, save three years in the early 1870s when Goudy père taught in other Illinois towns.
Although Frederic Goudy did not fully embark on a career in typeface design and printing until in his late 30s/early 40s, he manifested telltale interest in these fields as early as his Bloomington years. At the age of ten, for instance, Goudy began producing proficient pencil copies of wood engravings he found in magazines. “Strangely enough,” he recalled as an adult, “after copying one of these carefully, I could make a good facsimile of it from memory.”
In 1876, at the age of ten or 11, Goudy made the most of a fortuitous meeting at the southeast corner of the McLean County courthouse square. It was there he bumped into a street peddler demonstrating a “simple wooden contraption” known as a pantograph (not to be confused with the name of this newspaper!) This tool, with a point at one end and a pencil or crayon at the other, enabled one to trace an image and have it roughly duplicated at the other end. “This particular year  sticks out in my memory as the beginning of my art career,” Goudy once said.
The Goudys left Bloomington for good three years later, and after stops in Shelbyville and several other downstate communities, the family headed for South Dakota, where Frederic Goudy worked as a bookkeeper. After brief stays in Minneapolis and Springfield, he made his way to Chicago, and it was in the more bohemian corners of the Windy City that the frustrated bookkeeper fell in love with the idea of fine printing.
He married Bertha Sprinks of Berwyn in 1897, and the couple (with Bertha becoming an accomplished type compositor) eventually settled outside of Marlboro, N.Y. There they made a cozy home on a rolling, wooded tract, with its white-frame farmhouse and a converted mill as a print workshop. Goudy, who was said to work “with the zeal of a medieval artisan,” embraced craftsmanship as a reaction to the ethos of the Machine Age, and was able to design, engrave and cast his own type without having to wait weeks for commercial engravers.
Bertha died in 1935 (Goudy would go on to name his 100th type Bertham), and four years later the workshop burned to the ground, claiming some 75 original typeface designs and the matrices for many more — a loss of what he called “the soul of my foundry.”
Goudy died at his estate on May 11, 1947, at the age of 82. Such was his reputation that The New York Times acknowledged the passing with a series of articles. “Frederic Goudy’s name will be remembered as long as the art of printing lasts,” remarked the “newspaper of record.”
Seven years earlier, the Associated Press visited Goudy on the occasion of his 75th birthday. “I don’t feel like dying,” he told the reporter in his matter-of-fact style. “I would begin the study of Greek today if I thought I needed it. I have always been hopeful. But what I am, or what I think is unimportant. The art, the things created are important.”