Minion, Ruby, Brevier, Long Primer and More

Where do the exotic-sounding names for some classic Bible editions come from? What's so long about the Long Primer, for example, and what makes the Brevier more brev than any other layout? Why is the Ruby a ruby instead of a pearl? Is the Pitt Minion intended only for the henchmen of a certain Mr. Pitt? The solution to these mysteries can be found by consulting The Handy Book of Artisitc Printing.

It seems the names have to do with typefaces — not the style of the type, but rather its height. Back in the days of metal type, there was an understandable lack of uniformity from press to press. This changed when the point system was introduced. Suddenly the size and height of type could be standardized for consistency no matter where a book was printed. And the sizes came with nifty names, like so:

So Oxford would have christened its new edition of the KJV the Long Primer in reference to the size of type within. If you wanted a nice, large, readble font, the Long Primer was for you. If you could manage smaller type, perhaps you would prefer the Brevier, or even a tiny Nonpareil. This chart gives an idea of what the names denoted in terms of point size:


So the Long Primer would have 10 pt. type, the Brevier 8 pt., and the Ruby a miniscule 3.5 pt. The Minion of Pitt Minion fame would clock in at 7 pt. (the Pitt in Pitt Minion is a reference to a building at Cambridge, not a type size). Those of you longing for large print editions might want to hunt for the Great Primer (18 pt.) or perhaps the splendidly named Paragon (20 pt.), though I suspect no such Bibles were ever printed. 

The Handy Book of Artistic Printing is a great resource for those of you who've sipped the letterpress Kool-Aid recently, as I have. Full of elaborate examples of nineteenth century decorative printing and arcane facts about the mysteries of the press, it's a nice way to while away the hours. Not to mention, you can menace friends and family with the thought that, to be considered truly canonical, shouldn't the Bible be printed in 44 pt. "Canon" type?


4 Comments on “Minion, Ruby, Brevier, Long Primer and More

  1. Well, back in the 60’s when I was taught printing (on an old Heidelburg platen press) it went like this. The name was associated with the shape of the letters, the font, which was available in many sizes. The size was given in points, so we had 10 point Goudy, 12 point Bookman etc. I remember these beautiful type face books the type makers published that you would order your type from. I would peruse them for hours wanting to order some of each (like the bibles you review). They appear to be worth big bucks these days. Some times I really miss the smell of printers ink, computers smell of the dust they inhale and collect on the heat sinks.

  2. I learned on a late 80s Linotype machine, Nick, which I associate with the smell of the chemicals I had to mix in order to “develop” the artwork … not as nice a memory. I’d always assumed that Brevier, Minion, etc., were references to specific typefaces, as they are today, but this info suggests a more complicated history.

  3. I have a spiffy Oxford Specimens of Type book, the sort of book a Bible salesman would have carried to show page and type examples of Bibles, editions of the Book of Common Prayer, and altar service books.
    There are various samples printed in Great Primer and Double Pica. Paragon and Double Small Pica seemed to have been skipped over. However, Oxford has two sizes, Royal and Imperial, sized between Great Primer and Double Pica. Perhaps they correspond to Paragon and Double Small Pica.

  4. A fine typeface list indeed, but some of the Bible standards like Emerald and Gem are missing. Two other lists have been posted before by David from Ireland here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *