Pica or Elite?

Transcribed below. The description of Pica and Elite type at the end of the article comes from Service Instructions for the Remington “Blind” Typewriter.

Pica or Elite?

Typewriter type comes in two pitches: Pica and Elite.

Like most absolute statements, this one is subject to qualification. In fact, there are so many qualifications that they could be their own article. European typewriters often write in other pitches, and specialty typewriters that write larger or smaller were made for particular purposes. But for the average American typewriter picked up in a flea market or thrift store, the rule is almost completely reliable: the type will be either Pica or Elite?

So what is “pitch,” anyway? And where did those two names for it come from?

In typeset text, different letters take up different widths on the page: M is wider than I. But every letter made by a type- writer takes up the same width. (Another absolute statement subject to qualification: there were typewriters with proportional spacing, but the mechanical complexity of moving the carriage differently according to which letter was being typed made those machines expensive or fiddly or both.) “Pitch,” then, is the number of characters per inch of width. Pica type is 10 characters per inch; Elite type is 12.

The names became standard very early in the history of the typewriter. “Pica” has an obvious meaning: it was named for being about the size of a printer’s pica type, 12 points. “Elite” may have been the name of a style at first rather than a pitch, but by the turn of the twentieth century it was firmly established as the name for 12-pitch type of any style.

Now that we’ve done our best to sort out what the names mean and where they come from, how do we decide which one to use?

If you have one typewriter, it’s an easy decision. You use the typewriter you have, and you don’t worry about pitch.

But if you have a choice, here’s a good rule of thumb: use Pica type for double-spaced manuscripts, Elite type for single-spaced correspondence.

In the days when manuscripts were written on typewriters, publishers expected pica type, double-spaced, with one-inch mar- gins. That made their calculations easy: they knew on average how many words would fit on a page, and they simply had to count pages and multiply to get a word count.

On the other hand, Elite type is usually more attractive single-spaced. Both Pica and Elite machines (with trivial exceptions) use the same line spacing: six lines per inch. The proportion of type size to line spacing is more like printed text with Elite type, and therefore feels more natural to read.

Now that we have established that rule, we can feel free to violate it. This text (which is obviously single-spaced) is written on a Pica machine, the Smith- Corona Sterling, even though an Elite Woodstock is right over there on the other side of the room. We just happened to think that the Sterling could do with some exercise today.

Incidentally, here is what a manual from around 1900 or so has to say about the uses of Pica and Elite:

PICA. Popular, standard style for correspondence and general work. Ten characters to the inch.

ELITE. Is used largely for personal correspondence. Much matter in small space without crowded appearance.

One response to “Pica or Elite?”

  1. […] designed for IBM in the 1950s; the generic term for monospaced typewriter type in America is “Pica” or “Elite,” depending on the pitch. It is a tribute to Courier’s success that it nearly took over that […]

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What Is This Place?

There is a certain amusing dissonance about a site on the Web whose theme is writing by making marks on paper. But that is not the only dissonance you will find here. This is a supplement to Dr. Boli’s Celebrated Magazine, and we’ll have long digressions on random subjects, instructional articles about writing instruments, and even poetry—but everything will be written out on paper, and only then published to the electronic world at large.