Before 1984, I had never encountered the word “font.” Then a Macintosh computer showed up in my house.
A beige block with a too-small black and white screen and a thingy called a “mouse,” the first thing I saw when I turned it on was “Welcome to Macintosh” in what I would soon learn was a font called Chicago. Both the smily Mac and the Chicago font that greeted anyone booting up a Mac in the mid ’80s were designed by Susan Kare, and they both captured the friendly, accessible new era of computing that made the Mac so revolutionary.
There wasn’t much to do on it right away. I got a text adventure game version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy because a clerk at Egghead Software dropped a shelf on my mom’s head and gave it to her as a “please don’t sue us” gift. Otherwise, I had MacPaint and MacWrite where I could draw and type whatever I could think of, and there was a menu of fonts to choose from — not just Chicago, but a list of fonts named for world cities. Monaco, London, San Francisco, Cairo. Words weren’t just words, they could be design, history, geography.
I was hooked. I made newsletters for my classes, typed and printed my reports wondering if I was even allowed to, and, without fail, used as many fonts per page as I could squeeze in. Restraint wasn’t my strength.
The US Font Map
Of course, typography didn’t start with the Mac, and it has hardly stood still since 1984. The friendly curves of Chicago no longer grace my font menu, but as the number of fonts online has grown and grown, it started to seem everywhere in America had its own typeface. Just how many fonts are named for American places?
The answer is 222. That’s not actually the answer, it’s just where I had to stop, because the more I looked the more I found. What started as a quirky challenge to make a US font map during COVID-19 quarantine days started to edge into obsessive-compulsive territory. I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “Did I check to see if there’s a Boise font?” (I did. There isn’t.) I finally found the limit to how many fonts I could use in one place.
Typography fans will undoubtedly spot ones I missed, or know different fonts with the same name. San Francisco is both a modern font used by Apple and a long-gone font from early Macs designed to look like a ransom note. Some may also know these fonts by alternate names: Californian is also called Berkeley Old Style, Cupertino is clearly a play on Cooper Black, and Tombstone, eerily, was once offered under the name Jim Crow.
Many of these fonts have stories that clearly tie them to a specific time and place. Georgia, one of the more common fonts used today, got its name from a tabloid headline that read “Alien Heads Found in Georgia.” Fayette is based on the handwriting of an accountant who kept detailed records of the now ghost town of the same name on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Tahoma is one of the pre-European names for Mt. Rainier, as is Tacoma, which is also a font. Others are less clear. Is Huntington named for the city in West Virginia, or the library in Southern California? Is Hiawatha named for the town in Iowa, or does it belong in Minnesota by the shores of Gitche Gumee?
The concentration of fonts on the map largely follows the concentration of people (and designers). California, the Great Lakes region, Texas and New York have more than their fair share. If I had zoomed in on New York City, I could have added Battery Park, Bleecker, Bronx, Bushwick, Central Park, Fifth Avenue, Flatbush Beanery, Harlem, Lower East Side, Murray Hill, Park Slope, Sedgwick Avenue, Tribeca, Washington Heights, probably half a dozen typefaces named “Brooklyn,” and that’s hardly a complete list.
This isn’t to say that America has no more room for fonts, in fact there’s a lot of open country to explore for typographic inspiration. As tempted as I was to use Mothman or Country Roads for West Virginia, the state could use some typographic love. If you’re a typographer or just interested in trying your hand at designing a new American font, I’ll leave you with a list of areas eagerly awaiting a font of their own:
Challenges for Typeface Designers to Fill in the US Font Map
- Route 66: Nearly all of the cities mentioned in the song “Route 66” have a typeface named after them. We need Gallup and Barstow to complete the set.
- Territories: The US Territories are sadly overlooked. Some of these names are perfect for a great typeface. Puerto Rico. Viejo San Juan. Vieques. St. Croix. St. Thomas. American Samoa. Pago Pago. Tutuila. Ofu. Guam. Ypao Beach. Tinian. And someone needs to make up for this typographic insult to Saipan.
- State Gaps: There are still some states that need their own font. Fill in the gaps for your favorite states, including: West Virginia, either Carolina, Maine, either Dakota, Missouri, Rhode Island or New Jersey.
- National Parks: Yes, there is a free font that reproduces the iconic look of National Park Service signs (and you can get the current fonts the Park Service uses across the system), but only a handful of typeface designs have been inspired by individual parks. Could there be more? Undoubtedly.
- Native American Fonts: There are several fonts for Native American language systems available, but there’s so much opportunity here to provide new design options and help preserve endangered languages.
US Fonts by State
I have included a link below for each typeface included in the US font map, but note that there are often multiple sources for fonts both free and paid. If you love those old Apple fonts, you can get modern replacements for many of them, or get extra geeky with the original fonts and a Mac emulator.