I found a free font called Old Standard TT which seems to be a very faithful reproduction of a late 1800s modern serif font, so couldn’t resist giving it a try. No, it’s not up to the quality of a commercial font (for openers, it’s missing the ff, ffi, and ffl ligatures), but I’m budget sensitive and the price is right. Plus this is just a web page; its not as if I’m setting printed type.
We’ll see if this lasts. Right now, the layout smacks too much of sticking an old-fashioned font into a design which otherwise was intended to harmonize with modernist sans-serif type. I’ve been poking at it trying to change things, so I suspect the answer as to whether the new layout will last is how easy it ends up being to bend CSS to my will and make it generate a more appealing layout.
And yes, this is modern serif you are seeing, despite it today being a style of years past. Much of the serif type one sees in production books (or on web sites) these days are actually far older designs that were revived (the popular Baskerville font dates from the mid-1700s, and Garamond dates from the 1500s).
Update: It didn’t last. First, the fine aspects of Victorian Modern Serif fonts just don’t seem to map well to screen pixels. Modern screens much more closely approximate the papers and inks of 200 or more years ago, which together had difficulty reproducing the fine details that were added in the Victorian era as a sign of modernity. Second, there’s the matter of the missing ligatures. Libre Baskerville, like its original namesake, was designed to cope with less-than-ideal resolution, and it comes with a full set of ligatures. So I think I’ll use that. It has at least some of the look I was aiming for, and it’s better to pull off some of a look and succeed than to attempt all of it and fail.