The Definitive Dwiggins no. 12—Tracking down an advertisement for Tiffany’s
For the past nine years I have been trying to track down the ephemeral advertising jobs that W.A. Dwiggins did in the years between 1906 and 1930. One that has been particularly elusive and vexing was an apparent advertisement for Tiffany’s.
There are three references in Dwiggins’ account books for such a job: May 14, 1909—“D.B.U. Border for Tiffany adv.”; July 1910 (no specific date)—“Johnson Printing Art Border lettering & initial Tiffany adv.” and August 3, 1910—“The Printing Art: border, lettering and initial for Tiffany advertisement $12… paid”. I assumed that there were two jobs, one commissioned by Daniel Berkeley Updike of The Merrymount Press and one commissioned, the following year, by Henry Lewis Johnson of The Printing Art. But I could find no advertisement in any of the magazines of the time—e.g. The Saturday Evening Post, Vogue, etc.—that seemed plausible. And I struck out looking through microfilm of New York City newspapers. From time to time I looked online through Google Books, eBay and other sources for Tiffany ephemera but still no luck—until now.
For some reason this morning, while looking for something else related to Dwiggins. it occurred to me to look in trade journals to see if his work was not for Tiffany’s per se but for an article about Tiffany’s. And, after searching through three volumes of The Printing Art, I struck pay dirt. I found an unsigned article entitled “Typographic Deficiencies and Reset Forms VI”—part of a series—in the September 1910 issue (pp. 41–43) that showed two advertisements for Tiffany’s in “before and after” mode. There was no mention of Dwiggins but the “reset” design sported a border, lettering (for Tiffany’s name and address) and an initial that matched the account book entry.
The description of the two advertisements is blunt and honest, though not as brutal as contemporary design assessments in the blogosphere. Of the original advertisement the anonymous author wrote:
The headline is not attractive and looks like a worn-out plate. There is no harmony between the “Della Robbia” type and the heading. The two bottom lines introduce a still further element of inconsistency in the “French Old Style” and the “Condensed De Vinne.” Furthermore, the page has an effect of heaviness at the bottom, not only on account of the size, but because of the position of the address line. There should have been approximately the same space below this line as the side margins of the type matter. The parallel rule border line would harmonize better with Old Style typography. It is without any significance in connection with this advertisement.
And of Dwiggins’ version he said:
The rule border harmonizes well with the design, but the importance of the advertisements would seem to warrant even an engraved form. The lettering does not differ much in color value from the original form, but has a style and quality in reproduction consistent with the status of the firm. The engraved initial also gives a slight accentuation which is missing from the original.
Since the original advertisement is said to have appeared in magazines in August 1910*, my assumption is that Dwiggins’ redesign was commissioned by Henry Lewis Johnson rather than Tiffany’s. That would explain the payment of $25. But why The Printing Art did not identify him is a mystery. As is the Tiffany advertisement commissioned by Updike the year before.
This is a minor item in Dwiggins’ oeuvre. It looks ordinary to us today. Yet it is instructive. It shows American graphic design moving toward work that is simpler and more unified than that of the Arts & Crafts era of the 1890s. The number of typefaces is reduced, contrast is emphasized, the typefaces (and lettering) is more legible and self-effacing, and white space is opened up. Borders remain but they are harmonized with the other elements of the design. The only decorative element—and one that seems a bit small to me—is the floral initial V. For a store like Tiffany’s though, that small frilly touch is appropriate.
*but the design is one that had been used for a long time, at least as far back as May 1909. See Country Life in America. Thus, making Dwiggins’ entry for Updike even more mystifying.