The Definitive Dwiggins no. 15—The Origins of Metro

With the release of Metro Nova by Toshi Omagari in 2013, there has been renewed interest in Metro by W.A. Dwiggins. And with that renewed interest has come misinformation. has a brief history of Metro’s origins that manages to garble the facts, most of which are well-known. Here is their text:

One day in the late 1920s, C. H. Griffiths, who was responsible for typographic development at Mergenthaler Linotype at the time, read a magazine article bemoaning the lack of worthy sans serif typefaces available for Linotype composition. The article was written by William Addison Dwiggins, an eminent calligrapher, illustrator, writer and graphic designer of the day. Rather than ignoring Dwiggins’ rant, Griffiths sent him a letter that, in essence, offered, “If you think you know so much, let’s see the sans serif you can draw.”

Dwiggins rose to the challenge – and it wasn’t long before “typeface designer” became the newest of his accomplishments. Metro quickly became a mainstay of graphic design in North America. Its widespread prominence lasted until the early 1950s, when faces from Europe began to find their way across the Atlantic. Metro also proved to be the first of 17 typeface families Dwiggins would draw for Linotype.

Here is the true story along with some additional suppositions on my part.

In late 1927 or early 1928 W.A. Dwiggins completed the manuscript for Layout in Advertising, a book that summed up what he had learned during the past decade and a half as a commercial artist. He designed the book as well, setting it in Granjon, a new version of “Garamond” by George W. Jones that had just been released by English Linotype and quickly made available by Mergenthaler Linotype in the United States. Dwiggins described Granjon as “a corking good face”. [1] The jacket design, completed in June, used, “a startling ornament” that Dwiggins had been having “some fun with lately” and that could “be depended on to catch the eye.” [2]

Layout in Advertising by W.A. Dwiggins (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1928). Jacket design by Dwiggins.

Layout in Advertising by W.A. Dwiggins (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1928). Jacket design by Dwiggins.

Layout in Advertising was published by Harper & Brothers in October 1928. It was immediately reviewed in Advertising & Selling by Harry L. Gage of the Bartlett-Orr Press who was also the Assistant Director of Linotype Typography at Mergenthaler Linotype. [3] Gage was enthusiastic about the book, praising Dwiggins for doing a thorough and precise job. He even liked the “unusual scheme of illustrations,” referring to Dwiggins’ decision to use only drawings of fictitious products and services to support his arguments. “Cubs, juniors and seniors in all branches of advertising will profit directly in its study,” Gage wrote. “Marked copies will be diplomatically presented to many a captious and dictatorial client. It will inevitably form one of the few real contributions thus far to be listed among the useful studies of the making of advertising.” [4]

On February 25, 1929 Gage wrote to Dwiggins, quoting a passage from Layout in Advertising:

Gothic—the newspaper standby—in its various manifestations has little to commend it except simplicity; it is not overly legible, it has no grace. Gothic capitals are indispensable, but there are no good Gothic capitals. The typefounders will do a service to advertising if they will provide a Gothic of good design. [5]

Noting that there was no precedent for Linotype hiring outside type designers, Gage offered Dwiggins $1400-1500 to design a good sans serif. Two days later Dwiggins responded that “there have been two ‘gothics of good design’ furnished us—the Kabel and the Futura—and Eric Gill has drawn another….” but that “These new faces are fine in the capitals and bum in the lower-case….” [6] On March 6 he wrote again to Gage accepting the offer of $1500, saying that he would begin his sans serif design with the light and heavy weights. [7] Thus began the design of Metro.

Dwiggins’ challenge to the type founders to produce a “Gothic of good design” had been accepted by Gage of Mergenthaler Linotype who, in turn, had dared Dwiggins to come up with a such a sans serif. And Dwiggins had welcomed the dare. This is the standard story of the genesis of Metro. But it is not the full story. The exchange between Gage and Dwiggins was, in my view, part of an orchestrated campaign by the two men to convince C.H. Griffith, Director of Typography at Mergenthaler Linotype, to hire Dwiggins as a freelance designer.

Harry L. Gage, Assistant Director of Linotype Typography. From The Linotype Magazine (September 1927), p. 171.

Harry L. Gage, Assistant Director of Linotype Typography. From The Linotype Magazine (September 1927), p. 171.

Harry Lawrence Gage (1887–1982) was born into a printing family. His grandfather William C. Gage and father Fred W. Gage founded the William C. Gage & Sons Printing Company in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1883. It became the Gage Printing Company, Ltd. in 1900. Over the next quarter-century Fred W. Gage became a leading figure in the printing industry as an active member of the United Typothetae, the Employing Photo Engravers Association of America, the International Photo Engravers Association, the International Electrotypers Association,  the Associated Advertising Clubs, and the Graphic Arts Association. [8]

Harry L. Gage followed in his father’s footsteps. After attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he joined his father’s company as head of its Art Department in 1909. Two years later he also became head of the Art Department at Postum Cereal in Battle Creek. In 1913 he left both positions to become the first director of the new Department of Printing at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. [9] There he was re-united with Thomas Wood Stevens who had been an Instructor in Illustration and Lettering at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago when he was a student there. At Carnegie Tech Stevens was Professor of Dramatic Art and head of the Drama Department. But he still had an interest in lettering. Gage provided Stevens with advice and material for his book Lettering (New York et al: The Prang Company, 1916). [10]

Figure 49—Heavy capitals, small letters, and numerals, for block cutting by Harry Lawrence Gage. From Lettering by Thomas Wood Stevens (New York: The Prang Company, 1916).

Figure 49—Heavy capitals, small letters, and numerals, adapted to block cutting by Harry Lawrence Gage. From Lettering by Thomas Wood Stevens (New York: The Prang Company, 1916).

Lettering contained ten plates by Gage. It also had three by Dwiggins (nos. 19, 35 and 37), the first of which had previously appeared in Stevens’ earlier book  Lettering for Printers & Designers (Chicago: The Inland Printer Company, 1906). [11] Most likely Gage was first introduced to Dwiggins through the 1906 book which must have been used in Stevens’ lettering classes at the SAIC. But there is no evidence the two men met until the 1920s.

In 1919 Gage left Carnegie Tech and joined the Bartlett-Orr Press in New York City. By 1922 he had also become the Assistant Director of Linotype Typography at Mergenthaler Linotype. It is highly likely that he met Dwiggins that year. The Second Educational Graphic Arts Exposition (organized by the Boston Club of Printing House Craftsmen in connection with the Third Annual Convention of the International Association of Printing House Craftsmen) was held at the Mechanics Building in Boston from August 28 to September 2. Part of the festivities included a Honor Hall showcasing the best of contemporary printing. Dwiggins was a member of the Honor Hall Exhibition Committee and Gage was a member of the jury. [12]

Poster for "Modernism in Typography" talk for the Society of Printers by Harry L. Gage, 9 December 1927

Poster for “Modernism in Typography” talk by Harry L. Gage for the Society of Printers on 9 December 1927. Poster design by W.A. Dwiggins.

Gage and Dwiggins crossed paths again in late 1927 when the Society of Printers invited Gage to speak on “Modernism in Typography.” Because of his “interest in modernism” Dwiggins was asked by Thacher Nelson, the Secretary of the Society, to design the poster announcing Gage’s talk. [13] That the two men must have met at some point other than at Gage’s talk is suggested by a comment at the end of his review of Layout in Advertising: “Copywriters will enjoy the informal and pungent style which reflects the author as one meets him in his studio.” [14]

I believe that Gage sought out Dwiggins during his December 1927 visit to Boston in order to talk to him about designing type for Mergenthaler Linotype. The idea had already been planted in his head by Laurance B. Siegfried (1892–1978), Gage’s colleague at the Bartlett-Orr Press and Dwiggins’ cousin. [15] Siegfried left the Bartlett-Orr Press in early 1928 to become the assistant editor of Advertising & Selling. In that capacity it is highly likely that he commissioned Gage’s review of Layout in Advertising. The review was not entirely objective. In his February 27, 1929 response to Gage’s type design offer Dwiggins thanked him for his help with Layout in Advertising. [16]

Exactly how Gage helped Dwiggins with the book is unclear, though several possibilities come to mind: 1.  as the author of Applied Design for Printers (1920), he may have provided feedback on the manuscript; 2. in his capacity as the Assistant Director of Linotype Typography he may have given Dwiggins advice on the section about typefaces in the book; or 3. in that same capacity he may have played a role in making Granjon available for setting the book. In either of the first two scenarios, Gage would have been aware of the sans serif challenge to the typefounders that Dwiggins was issuing. He may even have encouraged it as a means of providing an excuse to subsequently invite Dwiggins to become an outside type designer for Linotype.

Such a scenario is built upon speculation, but it is wholly in keeping with the ways in which Dwiggins frequently sought to achieve his professional aspirations. Throughout his career, he relied on others—principally Laurance B. Siegfried, Paul Hollister, Carl Purington Rollins, Paul A. Bennett, Paul Standard, Philip Hofer, and his alter ego Hermann Püterschein—to suggest that he be hired to carry out specific assignments or to take on general jobs. [17]

The story of Metro’s genesis was quickly spread by Gage and Paul A. Bennett, Typographic Promotion Manager at Mergenthaler Linotype. Bennett was presumably the author of the text for the first type specimens of Metrolite and Metroblack that appeared in December 1929. “When W.A. Dwiggins summarized current type faces in his recent book ‘Layout in Advertising,’ he called attention to the unexplored possibilities of design in the so-called gothics,” the specimens said. “His challenge was accepted by the Linotype Company which sought his co-operation in design.” Gage spun the story slightly differently as part of a survey of Linotype activities for 1929 in the January 4, 1930 issue of Printing. “Giving ear to the necessities of modernism,” he wrote, “the Linotype company accepted the challenge of Mr. W.A. Dwiggins, ‘Why doesn’t a composing machine company produce an interesting gothic?’ They turned his own proposition back on Mr. Dwiggins with the ingenious result found in metrolite [sic] and metroblack [sic]. This is a sans serif letter which differs from the older monoline tradition in gothic by deliberately varying the elements as necessary to facilitate legibility. For further ease of reading, none of the round letters are perfect circles, due to a belief that the geometric circle introduced into a work tends to stop the eye instead of allowing it to read through.” [18] Even in the beginning, the truth was already being altered.

Metrolite and Metroblack type specimen (c.1929). Courtesy of the California Historical Society.

Metrolite and Metroblack type specimen (c.1929). The brochure is folded to show the Metrolite panel. Courtesy of the California Historical Society.

As indicated earlier Dwiggins began Metro by drawing the light and heavy weights first, i.e. Metrolite and Metroblack. They were released in December 1929. The other two weights (Metrothin and Metromedium) were carried out by the staff at Mergenthaler Linotype with input from Dwiggins in the first half of 1930. [19] Contrary to, Metro did not quickly become a “mainstay of graphic design in North America”. It took Linotype three years—and a major overhaul of the design—to turn Metro into Metro no. 2,  a typeface that printers, advertisers and designers wanted. And even then, Mergenthaler found it necessary in 1939 to create Spartan, a clone of Futura, to have a competitive geometric sans serif typeface in its library. [20]

[1] W.A. Dwiggins to Arthur W. Rushmore 21 May 1928. Boston Public Library, Dwiggins 2001, Box 12, Folder 855.
[2] W.A. Dwiggins to Arthur W. Rushmore. 9 June 1928. Boston Public Library, Dwiggins 2001, Box 12, Folder 856.
[3] See Advertising & Selling, 17 October 1928, pp. 108–109. Gage took on a third role in February 1929 when he became the head of The William H. Denney  Company, an advertising agency that handled publicity for Mergenthaler Linotype. See both Printing 23 February 1929, p. 15 and Printing 28 December 1929, p. 41.
[4] Review of Layout in Advertising by Harry L. Gage in Advertising & Selling, 17 October 1928, p. 108.
[5] Harry L. Gage to W.A. Dwiggins, 25 February 1929. University of Kentucky, C.H. Griffith Papers, Box 6, Metroblack Folder. The quotation is from Layout in Advertising by W.A. Dwiggins (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1928), pp. 23–24.
[6] W.A. Dwiggins to Harry L. Gage, 27 February 1929. University of Kentucky, C.H. Griffith Papers, Box 6, Metroblack Folder.
[7] W. A. Dwiggins to Harry L. Gage, 6 March 1929. University of Kentucky, C.H. Griffith Papers, Box 6, Metroblack Folder.
[8] See History of Calhoun County, Michigan: A Narrative Account of its Historical Progress, its People, and its Principal Interests by Washington Gardner (Chicago and New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1913), vol. II, pp. 1006–1007 for some background on William C. Gage and Fred W. Gage.
[9] The Department of Printing was part of the School of Applied Industries. Gage was also an Instructor in Lettering in the School of Applied Design. See the Bulletin of the Carnegie Institute of Technology (General Catalogue 1915–1916), p. 19.
[10] The book was a revised version of Lettering for Printers and Designers (Chicago: The Inland Printer Company, 1906). The biggest change was the plates. The new book contained ten plates by Gage: no. 2 Roman Capitals from Renaissance sources, no. 13 Roman Capitals written with a wide pen, no. 22 Heavy square-serif Roman Capitals, no. 32 Capitals and small letters influenced by the Japanese, no. 46 Small letters written with a wide pen, no. 49 Heavy capitals, small letters, and numerals, adapted to block cutting, no. 56 Unaccented and accented alphabets and numerals, designed for rapid use, no. 73 Italics with flourished Capitals, written with a wide pen, no. 75 Black letter written with a wide pen, and no. 80 Italian Gothic Capitals adapted from an inscription in silver repousse. The contents listed another plate (no. 83 Gothic Capitals and small letters), but the plate is a showing of Cloister Black from the American Type Founders. In 1916 the two men also collaborated on The Duquesne Christmas Mystery, a private press book with woodcut decorations by Gage.
[11] Stevens and Dwiggins had worked together on publications of The Blue Sky Press during the years 1900 to 1903.
[12] Dwiggins wrote “New Kind of Printing Calls for New Design” as part of a special Exposition supplement to The Boston Transcript, 29 August 1922. It is in that article that he used the phrase “graphic design.” See my 4 June 2014 blog post  “‘Graphic Design’: A Brief Terminological History.” The two men may have met earlier that year since Gage had visited Boston on March 2 to give a talk on ”Layout and Design” at the Wentworth Institute. See Printing (11 March 1922). Gage had become an expert on the topic as the author of Applied Design for Printers: A Handbook of the Principles of Arrangement, with Brief Comment on the Periods of Design which Have Most Strongly Influenced Printing (Chicago: The Committee on Education, United Typothetae of America, 1920).
[13] See Thacher Nelson to W.A. Dwiggins 23 November 1927 in Box 3, Society of Printers Archives, Boston Public Library. The text of Gage’s talk was reprinted as “Modernism in Typography” in the New England Printer vol. V, no. 1 (January 1928), pp. 14-15.
[14] Review of Layout in Advertising by Harry L. Gage in Advertising & Selling, 17 October 1928, p. 109. Alexander Lawson says that in 1929, ”Following a conversation with Laurance B. Siegfried, Harry Gage of the Mergenthaler Linotype Co. visited Dwiggins at his home in Hingham, Mass.” See ”Anatomy of a Type: Bill Dwiggins’ Experimental Sans Serif—1″ in Printing Impressions (August 1975), p. 49.
[15] This claim is in an unpublished typescript (dated 12 February 1969) that Gage wrote about his recollections of C.H. Griffith. University of Kentucky, C.H. Griffith Papers, Box 12.
[16] W.A. Dwiggins to Harry L. Gage, 27 February 1929. University of Kentucky, C.H. Griffith Papers, Box 6, Metroblack Folder.
[17] Henry Lewis Bullen was acutely aware of the logrolling that Siegfried did on Dwiggins’ behalf. He complained about it to J.L. Frazier, editor of The Inland Printer and to Frederick C. Kendall, editorial director of The American Printer. See Henry Lewis Bullen to J.L. Frazier, 8 January 1930 and Bullen to Frederick C. Kendall, 10 March 1930 in Columbia University, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Special Manuscript Collections: Typographic, Box 25.
[18] Printing (January 4, 1930), p. 77.
[19] The first mention of Metrothin and Metroblack is in the December 1929 issue of The Linotype Magazine. Metrothin and Metromedium were announced in the June 1930 issue of The Linotype Magazine.
[20] See Paul Bennett to James Eckman, 27 May 1958: “A reflection or two on Metro may be worth passing on: Bill was asked to develop an American Sans Serif that could not in any way be attributed to the Vogue for Futura and Kabel and such like that were sweeping the Continent and the rage of this fair land at the time. He did a letter of nice proportion, but he didn’t have the angled caps that the customers wanted so we had to add alternative characters. And then we adapted the design for Bold and Medium weights—a necessary factor in the two-letter matrix effort—with pretty good success from a sales viewpoint, but I always liked the Metrothin, which he drew, as the best of the lot. The adaptations were done with his knowledge and consent, and I suspect, his blessing….” in New York Public Library, Paul A. Bennett Collection, Case 7B. It should be noted that Dwiggins himself was not that keen on Metro from the very beginning. “A hellish letter when you really stop and look at it,” he said of Metroblack upon its release. See W.A. Dwiggins to Harry L. Gage 28 November 1929. University of Kentucky, C.H. Griffith Papers, Box 6, Metroblack Folder.