Paper Is Part of the Picture no. 12—A Grammar of Color (1921)
This is one in a series of blog posts accompanying Paper Is Part of the Picture: Strathmore Paper and the Evolution of American Graphic Design 1892–2017, an exhibition that I have curated at The Opalka Gallery of The Sage Colleges in Albany, New York. The exhibition runs from October 3 to December 15, 2017.
The Strathmore Mill and Merchants’ Association spring meeting took place on March 10 and 11, 1921. The highlight of the event was the introduction of A Grammar of Color* by A.H. Munsell (Mittineague, Massachusetts: The Strathmore Paper Company, 1921), the most ambitious project in the history of the company—and a landmark publication in the history of American graphic design. The book presented the Munsell Color System, “a system for the measurement of color and for its orderly use.” Strathmore cover papers were used to demonstrate the system
Munsell (1858–1918) introduced his “measured color system, based on the three qualities of hue, value, and chroma” in A Color Notation (Boston: George H. Ellis Company, 1905). The fourth edition, published in 1917, inspired Strathmore to bring his system, previously aimed at the art and art education worlds, to the printing world. There was a growing realization in the printing industry that printers needed a better understanding of color than the intuitive one most relied upon. In the January 1919 issue of The Inland Printer, E.C. Andrews—unaware that A Grammar of Color was in progress—declared:
…we must standardize colors as far as possible, but at the very beginning we must standardize our color terms and be able to define colors so that customer or employee may comprehend what we are talking about. Without these standardized terms we are wasting our time in trying to define color sensations.
He was not the only one who felt this way. For several years, Arthur S. Allen, the New York sales manager for ink maker Philip Ruxton, Inc., had been lecturing industry groups such as the United Typothetae and the Baltimore Club of Printing House Craftsmen on ”Color and Its Relation to Printing.” In his talks he stressed the practical value of the Munsell Color System. The culmination of his proselytizing was A Grammar of Color.
Although A Grammar of Color was Allen’s idea, it required the help of a number of other people to come to fruition, as indicated in its lengthy colophon:
Designed in its general form and color sheets patented by Arthur S. Allen; decorations of text and type composition by T. M. Cleland, who also executed the press work on the color sheets; press work of other parts by Redfield-Kendrick-Odell Co.; decorative designs on color sheets by Rudolph Ruzicka; illustration of “good” and “bad” color combinations by Helen Dryden; binding by Eugene C. Lewis Company. The book was produced by the advertising department of the Strathmore Paper Company under the direction of C. W. Dearden. 5800 copies were printed.
The book, begun just before Munsell died, took three years to complete. However, its introduction at the Strathmore Mill and Merchant’s Association meeting was accompanied by jokes instead of trumpets and fanfare. The afternoon of March 11 was devoted to ”Color Grammar Tales” with contributions by Dearden, Allen, Cleland, Ruzicka, Kendrick, and Milton Goodman of the Federal Advertising Agency:
“I Admit It’s Good” T.M. Cleland (The Author of the Text and Printer of the Color Sheets)
“I Like It, too.” Rudolph Ruzicka (Who Designed the Color Areas, The Decorations and Engraved the Plates)
“I’m Going to use It.” E.P. Kendrick (The Printer of the Text)
“It Looks Like a Million.” Milton Goodman (Who was strong on advice)
The humor was not limited to the talks. Elsewhere on the printed program, the dinner portion of the meeting was described as “The Stuffmore Munchwell System.” The humor may have been due to relief that the enormous project was finally completed and nervousness over how it would be received by the printing industry.
Spreading the Word
To spread the word about the Color Grammar (the shorthand name the company quickly gave the book) Strathmore took out advertisements touting its importance and sent Dearden and Allen on a promotional tour across the country. Over the course of more than a year, the two men gave talks about the book and the Munsell Color System in cities large and small, from Philadelphia and Buffalo to Indianapolis and Grand Rapids, Michigan. In New York City they were joined by Cleland. But the most important venue was the Second Educational Graphic Arts Exposition held at the Mechanics Building in Boston from August 28 to September 2, 1922 in connection with the Third Annual Convention of Printing House Craftsmen. Among the over 200 exhibitions by printers, printing machinery manufacturers, and the allied trades was an exhibit by paper manufacturers showing the papermaking process from raw materials to finished product. (There was also a “working unit of a folding box-making plant” complete with cutters, creasers, gluing machines, bundle tyers, and binding machines.) With over 250,000 visitors, the Boston Graphic Arts Exposition was the perfect place to get the word out about the Color Grammar.
A Color of Grammar received an extremely warm reception in the trade press. The first review appeared in the May issue of The Inland Printer, the most important publication in the printing world. It called the book “a truly remarkable addition to the literature of color and its application to the graphic arts.” And then went on to quote the entire preface to the book, before concluding:
To give a complete description of this book would be difficult, especially in the limited space available here. In it the student of color—and all printers and pressmen should be students of color—will find much that will be of great interest and value, not only in the text matter, but also in the unique method of showing the adaptations of the balanced color combinations to the different papers.
A month later, the typographer Fred Singleton effusively reviewed the book for The Printing Art. He hoped that the book would convince “practical boss pressmen” to substitute the Munsell system, with its focus on the importance of middle gray, for “their primitive but forceful color mixing.” Amazingly, The Inland Printer published a second review of the Color Grammar in August. While the first review consisted largely of quotations from the book itself, the second was more substantial. Citing ”evidence that color is recognized as a prime factor of importance in present day advertising,” it declared that A Grammar of Color finally filled the great need in printing and advertising “for a practical system of color and a text book for guidance as to the correct use of this medium.”
Making the Book
The colophon quoted earlier provides only a tiny hint at the complex production behind A Grammar of Color. Edmund G. Gress, editor of The American Printer, provided a full accounting in its April 25, 1921 issue:
The color sheets were printed one up, on a single Kelly press, in a small press room entirely devoted to this job. The great number of impressions required on each sheet made speed and automatic feed almost imperative; and the constant changes of color called for an inking distribution system that was readily accessible to wash up. Five color areas were printed at one time by means of a closely divided fountain and split rollers. These areas, being printed across the shorter dimension of the sheet, made it necessary to run the sheet lengthwise instead of the way this size sheet would normally be run. The press was slightly altered by lengthening the feed and delivery boards and retiming the drop guides, and was set to double roll, because the sheet was actually longer than the printing circumference of the cylinder. Also the motion of the inking vibrator was somewhat curtailed because of the small space allowance between colors. In printing the inside of the sheet, no divided fountain could be used and the sheets were run in the normal way. Plates were beveled and mounted on patent blocks.
In nearly every case a complete block of the areas and of the design on the inside of the sheet was run first with one impression of a white filler; and the different colors were printed over this. In a very few cases more than one impression of color was required.
The printing of the middle gray sheet, with the diagram in colors showing the three dimensions, was a special problem in itself which called for considerable care and patience. None of the colors or the different steps of gray was made by over printing, each one being a distinct impression over a white filler. Though some few of these colors were so placed that two of them could be printed at once by means of a divided fountain, it nevertheless required in all twenty-three impressions to complete this sheet, each of which called for fairly close register.
Reading this it is easy to see why it took three years to complete A Grammar of Color and why only 5800 copies were produced. Each book cost $10 to produce (some accounts say a whopping $20), a huge investment for Strathmore—especially since they were given out free to the trade.
Description of the Book
A Grammar of Color is a complicated book. It is divided into two sections, a text by T.M. Cleland summarizing the Munsell Color System, and specimen pages. The text is augmented by diagrams by Cleland and a double-page spread showing two versions (unbalanced and balanced color) of an illustration by Helen Dryden.
There are nineteen specimen pages (graced with colorful headings carved in wood by Rudolph Ruzicka), each of which contains five different balanced color combinations matched to various papers. Each specimen sheet is arranged so that any one of the five pairs of color areas printed on it can be studied separately from the others. This is accomplished via slits dividing each pair of areas into separate flaps, any one of which may be folded over the front part of the sheet. Each printed color is measured and coded by the Munsell system so that printers can easily order the proper inks.
In the two images above the specimen pages are folded on the left so that the colored ink combinations, each on a separate flap, are visible. The name of each paper sample is on a fold-out at the right that includes information on its basis weight and available colors. In the two images below the specimen pages are open, fully revealing a chart explaining where the ink colors fall within the Munsell Color System and also providing formulas for creating them. Note how Ruzicka deftly incorporated the thistle into each of the seven different woodcuts he did for them.
A slipcase accompanying A Grammar of Color contained twenty-seven extra sheets of cover papers with an oval cutout. The cut-out allows the user to increase the number of color combinations by placing the supplemental sheets over the specimen sheets in the book. Since nearly all the colors printed on any one sheet are interrelated, even more combinations are possible. (The slipcase is exceedingly rare; most surviving copies of A Grammar of Color lack it.)
The Significance of A Grammar of Color
A Grammar of Color brought the Munsell Color System “from the schoolroom to the pressroom,” to quote The Printing Art. In doing so it gave printers a means of standardizing colors and color terminology, based on scientific principles, to replace the descriptive and poetic names for colors (e.g. rose, vermilion, cardinal, etc.) then in common use. Allen declared that the book made it possible to finally name a color “with such precision that artist, pressman, printer or even a layman can make no mistake in instantly identifying the exact color in mind.” In that respect, the Munsell Color System was a precursor to the Pantone Matching System that has dominated printing since the early 1960s.
In 1921 most letterpress printing was still black-and-white; and the second color in two-color printing was usually red, as it had been for printers since the 15th century. (Four-color printing was still in its infancy, mainly confined to national advertisers and the covers of large-circulation magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Vogue.) A Grammar of Color provided printers with the means to try out unusual colors without fear of making a horrible mistake. Not only did it give them a scientific method for mixing inks, it also showed them how colored inks interacted with colored paper. The latter was very important as previous color treatises for printers, such as The Color Printer by John F. Earhart (Cincinnati: Earhart & Richardson, 1892), took it for granted that printing was done on white paper.
A Grammar of Color was published two years after the Bauhaus was established, but long before either Johannes Itten (1888–1967) or Josef Albers (1888–1976) had fully formed and published their theories on color. Itten’s Kunst der Farbe was published in German in 1961 and in English at The Art of Color in 1970. The latter was accompanied the same year by The Elements of Color: A Treatise on the Color System of Johannes Itten Based on His Book The Art of Color edited by Faber Birren. The Interaction of Color by Albers, a project whose production was as complicated as that of the Color Grammar, was published in 1963. Like Munsell’s books the books of Itten and Albers were directed at artists and art educators, not at printers. But unlike A Grammar of Color, there were no formulas to aid printers in mixing inks.
The influence of the Munsell Color System in the printing world waned in the 1960s—though the Munsell Color System remained popular in other industries. It was supplanted by the Pantone Matching System (PMS), developed by chemist Lawrence Herbert at the commercial printing company M. & J. Levine Advertising. Introduced in 1962, PMS colors had become standard in the graphic design and printing worlds by the early 1970s. By then A Grammar of Color had been long forgotten. Yet it remains Strathmore’s most impressive and influential achievement.
*The name deliberately suggested The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones (London: Day and Son, 1856).