Paper Is Part of the Picture no. 6—The Thistle 1912–1919
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.
Although over 280 different iterations of the thistle have been identified on Strathmore sample books and promotional items over the course of the company’s 125 years, its history is checkered. After it became incorporated into the Mittineague Paper Co. monogram in 1905, it began to appear as a decorative element. A lush rendition graced the cover of Strathmore Quality Commercial Writing Papers (1906) while a sinuous version was used as a frame to the title page of the 1907 Rhododendron Bond sample book printed by F.A. Bassette Co. Trade advertisements in 1911 sported mediocre border designs with mediocre thistles embedded in them. At the same time, the advertisements included a silhouetted thistle as part of the Strathmore Quality seal that had come into use in 1909. (With the formation of the Strathmore Paper Co. in 1911, the MPCo. thistle monogram was abandoned.) 
Initially the Strathmore Quality seal was comprised of a silhouetted thistle in a circle surrounded by the slogan in a chunky condensed slab serif. When Will Bradley reorganized and redesigned the company’s paper lines in 1912, he made the seal more elegant. The slogan was now set in classical roman capitals; the surrounding circle was double-ruled; and the thistle, which had formerly leaned to the left, was now upright and symmetrically designed. It also had more serrated leaves.
There are only a few instances of Bradley using the thistle as a decorative element in the 61 sample books he designed. (One of them is Carillon Covers [below] where he combined two sharply contrasting depictions of thistles). Most of the time he slapped the seal on the front cover—often multiple times—as well as on the back cover. In some of the sample books he tarted up the seal on the back cover, adding various botanical and abstract decorations to it. His basic version of the Strathmore Quality seal continued in use alongside the older version well into the 1920s.
In 1913, Frederic W. Goudy (1865–1947) integrated the thistle into the initial S of “Strathmore” on the cover of the Strathmore De Luxe Papers sample book. His design was immediately reused by the company for the first issue of The Strathmorean, its house organ for employees. Goudy’s design seems to have liberated the thistle.The next year, and again in 1918 (see above), T.B. Hapgood (1871–1938) designed sample books for Blandford Deckle Edge Book Paper which made the thistle a flamboyant centerpiece of each cover.  W.A. Dwiggins (1880–1956) prominently placed a thistle on the title page of the 1919 Alexandra Japan sample book, though his cover illustration showed an exotic bird and flower.
Along with these highly creative interpretations of the thistle, there were some humorous ones—usually parodying the Strathmore Quality seal—intended only for the eyes of Strathmore employees and their families. They appeared in The Strathmorean and in ephemeral items announcing various company events. The fact that Strathmore was able to make fun of itself indicates that the thistle seal had successfully become an entrenched mark, one that identified the company and its products throughout the paper and printing worlds.
1. For the details and images of the thistle’s history before 1912 see Paper Is Part of the Picture no. 3—Strathmore Quality and the Origins of the Thistle.
2. T.B. Hapgood is often overlooked, but he was one of the leading early graphic designers in the United States between 1890 and 1930. There is no adequate biography of him.