The Definitive Dwiggins no. 3—My Long Pursuit of WAD 1978–1980

Within a month or two of moving to New York  I joined several groups in New York dedicated to calligraphy, typography, printing and the book arts: the Society of Scribes, Ltd., the American Printing History Association and the Typophiles. At a meeting of one of the two latter organizations I met Susan Otis Thompson (1931–2008), a professor in the now defunct School of Library Service at Columbia University, who told me—much to my consternation—that she had just completed a book on the very topic I had chosen for my MA thesis:  American Book Design and William Morris (New York: R.R. Bowker Co., 1977). It immediately became a standard reference work and was reprinted in 1996. Fortunately, when I told Prof. Bruchey about the book, he reminded me that there was no requirement that the thesis be original research using primary sources. From his perspective, I could keep my topic.

In the course of writing my MA thesis, “From Creaking Wooden Presses to Roaring Steel Machines: William Morris and the Revival of Fine Printing in America,” I rediscovered Dwiggins. [1] But this was not Dwiggins the calligrapher and lettering artist; it was Dwiggins the book designer and type designer. More importantly, it was Dwiggins the human being, the only one of the major figures in my study—and in Prof. Thompson’s book—whose personality was as engaging as his work. When I  finished my thesis I knew that I wanted to make him—and not the Supreme Court and labor unions—the subject of my dissertation.

The problem was that I was in a history department and the notion of graphic design history did not yet exist. [2] I needed to find a way to convince Prof. John A. Garraty (1920–2007), my dissertation advisor, that a critical biography of Dwiggins was a viable topic. Although his first three books were published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., Prof. Garraty had no idea who Dwiggins was. [3] He specialized in American political and economic history, but is best known for editing American National Biography, a 24-volume reference work. When I explained to him who Dwiggins was and his significance, he seemed skeptical as to whether he was a fit topic for a history dissertation. A biography of Dwiggins seemed to him something more appropriate for art history. But he agreed to let me do it—on one condition. I had to go beyond a narrow, aesthetically-focused profile and write about Dwiggins within the intellectual, cultural and economic context of his time. [4] I had to investigate the forces that surrounded and shaped him. I had to situate Dwiggins as part of a seismic change in the worlds of printing, publishing and advertising that took place in the first half of the 20th century. I readily accepted this stipulation.

That agreement is one of the primary reasons that, 36 years later, I am still researching Dwiggins. Over the decades I have been trying to learn about his contemporaries, a large crowd since his activities spanned several fields—lettering and calligraphy, illustration, decoration, advertising, type design, book design and even marionette making—and his career lasted from the late 1890s to the mid-1950s. To put the long arc of his career into perspective, Dwiggins began his art education at the Frank Holme School of Illustration in Chicago two years after William Morris died and he himself died two years after Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast and friends started The Push Pin Studio. Thus, to properly understand the many-sided Dwiggins through all of his stylistic changes it requires more than viewing him through the lens of the Arts & Crafts movement and simply lumping him in along with Updike, Rogers, Goudy et al.

The multifaceted nature of Dwiggins’ career makes it essential to compare him to a an assortment of individuals in a wide range of fields: Goudy, Oswald Cooper, Edward Johnston, Eric Gill, Rudolf Koch, Hermann Zapf in calligraphy and lettering; Goudy, Morris Fuller Benton, Cooper, C.H. Griffith, Gill, Koch, Paul Renner and Zapf in type design; Benjamin Sherbow, Fred Singleton and Fred Farrar in advertising typography; Gill, T.M. Cleland, Rudolph Ruzicka and Rockwell Kent in illustration; Updike, Rogers, Carl Purington Rollins, Ernst Reichl, Robert Josephy, Merle Armitage and Jan Tschichold in book design; George Salter, Arthur Hawkins and Alvin Lustig in book cover design; Rogers, Frederic Warde, Cleland and Walter Dorwin Teague in his use of ornament; and Will Bradley, Gill, Herbert Bayer and Paul Rand in the general scope of his design activities. [5]

Researching the context in which Dwiggins operated has led me to discover the work of many letterers, illustrators and designers who are little known today. For example, in New England alone, he competed for lettering jobs with Herbert Grigson, Amy Sacker, Adrian Iorio, Walt Harris, George Trenholm and Thacher Nelson. And he competed for national clients not only with Goudy and Oswald Cooper, but with Fred G. Cooper, Harvey Hopkins Dunn, Edward B. Edwards and the Rosa Brothers. In the field of commercial illustration his contemporaries included not only Cleland, Ruzicka and Kent, but also Helen Dryden, George Wolfe Plank, John Held, Jr., Adolph Treidler and Edward A. Wilson. Dwiggins stood apart from the usual figures he is linked to (e.g. Updike, Rogers and Goudy) because his career was not bound up with the notion of fine printing, not even after he abandoned advertising for book design and type design.

In addition to comparing Dwiggins to a wide range of contemporaries, both American and European, I have been trying to research the larger forces at work during his career. I have been investigating what was happening in the printing trade, the advertising world, the publishing world, and the workforce overall in the United States between 1890 and 1955. I want to know how much people were paid to do different kinds of jobs in the design world, what it cost to live and travel, when and how did technology (such as air brushes, telephones, pneumatic mail tubes, and automobiles) affect the profession of design, etc. Little by little I have been identifying Dwiggins’ numerous clients and tracking down the ephemeral jobs he did for them. In this I am going beyond the usual suspects such as Updike, Alfred Bartlett, Alfred A. Knopf, the Limited Editions Club and so on to discover details about L.A. Rankin & Co., the Greek Liberal League, Hoyt’s Service, Commonwealth Shoe & Leather Company, Naumkeag Trust Company and many, many more. [6] As a result I have an increasingly broader picture of Dwiggins’ work and how he fit into the emerging world of graphic design between 1905 and the mid-1920s. I can identify what was unique about his work and what was merely pedestrian.

“Trade-Mark Designs” from Applied Art by Pedro J. Lemos (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1920), p. 330. Although none of the designs are credited, Dwiggins designed the mark for Charles Fulton Whitmarsh and probably the one for The Graphic Arts. T.M. Cleland designed the Ginn and Company mark. The Forbes Lithograph Mfg. Co. mark may be the work of M.J. Nevins.

[1] At the urging of Jacob Chernofsky, my thesis was serialized in A.B. Bookman’s Weekly (April 16, 1979; November 27, 1979; and March 31, 1980).
[2] The field emerged several years later, following the publication of the first edition of The History of Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983) and Coming of Age: The First Symposium on the History of Graphic Design, organized by R. Roger Remington and Barbara J. Hodik at Rochester Institute of Technology in April, 1983.
[3] Henry Cabot Lodge (1953); Woodrow Wilson: A Great Life in Brief (1956); and The Nature of Biography (1957). None were designed by Dwiggins, but it is likely that at least one of them was set in his Caledonia typeface.
[4] I think that Prof. Garraty’s interest in biography predisposed him to give me the benefit of the doubt and allow me to write about Dwiggins.
[5] While preparing this post Elizabeth Resnick alerted me to Kenneth FitzGerald’s recent post on the reissue of Thoughts on Design by Paul Rand in which he compares Rand to Dwiggins. The latter comes out ahead.
[6] L.A. Rankin & Co. was a publisher of children’s literature in Boston, the Greek Liberal League was an ethnic political organization with chapters in the Boston area, New York, Chicago, Milwaukee and presumably elsewhere; Hoyt’s Service was an advertising agency with offices in New York and Boston; Commonwealth Shoe & Leather Company, located in Whitman, Massachusetts, was formed in 1885 from the merger of Charles H. Jones & Co. and Bay State Shoe & Leather Co.; and the Naumkeag Trust Company was a bank in Salem, Massachusetts. I have located work by Dwiggins for L.A. Rankin & Co. but not for any of the others, even though he did several jobs for Hoyt’s.