The Definitive Dwiggins no. 17—The Relationship of W.A. Dwiggins and Percy Grassby

26 Lime Street

Moving announcement from The Occasional Bulletin of the White Elephant (1915). Map designed by W.A. Dwiggins.

The week before Thanksgiving in 1914 W.A. Dwiggins moved into a new studio—with “Chinese tea-paper walls—at 26 Lime Street in Boston. Dwiggins announced his move in January 1915 via the publication of the first (and only) issue of The Occasional Bulletin of the White Elephant which contained a map showing both his old address at 69 Cornhill and the new one at 26 Lime Street. (Left out was 41 Pearl Street where he briefly worked during the move.)

Sometime before April 1915 designer Percy Grassby joined Dwiggins at 26 Lime Street. [1]  They shared the studio until Dwiggins moved to 384A Boylston Street in September 1917. Grassby remained at the address until at least 1923 according to Boston city directory listings.

Percy Grassby was born in England in 1882. His family emigrated to Canada in 1902 and then moved at some point to Minnesota. Grassby worked as an engraver in Minneapolis before spending 1912 back in England. Exactly when he moved to Boston is unclear. [2] Once he did it seems he became a sought-after designer, gaining commissions not only from Boston businesses but from others as far away as Philadelphia and Cleveland. His speciality was wood engraving, but he was a skillful letterer as well. He maintained a studio in Boston until 1943, even after moving his home to Lexington, Massachusetts. In the latter decades of his life he moved from Lexington to Arlington and finally to Wappinger Falls in New York. Grassby died in 1972.

Studio address

Announcement of new studio address (April, 1915). Illustration, lettering and design by Percy Grassby.

The relationship between Dwiggins and Grassby is mysterious, even puzzling. Marcus McCorison, author of Percy Grassby 1882–1972: An Outsider Inside Boston’s World of Print (Boston: Society of Printers, 2012), says that, “Grassby accused W.A. Dwiggins of keeping business to himself and of ‘spoiling his chance’ with D.B. Updike. He scoffed at the typographical notes in Alfred Knopf’s books, many of which were designed by Dwiggins, saying Knopf cared nothing about printing types and was ‘just a damn Jew who wanted to make money.’” [3] It seems unlikely that Dwiggins would have—or could have—prevented Grassby from being hired by Updike, who knew exactly what he wanted from his illustrators. Updike chose illustrators who not only had talent, but also accommodated his demands and were willing to work cheaply. In 1907 Dwiggins had replaced T.M. Cleland as Updike’s favorite illustrator because he was more congenial and less argumentative. Six years later, when Dwiggins’ career in advertising was in full bloom, Updike turned to Rudolph Ruzicka as his preferred illustrator.

Grassby’s sour attitude toward Dwiggins evinced in McCorison’s quotation, is supported by letters that Grassby wrote to Paul Standard in the early 1940s—and, at the same time, somewhat negated by them. In a rambling, and slightly incoherent, letter to Standard, Grassby complained about Dwiggins’ pamphlet A Technique for Dealing with Artists (New York: The Press of the Woolly Whale, 1941):

As to this Dwiggins or Puterschein emotional complaint, I think it is likely to miscarry somewhat, more or less.

To begin with he assumes thre is more than one artist at large—buffwallowing around this hemisphere, which is a mistake, surprisingly overlooked. Mr. Cleland will take this up later no doubt. All others are mere ‘adapters’ who have crashed the gate by stealing the designs from tattooings on Polynesian backs and Zulu fringes.

No Sir, William has lapsed into the Dorothy Thompson ailment of ‘expanding’ in more than one field. He should have kept to the Printing Field alone. To expose.

Those who of late years are imposing on the designers. The instance is becoming very rare where such can obtain fair pay in cash and presentation of work.

If he gets a fair price, it is for allowing someone else to gain the credit & vice versa. Machinery has bulged the door so tight ‘Art’ has flit at window or the principle of the pop gun [.]

Those that have ‘got by’ of late years have done so on stunts (isms) not ART.

ART is a decoy used for attraction to some Society Dames playing of the cello on opening day. (See my Poum [?] on ‘DEPUTANTE’S DAY’) The said name: already having her picture in the Boston Transcript for her being ‘interested in Philanthropy.’ Said interest stopping at expense of one Zinc Halftone—coarse screen—unmounted. No Sir. Dwiggins can work his pulmotor over the corpse of Art. It is sad of course since he has worked so faithfully to knock Hell out of it. Now his Antithesis—Rockwell Kent—has gone about things in a more impressive way. He laid his groundwork better. I understand some years ago he started by carring [sic] a week old calf on his shoulders all the way up a 2 mile hill and back without resting before breakfast every morning as an appetizer and that although the calf now has whiskers and looks like Blake’s ‘Ancient of Ancients.’ he is still carrying the bull up and down the Hill. And the green of the hill is a sight to see—so they say.

Still its a nice little pamphlet and were it condensed somewhat (I only read the start and end of course) might do a lot of good were it possible to pull the MMM [?] act once more. [4]

“I see signs in it (the pam),” Grassby concluded, “that D is Dwindling as literature which was just evident in his metaphor of—‘Geese swimming through the air.’ Sad, very sad. He should wire George Heintzeman for his flute.—He really blew a lusty blow on that instrument. His practice (of late) on Jew’s harp quite inferior. Yes, these are G.D. dog days indeed. I’ll have to get a new pup.” [5] Grassby’s reference to George Heintzemann is to the Heintzemann Press for whom Dwiggins did an enormous amount of work—lettering, illustration and typography—during the 1910s. The “Jew’s harp” comment is surely another antisemitic swipe at Alfred A. Knopf.

Grassby disparaged Eric Gill’s  Autobiography (London: Jonathan Cape, 1940) as much as A Technique for Dealing with Artists, telling Standard, “No I don’t think much of Gill’s auto ‘b.’ I (auto-coffin-nail) wouldn’t swap one month of my own terrestrial bliss for his whole bloody book. He may have been happy enough. I hope so. A first class letterer on classic lines. W.A.D. much better though & def infinitely less sincere as a ‘homo,’ being between the D & deep sea in Hereditary and Environment.” [6] Grassby’s admiration for Dwiggins as a letterer peaks through in these letters and in others sent to Standard. For instance, in response to Standard’s news that Edward Johnston had died, Grassby replied, “Of course Dwiggins is the outstanding quill or ‘squitterbook’ of the day & in someways beyond Gill & Johnston and those over there.” [7]

But the appreciation of Dwiggins’ skill as a letterer/calligrapher was overshadowed in Grassby’s mind by some slight or series of slights that occurred either during the time they shared the studio at 26 Lime Street or shortly thereafter. Some hints are hidden in the disjointed (and increasingly bizarre) pair of letters he wrote to Standard in September 1942, both sparked by wartime events in Europe. In the first letter he writes,

Thinking of which [referring to Prohibition and Hitler!] reminds me that however little I desire to hurt your feelings I cannot express any desire for the Dwiggins item [A Technique for Dealing with Artists], for this reason—When first in Boston he gave me an item I still think one of his best which I admire as I did then. At the time he gave it he also gave instructions to one of his sycophants, one Palmer (member of the Cornhill round table) instructions for using his (Palmer’s) skeleton keys for extracting same from my premises within the next 24 hours. A very typical Hun job. Consistent with laughing when the Lusitania was sunk with poor old Isadore Strauss and his wife who ought to be immortalized in bronze—Consistent with ‘not being able to find a theme’ for designing a diploma for Officer’s Training Corps; commissioned & never done to my knowledge—consistent with hissing at the Armistace—‘Believe me, the war isn’t over yet’ (Perhaps he & his cohorts will wish it had been). So now you may see that in contrast to the admiration I hope for true American [sic], to what extent I may despise a cad hyphen. [8]

Grassby’s seemingly incoherent text suggests an unspecified incident involving Glenn Palmer who, along with Dwiggins, Arthur Spencer Morley and J.J. Phillips, Jr., took control of The Cornhill Booklet in the fall of 1914 after its founder Alfred Bartlett had fallen seriously ill. Dwiggins acted as art director and commissioned his studio mate Grassby to create the cover of the March 1915 cover (vol. 5, no. 1). [9] The issue was never published which may be the source of Grassby’s anger at Dwiggins.

The Cornhill Booklet (vol. 5, no. 1, March 1915)

The Cornhill Booklet (vol. 5, no. 1, March 1915). Cover illustration by Percy Grassby. Reproduced in The Printing Art (vol. XXV, no. 1, March 1915), p. 34.

The mention of a diploma for the Officer’s Training Corps may refer to Dwiggins’ design of   a diploma for the Harvard University ROTC in the summer of 1917. [10] But what exactly is Grassby upset about? [11]

Grassby’s “cad hyphen” insult is most likely an attack on Dwiggins’ use of Hermann Püterschein as an alter ego, a an unfortunate choice given the anti-German hysteria in the United States during World War I. [12] The Second World War apparently revived anti-German feelings in Grassby. They are especially virulent in the September 14, 1942 letter to Standard:

Imputations regarding hyphenation were not intended for influence but reasons for my obstacle to courtesy in reciprocation. I would not go so far as to link ‘lack of human feeling’ in the ‘piracy on high seas’ item but to suggest the source of humour in such instance. Kaiser Bill, when a German American introduced himself to Will III as much said, ‘Germans I know and Americans I know but I know not of German Americans.’ Well those with German names and those with names not so Germanic, in the main, in the event of Hitler coming out on top will soon drop the ‘—American’ adjunct. Many of whom are holding responsible (too much so) positions in the arts we are interested in. A lot of the ‘Tom and Pol’ friends of Mr. Puterschein to those who the undercrust is a real source of humour in how gullible are some who think themselves otherwise. One piece of his clevernesss left out always for his Catalog Raisonné—would tell a lot. None of this would be mentioned otherwise. He has done good work as a letterer, deserves credit. His weakness for the noisy adulation of those who ‘like it’ but don’t know why except he is a fellow hyphen is sufficient and honest enough reason for rebuttal in ‘Connivings.’ And this much would not have been extended but for your own misconception of what I just mentioned. [13]

What is particularly perplexing about Grassby’s 1940s attacks on Dwiggins is the fact that, according to Dwiggins’ account books, the two men collaborated on three or four projects, including one involving Updike. Unfortunately, the latter remains opaque as the 1915 account book entry merely says, “March 11 DBU Grassby engraving on ornament 6 00.” [14]

Between October 2, 1916 and December 23, 1917 there are numerous entries regarding work by Dwiggins on two projects of Grassby’s: a Christmas card for Royal Electrotype of Philadelphia and a catalogue for White Motor Company of Cleveland. In February 1918 there are entries for Dwiggins’ work on something only described as  “Grassby case”. [15] The White Company job, printed by The Caxton Company in 1918, was a commercial entry in the Annual Exhibition of Work by Cleveland Artists and Craftsmen, held from May 3 to June 29, 1919. [16]

The Royal Electrotype Christmas card is peculiar. The  illustrations are by Grassby as is the excellent cover calligraphy. The interior calligraphy for the lyrics to “Good King Wenceslas” are by Dwiggins! Why did Grassby need to hire Dwiggins to do something that he was perfectly capable of doing himself? The only explanation that I can come up with is that the project was done in a rush, forcing Grassby to farm out the Christmas carol lyrics to Dwiggins.

Old Carol

“Old Carol” greeting card cover (1916). Design, illustration and calligraphy by Percy Grassby.

“Good King Wenceslas”

Interior spread of “Old Carol” greeting card (1916). Design and illustration by Percy Grassby; calligraphy for “Good King Wenceslas” by W.A. Dwiggins.

How did Grassby go from collaborating with Dwiggins during the years 1916–1918 to castigating him nearly twenty-five years later? For now, the details of the event that soured their partnership remain unknown.

[1] Grassby first appears in the Boston city directories in 1917, though Marcus A. McCorison says he moved to Boston in 1914 and shared the Lime Street studio as early as 1915. See Percy Grassby 1882–1972: An Outsider Inside Boston’s World of Print by Marcus A. McCorison (Boston: Society of Printers, 2012). Grassby issued a promotional piece, dated April 1915, that said, “Mr. Percy A. Grassby has the pleasure in Announcing his Studio Address to be 26 Lime Street, Boston.” At the same time he designed the cover for the “typographical number” of The Graphic Arts (Vol. VIII, No. 4; April 1915).
[2] The basics of Grassby’s life are taken from McCorison, but his evidence for Grassby being in Boston in 1914 is unclear. Grassby is profiled in “Notes on Some Canadian Etchers” by Newton MacTavish in The International Studio vol. 54 (February 1915), pp. 258–264 where he is described as a British-born Canadian. The Twentieth Annual Report of the Minneapolis Public Library for the Year Ending December 31, 1909 (p. 25) mentions purchasing a set of etchings by Grassby.
[3] Percy Grassby 1882–1972, p. 12.
[4] Percy Grassby to Paul Standard, May  1941. Paul Standard Archive, The Melbert B. Cary, Jr. Library, Rochester Institute of Technology.
[5] Percy Grassby to Paul Standard, May 1941. Paul Standard Archive, The Melbert B. Cary, Jr. Library, Rochester Institute of Technology.
[6] Grassby to Standard, 8 June 1942. Paul Standard Archive, The Melbert B. Cary, Jr. Library, Rochester Institute of Technology.
[7] Grassby to Standard, 29 December 1944. Paul Standard Archive, The Melbert B. Cary, Jr. Library, Rochester Institute of Technology.
[8] Grassby to Standard, 9 September 1942. Paul Standard Archive, The Melbert B. Cary, Jr. Library, Rochester Institute of Technology.
[9] Grassby’s cover design was reproduced in The Printing Art (vol. XXV, no. 1, March 1915), p. 34.
[10] See the entry for 6 August 1917 in 1974 Dwiggins Collection, Box 81, Folder 10, Boston Public Library. Also the entries for 26 July 1917 and 3–15 August 1917 in Box 81, Folder 4.
[11]  Nine hundred members of the Harvard Reserve Officers’ Training Corps were awarded a military diploma on August 15, 1917. See “Closing Exercises of the Harvard R.O.T.C.” in The Harvard Alumni Bulletin (vol. XX, no. 2, October 4, 1917), p. 34.
[12] There are no books solely devoted to anti-German-American hysteria during World War I but several dissertations have been written on it in specific localities. See “Fighting the Kaiser at Home: Anti-German Sentiment in Missouri during World War I” by Petra DeWitt (1998), “Anti-German Sentiment in South Dakota during World War I” by Darrell Richard Sawyer (1975) and “Spies, Lies, and Intrigue: Anti-German Sentiment in West Central Texas during World War I” by Shannon Lynn Sturm (2o10). Also see the online PDF for “Deutschland Unsere Mutter, Columbia Our Bride: German-America in the Progressive Era” by Taylor Holmes which sees anti-German sentiment as preceding the onset of the war.
[13] Grassby to Standard, 14 September 1942. Paul Standard Archive, The Melbert B. Cary, Jr. Library, Rochester Institute of Technology. It is unfortunate that Standard’s letters to Grassby have not been preserved.
[14] See the 1974 Dwiggins Collection, Box 81, Folder 3, Boston Public Library.
[15] See entries for October 2, 4; November 9, 13–14; December 12–14, 18–23, 1916 and February 18–19, 1918 in 1974 Dwiggins Collection, Box 81, Folders 4 and 10. Boston Public Library.
[16] See The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, June 1919 (vol. 6, no. 5) p. 89. Unfortunately, the entry is not illustrated.