The Definitive Dwiggins no. 36—Knopf Colophons

Recently, I gave a talk at The Book Club of California titled Beyond the Spine: A Closer Look at the Book Designs of W.A. Dwiggins for Alfred A. Knopf. While preparing the talk a few months ago, Jennifer Sime, the executive director of the club, asked me if I could prepare an article on short notice for the club’s quarterly newsletter. I jumped at the offer because it gave me an opportunity to write in depth about the colophons in the books that Dwiggins designed for Knopf and to trim my talk.

The Quarterly News-Letter text was beautifully typeset and printed by Richard Seibert, using MvB Verdigris by Mark van Bronkhorst. (I think Dwiggins would have been pleased with both the typeface and the close setting.) Unfortunately, only the members of The Book Club of California get the newsletter. Ms. Sime and The Book Club of California have graciously allowed me to republish my text here so that those who are not members of the club can now read it. This is also a chance to to supplement it with some illustrations of several colophons.

“A Note on the Note on the Type: W.A. Dwiggins and the Colophon in Books by Alfred A. Knopf”
Paul Shaw
The Quarterly News-Letter of The Book Club of California vol. LXXXI, no. 3 (Summer 2016)

The publishing house of Alfred A. Knopf has long been celebrated for the quality of its books. This reputation has been based as much on the presence of a colophon in each of the company’s books as on their literary merit, binding, design, and typography. [1] When Knopf began his business in 1915, colophons were associated with limited edition books of the Arts & Crafts movement. His appropriation of the colophon gave his trade books the cachet of the fine press book, an aura that his competitors lacked.

When did Knopf add the colophon to his books and what was the impetus? How did the colophon become entwined with the book designs that W.A. Dwiggins did for the publisher? And how and why did the content of the colophon change over time, even beyond the death of Dwiggins? These are the questions that I will attempt to answer in this essay.

The earliest Knopf books had no colophon, only a bare bones statement at the bottom of the copyright page: “Printed in the United States of America.” In early 1922 that text was suddenly expanded to a full-fledge production note. The one that appeared in The Dark Fleece by Joseph Hergesheimer (published in March, 1922) read: “Set up, electrotyped, and printed by the Vail-Ballou Co., Binghamton, N.Y. Paper supplied by W.F. Etherington & Co., New York, N.Y. Bound by the Plimpton Press, Norwood, Mass.” This wording – with changes for different printers, paper suppliers, and binders – remained standard for several years. But at the same time Knopf was trying to capitalize on the burgeoning trend in the United States toward collecting limited edition books, especially those signed by the author.

On September 8, 1922 Knopf published One of Ours by Willa Cather, an author who was to become one of the firm’s mainstays over the following decades. The verso of the title page of the first printing indicated that it was limited to thirty-five copies “on Imperial Japan Vellum and three hundred and ten copies on Perusia handmade Italian paper, numbered and signed by the author.” Four more unlimited printings followed later that month. This may be the first colophon in a Knopf book. Oddly enough, it makes no mention of the designer/typographer or the printer.

Knopf expanded his foray into the world of limited edition, signed books in 1923 with the publication of Ralph Herne by W.H. Hudson and the reissue of April Twilight and Other Poems by Cather. Ralph Herne was designed by Bruce Rogers and printed by William Edwin Rudge while April Twilight was overseen by Elmer Adler of Pynson Printers. [2] The following year the publisher issued Edmund Burke: A Historical Study by John Morley (designed by Rogers and printed by Rudge) and Ornaments in Jade by Arthur Machen (designed by T.M. Cleland and printed by Pynson Printers). These books had full-fledged colophons as opposed to production notes. They appeared at the back of the book, credited individuals as well as companies, and included information on the print run.

At some point between 1922 and 1926 Knopf extended the use of colophons from his limited edition books to his trade books, but the exact history of this development is sketchy. [3] Over the years the trade book colophon came to be known for its emphasis on type above all other design and production aspects. Clifton Fadiman, in the introduction to Fifty Years (1965), a collection of short stories celebrating the silver anniversary of Alfred A. Knopf, says that “A Note on the Type in Which This Book Is Set” was introduced in 1926. [4] But at that time, Knopf trade book colophons carried no headings and did little more than identify the types used.

However, My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather, issued in both a limited edition and a trade edition in October 1926, carried a much more discursive colophon, though without any heading:

This book is set in a type called Scotch. There is a divergence of opinion regarding the origin of this face, some authorities holding that it was first cut by Alexander Wilson & Son of Glasgow in 1833. Whatever its origin, it is certain that the type was widely used in Scotland where it was called Modern Roman, and since its introduction into America has been known as Scotch.

The format, decorations, and illustrations were made by W.A. Dwiggins and the book manufactured under the auspices of the Pynson Printers of New York. The press work and binding was done by the Plimpton Press, Norwood, Mass., and the paper made by the H.C. Chalfant Mill.

This text stands in stark contrast to the terse colophons of the limited edition books designed for Knopf by Rogers and Cleland. Who wrote it? It is unlikely that it was Dwiggins, since it was his first book design for Knopf and the entire affair was orchestrated by Elmer Adler. [5]

“Years ago, when the Linotype Company took type seriously,” Frank Denman wrote to Alfred A. Knopf in 1952, “I used to do a lot of typographic writing for it. During that time, at the request of Bob Josephy, I wrote the series of typographic notes you use in your books.” [6] His claim is credible. In 1926, Denman – best known today as the author of The Shaping of Our Alphabet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955) – worked in the advertising department at Mergenthaler Linotype where he was considered a “rising young publicity engineer.” The verbosity of the early typographic colophons certainly suggests their author was someone in the type trade rather than someone in the publishing trade.

Colophon from Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1928)

Colophon from Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1927)

The earliest securely dated book in which I have found “A Note on the Type in Which This Book Is Set” is Death Comes to the Archbishop (1927) by Cather, for which Dwiggins designed the binding labels. The description of the typeface – Fournier, which was newly released from the Monotype Corporation – runs to over sixteen hundred words while the production information takes up less than two hundred words. [7] Many of the early typographic colophons are shaped, such as the one for The Wild Orchid (1931) by Sigrid Undset, which is in the form of a diamond.

Colophon for The Wild Orchid by Sigrid Undset (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1931).

Colophon for The Wild Orchid by Sigrid Undset (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1931).

Fadiman quotes George Doran, of the rival publishing house George H. Doran Company (later Doubleday, Doran) as saying, “[Knopf] not only made beautiful books but told the public they were beautiful books and thereby stimulated the public to require a more graceful format,” and argues that says that Knopf’s use of colophons was originally considered to be eccentric or affected. Indeed, Knopf not only used the colophon to confer the prestige associated with fine books on his trade editions, but he used it to promote his designers, especially W.A. Dwiggins. [8]

–Mr. —— thinks it helps to tell them about type and paper, etc.

–I know. It doesn’t. They don’t understand his little notices—it’s all shop talk. He likes ’em. He thinks it gives the books tone, I daresay. I think it doesn’t matter a damn one way or the other. All that shop detail is zero. They don’t care to know and they don’t need to know. Just make your book so it will read handily and let it go at that.

W.A. Dwiggins wrote this in 1939 for Publishers’ Weekly as part of a follow-up to his famous essay Extracts from An Investigation into the Physical Properties of Books as They Are at Present Published (Boston: Society of Calligraphers, 1919). As a thinly veiled reference to Knopf it has intrigued cultural historians, especially Megan L. Benton, author of Beauty and the Book (2000). [9] But it is not a wholly accurate picture of Dwiggins’ views on colophons.

Although Dwiggins’ first book design for Knopf occurred in 1926, it was not until 1934 that he became the publisher’s preferred freelance designer. Knopf immediately asked him to assist in writing the colophons for the books he designed and he readily agreed. One reason was that the colophon offered Dwiggins an opportunity to discuss the ideas behind his design of a specific book. Thus, many of the books that Dwiggins designed for Knopf in the 1930s bear the heading “Designer’s Note”. Of Stages on the Road (1934) by Sigrid Undset, he wrote:

This book is set in the eleven point size of Linotype Baskerville ‘opened up’ between lines with three points of blank space. The ‘running title’ at the top is set in small capitals of the body type, and the page number is in Caslon numerals spaced apart. The distances, from the top of the paper to the running title, between this title and the parallelogram of type, are all parts of the design. The manipulation of these details aims to provide a cool, quiet type-page, undisturbed by the ‘fittings’ (page numbers, etc.) without tricks or eccentricities—easily read.

A little sense of the perspective of time belongs to a text of this kind. The ornaments try to provide this feeling. Notice that they are drawn to harmonize with the texture of the type page. The binding is ornament, purely—no attempt to suggest any other feeling than Now, 1934.

The book was set up, printed, and bound by The Plimpton Press, Norwood, Massachusetts. The paper was made by S.D. Warren Co., Boston.


The addition of Dwiggins’ initials at the end of the colophon is unusual, but it points to the future. [10] These notes provided Dwiggins with a platform for airing his views on book design. The most salient such colophon—signed in full—is the one for The Longest Years by Undset (1935) which begins with this statement: “The text must be left absolutely free and unhindered—its free play is the reason for printing the book. Anything—no matter how glorious—that comes between the text and the reader is bad. If the ‘art’ that you introduce lubricates the play of the text, then the art can be tolerated—but it is always a hard question to settle: does it lubricate?” Questions like this, directed at the reader, are typical of Dwiggins who was more concerned with making a book for the ordinary reader rather than the bibliophile. He wanted his books to be readable and handleable first and beautiful second. Thus, after explaining that the fleurons used as chapter heads were inspired by “the paper-lace medallions that one used to cut out with scissors” he asks the reader if they are a hindrance. Dwiggins ends his note by explaining that, “One can design the title-page along musical lines without risk, because the text hasn’t begun to work yet. The cover is the outside of a package, and you try to make it pleasing.” [11] His de-emphasis of the title page and binding deliberately ran counter to the prevailing attitudes about what makes a well-designed book. [12]

The Longest Years by Sigrid Undset (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1937).

Colophon for The Longest Years by Sigrid Undset (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1935).

Part of Dwiggins’ 1939 complaint about colophons reflected a disinclination to write one for every book he designed for Knopf, especially as the number of them grew from five in 1934 to fifteen in 1938. He wanted to reserve the designer’s notes for those books that truly deserved them. The other aspect of his complaint was more about the nature of “A Note on the Type in Which This Book Is Set” than its existence. Dwiggins, who always valued plain speaking, was against the mind-numbing detail about typefaces and their creators that Denman packed into the colophons. The texts he wrote about typefaces were friendly and concise, yet informative. Many of them are fewer than one hundred words in length. The pithiest might be the colophon for In a Word (1939): “The lexicographic comments in this book are set in Linotype Janson, the words in Caslon. These two type faces get along together nicely because they are closely related, they are both excellent specimens of the ‘old style’ type family.”

Once Dwiggins had boiled down the description of a typeface to his liking, it was used over and over again (occasionally with some further tweaks) for future Knopf books designed by him as well as by others. In this manner the loquacious Denman texts began to disappear from Knopf books in the 1940s and were entirely gone a decade later. Dwiggins also did away with shaped colophons.

The “Designer’s Note” died out by the 1940s, due to several factors. Not only did Dwiggins’ increased workload for Knopf make writing such texts burdensome, but they had served their purpose as a means to promote Dwiggins and to set forth some of his thoughts on book design. The “Designer’s Note” was also undermined by the effect that World War II had on book production and on book design. Dwiggins was not eager to discuss designs done under adverse conditions, though he was very willing to adapt to them. Eventually he successfully lobbied Knopf to add a note on “wartime compliance” to the colophon. [13]

Colophon for David Morton Poems 1920–1945 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1945).

Colophon for Poems 1920–1945 by David Morton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1945).

In the 1940s some colophons began to be headed “Printer’s Note” and others “A Note on the Type,” “Type Note,” or simply “The Type.” There is no discernible difference among the texts, suggesting that Dwiggins was testing out different formulations as the content shifted from being about the design of book to the typeface employed. In the end the windy and awkward “A Note on the Type in Which This Book Is Set” won out. It is still used in Knopf books today.

The colophons not only promoted Knopf as a publisher but they promoted Dwiggins as a book designer – and they promoted the typefaces made by the Mergenthaler Linotype Company. Toward the end of the war, Dwiggins and Knopf agreed to add a special WAD device to the colophon of books he designed. It was done to distinguish them from books that were designed by the in-house staff following Dwiggins’ typography and/or using his lettering and ornaments. [14] This had been done, with Dwiggins’ permission, for over a decade. The colophons of such books usually included wording in this vein: “The binding and ornamental designs are adapted from originals by W.A. Dwiggins.” [15]

Colophon for The Westward Crossings by Jeannette Mirsky (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1946).

Colophon for The Westward Crossings by Jeannette Mirsky (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1946). James Hendrickson replaced Sidney R. Jacobs as the in-house designer at Knopf while Jacobs was in the army during World War II.

Colophon for The Necessary Angel by Wallace Stevens (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1951).

Colophon for The Necessary Angel by Wallace Stevens (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1951).

Dwiggins was a type designer as well as a book designer, working exclusively for Mergenthaler Linotype from 1929 until his death in 1956. In his book designs for Knopf he used Linotype faces almost exclusively, including his own Electra, Caledonia, and – on a few occasions – his unreleased Stuyvesant and Eldorado designs. [16] The colophons for books set in Dwiggins’ own faces emphasized this fact. For example, “This is the first book [A New Deal in Old Rome, 1939] to be set in Caledonia, a new Linotype face designed by W.A. Dwiggins.” or “This book is set in an experimental Linotype face to be called Stuyvesant… In Stuyvesant, W.A. Dwiggins has tried to preserve something of the hand-cut qualities of the earlier Dutch face [Rosart] – to get away, one might say, from the too great precision of the machine.” [17] These colophons had the rare heading “Publisher’s Note.”

Colophon for The American Scene: A Reader by H.L. Mencken (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1965).

Colophon for The American Scene: A Reader by H.L. Mencken (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1965).

After Dwiggins died, Knopf continued to reuse, adapt, and imitate the designer’s work, and continued to acknowledge Dwiggins in the colophons: “W.A. Dwiggins designed some three hundred and twenty books for Alfred A. Knopf from 1926 to 1956, and he was instrumental in establishing and maintaining the distinctive visual style of the Borzoi Books.” [18]

For Knopf and for Dwiggins the colophon served multiple roles. For those studying the work of Dwiggins, it does the same thing, offering up insights into his views on book design, choices in typefaces, the intertwined nature of his careers as a book designer and type designer, and the centrality of his work in establishing and refining Knopf’s aura as a quality trade book publisher.


1. I am using the term colophon in its traditional sense to refer to a note, usually in the back of a book, that describes aspects of its production: the materials used (typeface, paper, binding cloth, etc.); the individuals and/or companies involved (designers, typographers, craftsmen, and suppliers); the number of copies printed; and the completion date. However, in recent decades, writers about Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. often use the term to refer to the borzoi, the Russian wolfhound that serves as the publisher’s visual identity. The borzoi, despite its over sixty incarnations (the largest number of them by Dwiggins), is more properly akin to a trademark or logo.

2. The physical appearance of April Twilight was under discussion in late 1922. See the historical essay by Susan J. Rosowski and Kari A. Ronning in A Lost Lady: Scholarly Edition by Willa Cather (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), p. 311.

3. Colophons appear to be present in A Lost Lady (1923) and The Professor’s House (1925) by Cather, although I have not seen a first printing of either book, a word search in the online Hathitrust version of both turns up key words from the colophons (e.g. “Plimpton Press,” but specifically “William Caslon”) with an indication they are on a page at the back of the books rather than on the copyright page. This suggests that the production note was augmented by the addition of the identification of the typeface and moved to the back of the book. But the phrase, “A Note on the Type in Which This Book Is Set” does not appear in either book, though it does in later printings (1958 for A Lost Lady and 1942 for The Professor’s House). In both books, as in the 1950 printing of One of Ours, the note is coupled with the older production blurb. Apparently, “A Note on the Type in Which This Book Is Set” was retroactively added to Cather’s books when they were either revised or their copyright renewed. For the ninth printing of The Professor’s House (1942) see the explanatory notes by James Woodress and Kari A. Ronning in The Professor’s House: Scholarly Editionby Willa Cather (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), p. 426.

4. Fifty Years: A Collection of Novels, Novellas, Tales, Dramas, Poetry and Reportage and Essays edited by Clifton Fadiman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1965), p. xv.

5. The description of Scotch Roman in the colophon of My Mortal Enemy seems to have been taken in part from another colophon, though I am unable to identify the source. However, the colophon for Obscure Destinies (1932) by Cather reads:

This book is composed (on the linotype) in Scotch. There is a divergence of opinion regarding the exact origin of this face, some authorities holding that it was first cut by Alexander Wilson & Son, of Glasgow, in 1837; others trace it back to a modernized Caslon old style brought out by Mrs. Henry Caslon in 1796 to meet the demand for modern faces resulting from the popularity of the Bodoni types. Whatever its origin, it is certain that the face was widely used in Scotland, where it was called Modern Roman, and since its introduction into America has been known as Scotch. The essential characteristics of the Scotch face are its sturdy capitals, its full rounded lower case, the graceful fillet of its serifs, and the general effect of crispness.

6. Frank Denman to Alfred A. Knopf, 4 April 1952. University of Texas, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Archives, Box 147, Folder 10. Robert Josephy (1903–1993) was a nephew of Knopf. He joined the firm in 1920 as an office boy and “after a few years” was promoted to production manager. He left Knopf at age 21 to become a freelance book designer—the first in the industry he claimed. This chronology suggests that Denman either misremembers Josephy’s role in the development of the typographic colophon or the year in which it occurred. For Josephy’s life see Taking Part: A Twentieth Century Life by Robert Josephy (Des Moines, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1993).

7. The colophon says that the typography of the text and the binding labels “are based on designs by W.A. Dwiggins” but this is contradicted by correspondence between Dwiggins and Knopf. See especially Alfred A. Knopf to W.A. Dwiggins 25 March 1927 and Dwiggins to Knopf 8 November 1927. University of Texas, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Archives, Box 731, Folder 12.

8. For more on the use of colophons as a marker of quality see Megan L. Benton, Beauty and the Book: Fine Editions and Cultural Distinctions in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 199–200. Although she acknowledges Knopf’s use of the colophon for his trade books, Benton’s focus is on fine books.

9. W.A. Dwiggins. “Twenty Years After” in Publishers’ Weekly (2 September 1939), pp. 797–802. Benton quotes this portion of Dwiggins’ essay—minus the portion prior to “it’s all shop talk…”—both in Beauty and the Book (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 199 and in Illuminating Letters: Typography and Literary Interpretation, eds. Paul C. Gutjahr and Megan L. Benton (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), p. 1. She relied on the reprint of the text in Books and Printing: A Treasury for Typophiles edited by Paul A. Bennett (Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1951), pp. 145–152.

10. The same text was used for the colophon for Men, Women, and Places by Sigrid Undset (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1939) with a slight change. “The typographic scheme is based upon a design by W.A. Dwiggins.…” was added and Dwiggins’ initials dropped.

11. The colophon for The Longest Years was repeated in its entirety in two other Undset books that copied its format, The Faithful Wife (1937) and Images in a Mirror (1938). The typography for both was probably done by Sidney A. Jacobs, the production manager at Knopf, with Dwiggins’ acquiescence.

12. Stanley Morison famously said that, “The history of printing is in large measure the history of the title page.” His books bore out that contention. See A brief Survey of Printing: History and Practice by Stanley Morison and Holbrook Jackson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923), Four Centuries of Fine Printing by Stanley Morison (London: Ernest Benn, 1924) and The Typographic Book 1450–1935 by Stanley Morison and Kenneth Day (London: Ernest Benn, 1963). Morison’s attitude underlies much of the writing on fine printing. Books on Giambattista Bodoni, William Pickering, Daniel Berkeley Updike, Bruce Rogers, Frederic Warde, Jan Tschichold, Max Caflisch, Hermann Zapf, and others tend to show title pages more than ordinary pages. And, unfortunately, much of the writing on Dwiggins’ own book designs has emphasized his bindings over his interiors.

13. See W.A. Dwiggins to Sidney R. Jacobs 28 August 1941. University of Texas, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Archives, Box 732, Folder 2 where Dwiggins writes:

I think the thing to do is to go into a huddle with the front-office and get the guts to meet wartime conditions—do things different enough to jolt the trade, and tell the trade about it.

I know I should be stimulated to good works by such a move—(I am not stimulated by piddling half-compromises I know!)

There are numerous other letters about paper quotas, paper quality, jacket designs, special ornaments, etc. during the war years. For the initiation of the wartime compliance statement see Alfred A. Knopf to W.A. Dwiggins, 13 April 1944, University of Texas, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Archives, Box 733, Folder 2. The first book to use the notice may be The Land Divided by Mack Gerstle since a tracing comp for it survives. The statement reads: “This book has been produced in full compliance with all government regulations for the conservation of paper, metal, and other essential materials.”

14. The decision to create a WAD device is discussed in several letters between Alfred A. Knopf and W.A. Dwiggins in May 1945. University of Texas, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Archives, Box 732, Folder 5. The device was manufactured by Mergenthaler Linotype.

15. This is from The Romance of Tea by William H. Ukers (1934), designed by Sidney R. Jacobs.

16. Dwiggins’ favorite Linotype faces were, in alphabetical order, Baskerville, Bodoni, Caledonia, Caslon, Electra, Granjon, and Janson.

17. This is from An Essay for Our Times by H. Stuart Hughes (1950). After the war, Dwiggins used Knopf books (and some designed for other publishers) to test out his typefaces.

18. The Diary of H.L. Mencken edited by Charles A. Fecher (1989). Mencken was one of the Knopf authors who insisted on having Dwiggins design his books.