The Definitive Dwiggins No. 40—The Noble Order of the Golden Louse

For ten years I have been poring over W.A. Dwiggins’ surviving account books in an attempt to identify and locate the thousands of ephemeral design jobs he worked on between 1907 and the end of the 1920s.  Although much of the work is mundane and some of it trivial, all of it is fascinating since it tells us a lot about the nature of his career and of the state of American graphic design in these formative years.

One entry (of many) that has puzzled me is for some “Serbian diplomas”. Dwiggins’ ledger for 1916 includes these three entries:

Mar 31 M.P. Serbian arms for charter 15 00
May 15 Merrymount Serbian diplomas 40
July 10 Merrymount P. 20 Serbian Diplomas signed 10.00

Carbon copies of his invoices are only a little bit clearer about the work and ultimate client involved:

18 May 1916
Mr. D.B. Updike
Work on Serbian Patent 40 00
Designing Serbian Arms
Initial letter on 27 copies
Names and signatures on 5 copies
Lettering on 17 Diplomas Winsor School 4 25
[total] 44 25
[Paid] July 7 cr. & check

10 July 1916
D.B. Updike The Merrymount Press
Affixing the signature “Pierre” to 20 Serbian diplomas 10.00
[Paid] July 17 [1]

Were the diplomas (patents) for the Serbian government or for a Serbian-American organization in the Boston area? It turns out to be neither. The Merrymount Press job tickets and invoice books [2] indicate that the diplomas were commissioned by Dr. Frederick C. Shattuck.

8187 March 23, 1916 Dr. F.C. Shattuck Servian [sic] Diplomas
W.A. Dwiggins Work on Serbian Patent 40 00
Designing Serbian arms
Initial letter on 27 copies
names and signature on 5 copies
W.A. Dwiggins Affixing the signature “Pierre” to 20 Serbian diplomas 10 00

job no. 8499 January 27, 1917 Dr. Frederick C. Shattuck, 125 Marlborough Street, Boston
Printing name on Serbian diploma
I1-196 W.A. Dwiggins
Writing in names in three diplomas .75

Dr. Frederick Cheever Shattuck (1847–1929) was a major figure in Boston medical circles. He graduated from Harvard College in 1868 and Harvard Medical School in 1873. After interning at Massachusetts General Hospital he did graduate work in various European cities before returning to the States where he became a Clinical Instructor at Harvard Medical School. Eventually he was appointed the Jackson Professor of Clinical Medicine and the Chief of the East Medical Service and then the Chief of the West Medical Service of Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Shattuck’s teaching career ended in 1912, but not his involvement with medicine. He joined the Board of Consultation of Massachusetts General Hospital. [3]

It was during his time as Professor Emeritus at Harvard Medical School that Dr. Shattuck became involved with the fight against typhus during World War I. According to the European Studies Blog of the British Library, “The devastation caused by the influenza pandemic at the end of World War One is well known; what is less well known is that many parts of Europe were badly affected by diseases throughout the war. One of the first of these was an epidemic of typhus and relapsing fever which started in Serbia at the end of 1914 and killed upwards of 150,000 people in a population of around four and a half million.” The fight against the epidemic was led by the Red Cross Typhus Commission to Serbia funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and led by Dr. Richard Strong in 1915.

The Serbian diploma printed by The Merrymount Press with a coat-of-arms designed by Dwiggins was commissioned by Dr. Shattuck as a token of thanks to those who were part of the fight against typhus. [4] I stumbled across a copy recently as part of the online digital collection of the Boston Athenaeum. Despite the seriousness of the work involved, the diploma is humorous. The text, a parody of letters patent, is grammatically convoluted and ornate—perhaps a bit of black humor in the face of the scourge that Dr. Hans Zinsser, a member of the Red Cross team, characterized “as terrifying and tragic an episode as has occurred since the Middle Ages.” [5]

ASCERTAINING You, that in consideration as well of your approved Truth, and Fidelity, as also of your Courageous and Valiant Acts of Knighthood, in Mortal and Victorious Combat against the Typhus Monster, with other your probable Merits experientially known in sundry parties and behalf: We, PETER KARAGEORGEVICH, by the Grace of God, KING of SERBIA, hereby institute the NOBLE ORDER OF THE GOLDEN LOUSE, and have within this our Palace of Belgrade elected and chosen You amongst others to be one of the Companions of said Order, as your said Merits condignly require. And therefore, it is our Pleasure to send You the Insignia appertaining to said Order. ¶ Given at our Palace of Belgrade the first day of September in the Year of our Lord MDCCCCXV. [6]

Noble Order of the Golden Louse Serbian patent (1916). Coat-of-arms designed by W.A. Dwiggins. Printed by The Merrymount Press with initial A added by hand by Dwiggins. Courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum.

Noble Order of the Golden Louse Serbian patent (1916). Coat-of-arms designed by W.A. Dwiggins. Printed by The Merrymount Press with initial A added by hand by Dwiggins. Courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum.

The golden louse must have been Shattuck’s creation since there is also a pin: the insignia of the Noble Order of the Golden Louse. Dwiggins created the coat-of-arms by adding the “golden louse” to the existing yellow and red Serbian coat-of-arms. As indicated in the business records above he also added a calligraphic turquoise initial A to each diploma and then signed several of them with the name “Pierre” (misread by the Boston Athenaeum as “Sierre”)—no last name. “Pierre” is most likely a French allusion to Peter I of Serbia. But why?

Is there much to learn from the Noble Order of the Golden Louse about Dwiggins’ career? The initial A is a rare surviving example of his original calligraphy. But other than that, the only lesson to be gleaned from the diploma is the obvious fact that he, like so many graphic designers then and since, was asked to contribute to minor items of ephemera as well as to ones of significance. Many of the jobs that he did for Updike and The Merrymount Press fell into this category: filling in diplomas, retouching or redrawing existing illustrations, making coats-of-arms, and so on. Graphic design is a commercial activity and as such it is often banal.

[1] See Boxe 81(1), Folder 5 and Box 81(2), Folder 9 in the 1974 Dwiggins Collection, Boston Public Library. The lettering for the Winsor School diplomas was a separate job that Dwiggins did for Updike but billed with the Serbian diplomas.
[2] See the Invoices Book 1915–27 April 1917 in The Merrymount Press Business Records at the Huntington Library.
[3] This information come from A Memoir of Frederick Cheever Shattuck by George Cheever Shattuck (Privately printed, 1967).
[4] Most likely Dr. Shattuck turned to The Merrymount Press to print the diploma because it had been printing the diplomas of The Boylston Medical Society of Harvard University for over a decade.
[6] Peter I of Serbia (Petar I Karađorđević in Serbian) reigned as the last king of Serbia from 1903 to 1918.