The Definitive Dwiggins no. 175—An Irked Consumer

In The Definitive Dwiggins no. 9 continued—Toward a Reform of the Paper Currency I suggested that W.A. Dwiggins may have been spurred to write Toward a Reform of the Paper Currency by an article his friend Paul Hollister had contributed to the January 1930 issue of The American Printer. At the time I only quoted Hollister’s comments on the typographical quality of the new one dollar bill that followed the 1929 currency redesign instigated by Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury.

I had not reread Hollister’s entire article in decades until recently when I stumbled across it while looking for examples of Futura and Kabel advertisements in The American Printer. In doing so I was struck by how much of it anticipated Dwiggins’ Towards a Reform of the Paper Currency text. There are a number of parallels in both the aspects of the currency that the two men gripe about as well as in their shared penchant for using humor to get across their points. Hollister’s facetiousness, jabs, and side-swipes are even sharper (and funnier) than those of Dwiggins. But his argument, lacking illustrations, is not as effective as Towards a Reform of the Paper Currency. [1]

Here is Hollister’s complete article accompanied by some explanatory notes and a few direct comparisons to Dwiggins’ essay.

“An Irked Consumer Holds Forth on Our Legal Tender: Being a probably indictable dissertation on certain merits and demerits of the dollar” [2]
Paul Hollister [3]
The American Printer vol. 90, no. 1 (January 1930), pp. 45–46

Any printing or advertising person who has a dollar (quiet, please) must have had one or two professional qualms about it. There are professional qualms enough in the life of any printing or advertising person without having the government wade in and pile them up, especially in the grave business of making money. I have qualms not only concerning the way the government is making money, but I have also (ever since I wore a McKinley button) such a fantastic fear of whatever it is that corresponds in a free republic to lèse majesté, and such a strict admiration for the rules the government has for not making money, that I hardly dare speak of a subject that for a month now has been burning a hole in my pocket. [4]

* * * [5]

It would be so much simpler to talk about it if The American Printer could just print a reproduction of one of the new dollar bills. [6]

With a clear halftone of it on this page, it would be possible to state without fear of anything worse than life imprisonment that on the front, or butter-side, of the certificate are not less than fifteen separate and distinct sizes of type.

We might even go a step further and remark that there are at least fifteen distinct faces of type, if there were typographical ground for claiming that any style of type used on the dollar bill is a legitimate type face. There is a faint resemblance between the face in which are printed certain remarks about the certificate, and a so-called Gothic type face—but it is not an honest Franklin Gothic, nor one of the pure revivals of that plug-ugly face; it is rather a badly flattened square Gothic. The type style in which are burgeoned the words forming the name of our nation (and pray observe how cautious we are becoming) is of the same school that does the lettering on the hand-fire-engines representing Salem, Biddeford, Brockton, Essex and Ipswich during August of this or any other year. This letter started life as a meaty old Bodoni, though the pants of the R’s bag somewhat at the knees; it developed, for no particular reason, a hairline outline, which follows the outside of the letter for a space, then vanishes—evidently to create an illusion of raised solidity, as though you and I were to believe that the letters had been cut out of dough (as aren’t they indeed?) with a cookie cutter.

The rest of the types bear no special resemblance to anything; collected as they are on the face of this meritorious rectangle of currency, they resemble the top shelf of a bassinet filled with spare automobile parts.

* * *

The green side is almost as interesting: it is as magically assorted as the contents of a tidal pool under a rock. There is a superb word “ONE,” wrought in a composite of cross-stitch, burnt leather, and hammered brass, which marches tramp-tramp-tramp across the back of the bill in green: this letter too has an outline, now thin, now thick, now thick-and-thin, while below and beyond the outline and the letter is a light mildew of shading, to show that the letter, though of sounding brass and needlework, actually floats above the paper. [7, 8]

(It should be explained that this word “ONE” is intended to show the denomination of the bill, which is not printed elsewhere on either side except in twenty-five other places.) But it floats.

* * *

And then there is spinach. Spinach is the calligrapher’s familiar term for decorative detail. The Bourbons had spinach put on their chairs and sofas and card-tables, in wood and plaster and gilt. The Renaissance architects put it on their buildings, and the rococo lads took their franchise away from them. Spinach is the thing a new advertiser of a product that can’t be bought direct by the public wants in the border of his first institutional advertisement. Spinach is the thing that makes people think that worthless shares of stock are just as good as sound shares of stock. Spinach is the thing that be keeping some engravers alive; it is certainly the thing that is making most banks pay through the nose for stock certificates when they could so much more easily buy so-much-more-worth-the-money-looking ones for so much less, printed in honest typographical arrangement on honest safety paper. [9] Spinach is the Mardi Gras costume of formality: it is, in short, only the normal exudation of bad taste.

* * *

There is a good peck of late-clambering spinach on our new currency. There is plaster-work, bronze-work, pastry-gun-work, imitation tortoise-shell, wood-carving, wire-bending, lacework, air-brushery—in ribbons, diapers, volutes, garlands, borders, shields, brackets, pedestals, frames, backgrounds. The admirable engraving of Washington peers out of the middle of this splatter of old party-favors like a man coming up for air after a long hunt in an attic. [10] That the portrait can retain its ancient, steady calm in the bombardment is all the more tribute to its own excellence; that the majesty of the words “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” can continue majestic in this mid-Victorian type-dress is a tribute rather to the power of the words than to any sympathetic typography in their acute rendering.

In size it is convenient.

* * *

As money, of course, the new bill is urgent beyond reproach. As self-protected currency, it is presumptively more proof against counterfeit than any previous issue, for the people in Washington who do those things have a fine record. As the most single medium of hand-to-hand advertising of a government to (1) its own people and (2) other people, it leaves much to be desired. As a piece of advertising “copy,” if you will—for any arrangement of picture and legend is “copy”—it belongs in the eighteen-fifties. [11] Ask any printer, any typographic designer, anywhere, which two or thee decades marked the low curve of typographical arrangement for all time to date. [12] The subjects of the pictures on the bills are dignified, inspiring, appropriate for the most part; they are the illustrations of the advertisements in which the Treasury Department undertakes to re-sell the national story to the people. The very illustrations used could be well used. The terse, urgent, inviting language on the bills could be well and readably arranged. Neither pictures nor text were so treated. It seems (to a single user of the currency) a pity, when the treasury was making a fresh start with new plates in the new size, and probably couldn’t salvage much old copper and steel anyway.

* * *

The gold coin with the big profile-eagle on it, now: that was good advertising. Is. So is the buffalo nickel. It’s American, and it’s good design. So should all our currency be. So it can be. Did the treasury have a lot of trouble with the sculptors who did the coins, and thus decide to avoid the pitfall of “artistic temperament” and the vagaries of politics? [13] Was there no one in Washington to breathe (for kudos or constituency) in the ear of the treasury the name of Updike, Marchbanks, Goudy, Cleland, Dwiggins, Kent (Henry, or Rockwell), Adler, or thirty others who could have done in committee a satisfying job? Did the public printer play a part in the job, or was it the Bureau of Engraving and Printing only, and who is their designer, and whom did he ever shoot? [14] Does the Secretary of the Treasury restrict his interest in the arts to the arts projected by the bristle on canvas only?

* * *

Probably there aren’t any answers to these questions. Probably it’s just one of those things that nobody gave a whoop about. But we know one user of currency who had been led (by the Treasury’s elaborate advance campaign to prepare us for the lovely new bills) to believe that the new Ford was going to be a handsome car. And this user feels as though Ford had put out a Model A with a cracker-box body trimmed with crêpe-paper and link-sausage.

(Of course Mr. Ford himself, did nothing of the sort with his actual car and he made good on his promises that it would be good-looking.)

But to continue the analogy, the user must travel; he will use the car; he must deal in currency, and he will use the new bills, thanking God for the favor of their smaller dimension, and encouraging Him to provide plenty. But he will feel pretty darned irked that his government muffed one so completely.

1. Hollister’s article also appeared under the title “A Legal Tender Subject” in the January 1930 issue of Advertising & Selling, pp. 31–32.
2. Dwiggins also referred to the “consumer” of currency in his essay. See p. 17, Towards a Reform of the Paper Currency.
3. At the time this article was written, Paul Hollister (1890–1970) was Vice-President, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn, Inc. in New York. He graduated from Harvard College in 1913 and soon began a career in advertising. In 1918 he joined Barton, Durtine & Osborn. where he remained until 1932. He may have met Dwiggins while in college since Hollister was a classmate of his cousin Laurence B. Siegfried, but he certainly knew him as early as 1922 when he commissioned Dwiggins to do the lettering for a gravestone honoring his deceased brother George. During the 1920s Hollister often commissioned advertising work from Dwiggins—the typescript is dedicated to him. He was probably responsible for goading Dwiggins into writing Layout in Advertising. In 1928 Hollister wrote “Typographic Fly-Specks: A Starting Point for Decorative Printing” (Direct Advertising vol. XIV, no. 3 pp. 27–32), the first article in the printing trade press to describe Dwiggins’ new stencil designs. A year later, he provided the text for Dwiggins: A Characterization of the Designer of the Mark of the Cygnet Press; and he included Dwiggins in his book American Alphabets (Harper & Brothers, New York 1930). The two men continued to work together for several years after this article by Hollister was published.
4. It is unlikely that Hollister ever wore a McKinley button since he was age 11 when the President was assassinated in 1901.
5. The asterisks are part of the original article.
6. Hollister’s article is unillustrated due to worries about violating United States law on the reproduction of American currency. As far as I can determine the mere act of photographing money was illegal at the time. See A Complete and Systematic Statement of the Whole Body of the Law as Embodied in and Developed by All Reported Decisions vol. XV, eds. William Mack and William Benjamin Hale (New York: The American Law Book Co. and London: Butterworth & Co., 1918), p. 366: “[§ 42] d. Photographing Currency. Under a statute making it a crime to photograph or to execute likenesses of United States treasury notes, the similarity between the photograph and the original need not be such that the counterfeit is calculated to deceive the public. The size of the photograph is immaterial and it may be in miniature.” Dwiggins had the same concerns as Hollister. “I am unable to print diagrams to illuminate certain features… The Treasury exhibits unmistakeable signs of uneasiness when any of its pets has a photograph taken.” p. 16, Towards a Reform of the Paper CurrencyCurrent United States regulations prohibit reproducing currency at any size between 75% and 150% of its original linear size.
7. Although Hollister focused his attention on the $1 bill, Dwiggins suggested that his readers look at the $5 note. See Towards a Reform of the Paper Currency, p. 16. This explains why his illustrations of good and bad numerals use the figure 5 (see pp. 20–21). Dwiggins does remark that, “Only in one instance has the Bureau contrived a more debased form of lettering. The word ONE on the back of the one dollar certificate is unquestionably a worse specimen than this word FIVE.” p. 20, Towards a Reform of the Paper Currency. Oddly, Michael Russem chose to reproduce a $1 Silver Certificate in the Kat Ran reprint of Dwiggins’ essay.
8. Dwiggins agrees with Hollister’s complaint about floating letters. “Insistence upon a third dimension in a graphic device such as a letter or numeral is an art-fault. The letters cast shadows. The numerals at the top are coyly embraced by fronds of (Washington) acanthus. This third dimension is a sign-painter’s notion. It is not looked upon with favor by the nawabs of the graphic arts. Letters on paper are regarded by the calligraphically elite as existing in two dimensions only—not as substances with thickness cut out of plank and applied.” p. 20, Towards a Reform of the Paper Currency.
9. The design of stock certificates was a particular interest of Hollister’s. In 1929 he had commissioned Dwiggins to design a stock certificate for The Old Kent Bank of which his father Clay Hollister was president. The design lasted until the fall of 1934 when it was replaced—without the consent of either Hollister—due to a change in the articles of incorporation of the bank.
10. Dwiggins spends two pages dissecting the frame and foliage that surround the portrait. See pp. 18–19, Towards a Reform of the Paper Currency. E.g. “No merest tyro in the draughting-room of a wall-paper plant that catered to the Wisconsin Scandinavian trade would be allowed to combine shapes in this brutal and reckless fashion.”
11. Like Hollister, Dwiggins viewed the currency from an advertising standpoint. “If it were necessary to ‘sell” this idea to a ‘consumer market’ any advertising agency would reject the design—with vehemence. The agency would say, in plain language, that ‘the layout is rotten’—absolutely inadequate, and that a new scheme must be worked out on a totally different basis—from the beginning.” p. 17, Towards a Reform of the Paper Currency.
12. Where Hollister blamed the 1850s for the design of the 1929 currency, Dwiggins placed the blame a decade earlier, though I suspect neither man did any substantive investigation to support their claims. “The decorative style for the paper currency was adopted between the years 1840 and 1850. Just what portent hung in the night sky during that decade, to make the Government sure that at last the sacred formula for official art had been revealed, I do not know… ,” wrote Dwiggins. “At any rate, what happened was that Government—by whatever means persuaded, convinced, suborned, coerced, corrupted—adopted for its official style the contemporary Style Louis-Philippe.” p. 8, Towards a Reform of the Paper Currency.
13. Just as Hollister rhetorically asked how the abysmal design of the currency came about, so too did Dwiggins wonder about the process: “Does the director make a canvass of all the reasonable things to do, and post the list on the bulletin-board marked ‘Avoid’? What is this singular formula, and why does it never slip? How do they manage with infallible accuracy to get all of the elements out of place and all the relations wrong and all the shapes bad?” p. 22, Towards a Reform of the Paper Currency.
14. Instead of the designer of the currency being accused of shooting someone, Dwiggins posited the assassination of the Director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in 1951 in the vignette that opens part II of his essay.