The Definitive Dwiggins no. 176—A Note on a Note in Towards a Reform of the Paper Currency

*The Society of Calligraphers of Boston, a group of experts whose authority in the realm of graphic art is unquestioned, goes on record with the opinion: “It is not possible to discuss the designs [for the paper currency] without heat. They infuriate you because you cannot get at them. They are beyond the reach of criticism. They are safe—as an idiot is safe anywhere, in any community, savage or civilized. They are made immune by hideous deformity.… The artistic value of the design may be accurately scaled—for the purposes of those not familiar with esthetic computation—by comparing it with two familiar documents. The paper money is a little better than the average trading-stamp, and a trifle inferior to the usual tobacconist’s rebate coupon.… The words are there and the letters are there—evidently graphic signs intended to convey a meaning—but they are inscribed in such a fashion and distributed in such a way that every effort of the mind to grasp their significance is frustrated. The design is not cabalistic—not deliberately mysterious—there is no evidence of intention to conceal—it just goes blaaa.… And this document—this singular document—stands as the prime symbol of value in the infinite transactions of a great commercial nation. It is worth its face in gold: but, my God! what a face!” Transactions, October, 1929. [1]

This note on p. 16 of Towards a Reform of the Paper Currency is of special interest because it purports to be from the Society of Calligraphers, described as a “group of experts whose authority in the realm of graphic art is unquestioned.” In fact, as is well known now but probably was not to those in 1932 in Washington, DC to whom Dwiggins’ essay was directed, the Society was entirely fictitious, composed of Hermann Püterschein (his imaginary alter ego) as president, himself as secretary, and twenty-two honorary members. The latter was probably the group of experts Dwiggins had in mind, though only a half dozen of them were from Boston. In reality, the note was simply Dwiggins supporting Dwiggins in the view that the new currency was a  “foul design”.

Moreover, the October 1928 issue of the Transactions of the Society of Calligraphers cited by Dwiggins never existed. Although Dwiggins had published Bulletin No. 1 of the Transactions of the Society of Calligraphers in two parts in 1924 and Bulletin No. 2 in 1925, he allowed the enterprise to lapse after that.

1. The brackets and ellipsis are in the original text.