The Definitive Dwiggins no. 368—The Roosevelt Omnibus (1934)

“A great democratic victory; are you a democrat? do you believe in the great heart of the common people? do you want to see all that fine structure, the bootleg business, thrown into the scrap-heap? after years of careful work building it?” These questions were lobbed in 1932 by W.A. Dwiggins at C.H. Griffith (1879–1956), vice-president of typographical development at Mergenthaler Linotype. He went on to declare, “A great democratic victory (I am a communist, really, though I voted straight Repub.)” [1] It is not surprising that Dwiggins was a Republican. Prior to The Great Depression the party was still heavily associated with Abraham Lincoln; and in Ohio, where Dwiggins grew up, it was the party of Presidents William McKinley (1843–1901) and Warren G. Harding (1865-1923). [2]

Dwiggins was outwardly apolitical. There are few clues to his views on politics and on current events during his lifetime. (For instance, he lived only eight miles away from Braintree, Massachusetts, the site of the crime that precipitated the famous trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, yet there he never mentioned it in any of his surviving correspondence.) [3] Thus, this partly tongue-in-cheek outburst to Griffith, is notable. I quote it here as a lead-in to a discussion of Dwiggins’ contribution to the design of The Roosevelt Omnibus edited and annotated by Don Wharton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1934).

Jacket for The Roosevelt Omnibus by Don Wharton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1933). Jacket design unknown, but spine based on spine binding design by W.A. Dwiggins. Image from New York Public Library Digital Collection.

The Roosevelt Omnibus was published by Knopf in response to Roosevelt’s election and his whirlwind first year in office, which included the famous One Hundred Days of legislation intended to pull the United States out of the economic trough it had fallen into following the crash of the New York stock market in late 1929. The book is an omnium-gatherum with ten articles and interviews, thirty pages of Roosevelt, and three pages of caricatures and cartoons. The New York Times reviewer described its contents as being as “predictable as a church festival grab-bag”. [4] The material was compiled by Don Wharton (1905–1998), a writer at the time for The New Yorker who went on to contribute to Reader’s Digest, Look, The Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines during and after World War II.

Sidney Jacobs (1909–2000) designed The Roosevelt Omnibus, with the exception of the binding and the title page—and possibly the jacket. [5] Those elements were handled by Dwiggins. Despite his political leanings, his correspondence with Jacobs shows no sign of his views about Roosevelt. The letters are all business.

Rough for rejected version of the jacket for The Roosevelt Omnibus edited and annotated by Don Wharton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1934). Design by W.A. Dwiggins. Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

“I see a large-scale bill-board kind of thing, mostly typepog. [sic],” Dwiggins wrote to Jacobs on August 1, 1934. He was describing his idea for the jacket for The Roosevelt Omnibus. [6] Six days later he sent the rough comp above to Jacobs with this note:

Here is a scheme for a bill-board wrapper for Roosevelt that may, or may not, find favor with your Editor. If it suits, you can get it going without any further drawings.

The color, what you will, two printings—type in black—texture strips in color. These strips made up of Lino. border, as per card. Color might be black and ‘sanguine’, or black and vermilion, or india or grey. Any color you like would work, if the type is black.

Try it on the Editor. [7]

The areas built up of thin stripes are reminiscent of the jacket Dwiggins had created for Collected Prose of Elinor Wylie the year before. [8]

Jacket for Collected Prose of Elinor Wylie (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1933). Design, decoration, and lettering by W.A. Dwiggins.

Apparently the editor did not like the rough since the final jacket, shown at the top of this post is very different. I have not seen that jacket except as an online image. Although the design is uncredited, the spine portion—the decoration, the sans serif lettering, and the large “fraktur” R—is by Dwiggins. In his notes on the rough, he wrote, “Shelfback in manner of binding back, with rectangles of color made of slugs running across type-set lettering, or electros from binding stamp design.” [9] His latter suggestion of “electros from binding stamp design” was taken up. But Dwiggins did not have a hand in the jacket front. Presumably Jacobs designed it.

Binding for The Roosevelt Omnibus edited and annotated by Don Wharton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1934). Design and lettering by W.A. Dwiggins.

Dwiggins worked on the title page and binding of The Roosevelt Omnibus before he made his aborted attempt at the jacket. For the binding he designed two versions of a fraktur R as a nod to Roosevelt’s Dutch heritage. A simple version was used on the spine and a more decorative one with entwined flowers was used on the front. The front also had a multi-ruled frame. Of the binding, he said to Jacobs,

The cover design can be moved over to journalese a little by the new drawing for the title label. If the R on the side seems too pretty you can take it off and have the blind rules only. But I can’t see any fight between the cover-scheme and the bleed-off picture-book. It is still a book, you know, in a stamped cloth cover; not a pamphlet. You could do the whole thing modernist if you wanted, on an entirely different basis; but I dont [sic] think you would gain anything by ‘modernist’; in point of attraction. Things at large are so modernist on the book table, that a little bit of formality is conspicuous. Your jacket will be modernist and pictorial, no doubt, and the customer may be pleased by a little quiet inside. [10]

The “modernism” that Dwiggins was referencing was not the “new typography” of Jan Tschichold et al, but Art Deco which in the United States was described variously as modern, modernist, or modernistic design. [11]

Title page of The Roosevelt Omnibus edited and annotated by Don Wharton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1934). Typography by W.A Dwiggins.

Chapter opening of The Roosevelt Omnibus edited and annotated by Don Wharton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1934). Typography by Sidney Jacobs.

“Speaking” page spread from The Roosevelt Omnibus edited and annotated by Don Wharton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1934). Layout by Sidney Jacobs.

As indicated above, the interior of The Roosevelt Omnibus was designed by Jacobs with the exception of the title page which has been attributed to Dwiggins. However, the correspondence between the two men suggests that Jacobs designed the title page, submitted it to Dwiggins for comments, and then revised it accordingly. “The change I would make on the title page,” Dwiggins wrote to Jacobs on July 19, 1934, “would be to take off the rose border box. If the dog has to go on, I would put it low down, as indicated, but the page will be better without any spot—less bookish and more journalese. My black-letter scheme is intended to get a little Dutch colonies into it.” [12] The dog that Dwiggins thought should be omitted was the Knopf borzoi which was a standard part of the publisher’s imprint on the title page.

Dwiggins was clearly responsible for the choice of Cloister Black for Roosevelt’s name, the absence of any border, and the omission of the borzoi on the title page, but is the rest of the typography (typeface, point size, placement, etc.) his or Jacobs? I do not know since the design Jacobs showed to Dwiggins has not survived. Jacobs carried Dwiggins’ idea of blackletter on the title page over to the rest of the book, using Cloister Black initials to open each chapter.

In the same July 19, 1934 letter, Dwiggins also gave Jacobs feedback on the photograph section of The Roosevelt Omnibus:

Your caption scheme for the bleed-off picture pages seems to me excellent—much clearer and simpler than the standard roto heavy-face usage For myself I think the picture-pages will be helped by the contrast of the quite open typographic pages—my way is to work the extremes against each other: close-packed, dark-toned, picture pages against open light type pages—the type pages with a bang of dark-toned spot on them to echo the dark pictures. [13]

Jacobs was twenty-five years old at the time and had only been production manager at Knopf since April 1933. He welcomed Dwiggins’ advice on this book and he continued to do so for other books over the course of their twenty-year relationship. It is one way that Dwiggins’ aesthetics permeated Knopf’s books, including those that Dwiggins did not design.

I have attributed the photo layouts to Jacobs, based on the comments in this letter, but a Knopf inventory of books in which Dwiggins had a role says “author planned illustr layouts,” implying that Don Wharton was responsible for them. I suspect Wharton grouped the photographs and suggested their sequence, but that the final scaling and arranging was done by Jacobs. [14]

There are only a few books that Dwiggins designed for Knopf that have photographs. The layout of the photographs was not overseen by Dwiggins. Instead, he merely gave instructions to Jacobs (or James Hendrickson who took over when Jacobs went into the Army midway through World War II) as to where to place the photographs in relation to chapters, often reminding them to make sure pages with photographs were not backed up with type. Dwiggins never became involved in the arrangement of photographs on a page or across a spread. This letter is the only time he voices his views on how photographs and text should be integrated in a book.

Although Dwiggins was very inventive at devising ways to combine illustrations with text, photographs either stumped him or did not interest him. In books he designed, photographs are laid out, at their best, in a conservative manner and, at their worst, in a haphazard one. (See example below.) There is none of the liveliness of layout that El Lissitzky, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, or Jan Tschichold brought to books with photographs in the 1920s and early 1930s. [15]

Page from Water, Land, and People by Bernard Frank and Anthony Netboy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950). Book design by W.A. Dwiggins.

Essentially, when Dwiggins designed a book for Knopf he only handled the typographic portion: half title, title page, contents, list of illustrations, main text, end notes, bibliography, index, and colophon.

Colophon of The Roosevelt Omnibus edited and annotated by Don Wharton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1934). Typography by Sidney Jacobs.

When Dwiggins left the borzoi off the title page of a book he was designing for Knopf, he usually added it to the colophon. But in The Roosevelt Omnibus, the colophon has no borzoi. Jacobs must not have passed the colophon page by Dwiggins for his opinion. Otherwise, it is hard to believe that Dwiggins would not have suggested the removal of the unnecessary and ugly set of rules on either side of the colophon header. [16]

The Roosevelt Omnibus is a very minor item in Dwiggins’ career as a book designer. The reasons for devoting a post to it are threefold: 1. it provides an opportunity to talk about Dwiggins’ political leanings; 2. it is one of the best examples of Dwiggins acting as a sounding board for Knopf books designed in-house by Jacobs; and 3. the correspondence about the book contains the only public opinions by Dwiggins on the placement of photographs in a book vis-a-vis its typography.

1. W.A. Dwiggins to C.H. Griffith November 5 [1930] in Folder 15, Box 14, C.H. Griffith Papers, University of Kentucky. Dwiggins was notorious for not fully dating his correspondence. The date 1930 was added by Griffith at some point, but given the content of the letter, the date must be 1932. The “great democratic victory” refers to the landslide defeat by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) of Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) in the 1932 Presidential campaign. When Griffith processed his papers after his retirement from Mergenthaler Linotype in 1949, he underlined “communist” and wrote “WAD’s comedy”. This added comment should be seen as Griffith trying to protect Dwiggins’ reputation during the post-World War II Red Scare led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957).
2. Hoover won the vote in Hingham, Massachusetts where Dwiggins lived. In the 1932 election, the town cast 1999 votes for Hoover and 1010 for Roosevelt. See Hingham Town Records 1931-1938, reel no. 8.
3. A major exception to this statement is in W.A. Dwiggins to Arthur [W. Rushmore] 20 February [1936] in Folder 18, Box 12, 2001 W.A. Dwiggins Collection, Boston Public Library. The letter is accompanied by a four-page handwritten document headed “TRANSLATED FROM THE PERSIAN” and annotated, “Edition limited to one copy numbered and signed, this is no. 1. The document is a “fable of the bazaars,” a dialogue between Yusef and Hazan:

“Once upon a time,” began Yusef, “there was a farmer who sold two chickens and with the proceeds bought two shirts: so the farmer had two shirts and the city man had two chickens. ¶ Then along came the New Deal* and told the farmer he should get more money for his chickens by making them scarcer—he must not raise so many and then he would get more income. The New Deal also told the workingman in the city that he must work fewer hours and get more money.

“That, of course, caused manufactured products to cost more money. ¶Now the farmer brought one chicken to market. He got as much money for it as he had previously gotten for two chickens. He felt fine. ¶He went to buy some shirts, but found that shirts had also doubled in price. So he got one shirt. ¶Now the farmer had one shirt and the city man had one chicken, whereas without the New Deal the farmer could have had two shirts and the city man could have had two chickens. ¶This is called the More Abundant Life.”

[The fable does not fit the facts says Hazan]

“…Your farmer, living to himself—not taking a good look around to find out just how things are sitting—kills and dresses forty-seven chickens and takes them to town—forty-some more than they have the money in town to buy. And the city man, being human, hasn’t the heart to get his shirt more than a quarter-done, the way things are—just the stuff cut out & spoiled unless he can brace up and take the chance and finish it.

“So they can’t trade—unless the farmer is willing to let twenty-odd chickens go for an unfinished quarter of a shirt…

[Hazan says that somebody has to solve the problem, but not “the guy in the White House”.]

“The Somebody ought to be the farmer and the city feller working together to find out how many chickens and how many shirts would keep trade lively and wholesome. That would be more our way… Working together is the tough spot, because the farmer doesn’t want the city man to tell him how many chickens to raise, and the city man doesn’t want the farmer to say how many shirts it would be good business to make… It’s up to you people in the bazaars: how are you going to get ’em together?… If you can’t… if you just lay down and can’t get your folks together on some sort of rational scheme of how many chickens and how many shirts… we are going to have New Dealers yet that will be a lot worse… for all of us….”

*FREB K’ALIN in the original Pali—a demon in the Sumerian mythology.

This fable was Dwiggins’ reaction to the landmark A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United States case that was decided May 27, 1935. The case struck down the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, a key part of the early New Deal, and its “codes of fair competition”. The codes effectively fixed prices and wages, established production quotas, and imposed restrictions on the entry of other companies into the alliances.
4. The New York Times 4 November 1934. The book includes an account of the February 15, 1933 assassination attempt on president-elect Roosevelt’s life by Giuseppe Zangara in Miami.
5. The Roosevelt Omnibus is item 34.04 in The Books of WAD: A Bibliography of the Books Designed by W. A. Dwiggins by Dwight Agner (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Press of the Nightowl, 1974). Agner credits Dwiggins with the title page and binding.
6. W.A. Dwiggins to Sidney Jacobs 7 August 1934 in Folder 3, Box 734, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.
7. W.A. Dwiggins to Sidney Jacobs 7 August 1934 in Folder 3, Box 734, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.
8. Collected Prose of Elinor Wylie (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1933). The jacket design was reused with new lettering for The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1937).
9. See the color rough that accompanied the letter from W.A. Dwiggins to Sidney Jacobs 7 August 1934 in Folder 3, Box 734, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.
10. W.A. Dwiggins to Sidney Jacobs 19 July [1934] in Folder 13, Box 731, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.
11. For instance see the editorial “Modernism in Typography Is Going” by J.L. Frazier in The Inland Printer (August 1930), pp. 58–59. Frazier writes that the magazine’s readers “fully understand our intent in the use of the term ‘modernism’; they know that it has been in accordance with the commonest understanding, i. e., synonymous with the term ‘jazz.’ The printer seeking to be a modern has “fallen for’ ultra-bold, bizarre, and eccentric types, black geometric ornaments, and a multiplicity of thick rules, has arranged type in masses of odd, incongruous form, etc., and felt that he was ‘modern.’ About 98 per cent of the work designated modern was of this ilk, and about 98 per cent of the printers understood modernism as that and nothing else, or more.” p. 58. Some of the “bizarre and eccentric types” he had in mind were Broadway, Cubist Bold, Stygian, Bifur, and Nubian.
12. W.A. Dwiggins to Sidney Jacobs 19 July [1934] in Folder 13, Box 731, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.
13. W.A. Dwiggins to Sidney Jacobs 19 July [1934] in Folder 13, Box 731, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.
14. See the undated typescript checklist in Folder 32, Box 4, 2001 W.A. Dwiggins Collection, Boston Public Library.
15. See Staatliches Bauhaus 1919–1923 (Munich: Bauhausverlag, 1923) designed by Moholy-Nagy, Kunstismus 1914-1924 (Zurich, Munich and Leipzig: Eugen Rentsch, 1925) designed by El Lissitzky, or Die Sieg: Ein Buch vom Sport by Günter Mamlok and Sergius Sax (Munich and Berlin: R. Oldenbourg, 1932) designed by Tschichold for more modern treatments of photographs within a book.
16. “Mr. Knopf’s suggestion for an ‘intentions’ colophon might be interesting, and we can try it on the next job,” Dwiggins wrote to Jacobs. See W.A. Dwiggins to Sidney Jacobs 19 July [1934] in Folder 13, Box 731, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas. Apparently, Alfred A. Knopf wanted Dwiggins to explain the ideas behind the design of The Roosevelt Omnibus in the colophon. Most likely Dwiggins vetoed the idea because his role in the book was too slim. But in several books he designed in the mid-1930s, beginning with Stages on the Road by Sigrid Undset (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1934), he acceded to Knopf’s request and described his intentions in the colophon. In those instances it was headed “Designer’s Note”. See The Definitive Dwiggins no. 36 for more on this subject.