The Definitive Dwiggins no. 348—A Christmas Carol

The Press of the Woolly Whale is probably the best name ever conceived for a private press. It was the imprint of Melbert B. Cary, Jr. (1892–1941), who, at the time of its founding in 1928, was the president of the Continental Type Founders Association, a company that imported metal type from European foundries and distributed the typefaces of Frederic W. Goudy (1865–1947). The first book issued from the Press of the Woolly Whale was The Vision of Sir Launfal By James Russell Lowell (1928). [1] The second was A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens (1930). Although A Christmas Carol is not included 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), it is a notable part of Dwiggins’ bibliography since he contributed an ornament (used on the title page and on the colophon page) and five decorative initials to it. He also provided advice on the layout and typography of its title page. [2]

Although A Christmas Carol is a slim book of 79 pages, its production apparently entailed an inordinate amount of struggle. The Beinecke Library at Yale University has a unique copy of  Trial Proofs: Showing Progressive Development in the Design of A Christmas Carol June 1929–December 1930 Press of the Woolly Whale New York, a bound scrapbook which documents the stages of the book’s design, printing, and binding over the course of eighteen months. Getting the binding right took five of those months. [3] Much of the remaining thirteen months seem to have been taking up with designing the title page and the initials for the opening pages of each chapter (called a “stave” by Dickens).


Typeface
Cary’s first step in designing A Christmas Carol was to choose a typeface and page size. Reconstructing his thinking can only be done by following the sequence of items in the first section of the scrapbook since none of the material is dated. He first tried Caslon, followed by Poliphilus, before settling on 14 pt Lutetia as the typeface. The book began as an octavo, but when it was changed to a folio Cary increased the size of the Lutetia. [4]

First proof of A Christmas Carol title page. The design is set in Lutetia and Lutetia Italic. Image courtesy of he Beinecke Library, Yale University

Lutetia was designed by Jan van Krimpen (1892–1958) in 1925 for Joh. Enschedé en Zonen in Haarlem, Holland. It was his first typeface. Continental Type Founders began importing it to the United States in 1928. Cary may have chosen it for A Christmas Carol as a means of promoting the typeface to an American audience.

Page proof of “Stave One: Marley’s Ghost” from A Christmas Carol. The page is set in Lutetia and Lutetia Italic with an Erbar Initial M in red. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

The scrapbook indicates that the design of the title page was the second order of business followed by the selection of the initial letters, but in fact these two stages must have been proceeding concurrently. Once he had selected Lutetia for the titles and text of the book, Cary next tried to find a typeface that would work for the initials. His first attempt was Erbar Medieval Initials in what looks like 48 pt. The one proof in the scrapbook shows the uncial (alternate) M printed in red (see above). This didn’t satisfy Cary since he commissioned van Krimpen to design initials for the book in June or early July of 1929. [5]


The Initial Letters
On July 19 Van Krimpen mailed Cary drawings for five initial letters (A, M, T, W, and Y) along with alternate versions for M, W, and Y—and two holly leaves. They must have been sent to the Hotel le Provençal in Juan-les-Pins on the French Riviera since that is where Cary was when he told George W. Van Vechten, Jr., his compositor and pressman, the good news nine days later:

VanKrimpen [sic] has consented to draw the 4 [sic] initials necessary for the Christmas Carol, and better yet, has actually done them. Here they are.

Are they going to be heavy enough to print in red when reduced? They seem very light to me, excellent in their present size. The second row of ornamental letters do not appeal to me at all — let us avoid them entirely.

Please see what you can do with the first row and send me page proofs at once. We must get started on this. If you send several alternative arrangements, please number them and keep a set of numbered proofs, so that I can cable my selection using the number only.

As regards ornament, I am not enthusiastic about his unit [the holly leaves], but it is hard to tell how it will combine until we try. Should not mind using it. What can you suggest? I want to have a finger in the title page, but to get the rest of the book well advanced before my return. [6]

Original artwork for initials and holly leaves for A Christmas Carol. Drawn by Jan van Krimpen July 1929. Note the pencil lines by Van Krimpen indicating the optical positioning he wanted for each initial. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

Page proof of “Stave One: Marley’s Ghost” of A Christmas Carol using initial M designed by Jan van Krimpen. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

Cary’s instinct about Van Krimpen’s initials as being too light was right on the mark. Van Krimpen had drawn them at twice their final size and when Van Vechten proofed them, they looked anemic. Given Cary’s initial test of the Erbar Medieval Initials, the other objection to Van Krimpen’s initials must have been that they were too plain, too classical for Dickens’ tale. The next test was with some “Erasmus” initials with a little more Medieval feeling. [7] Although they do not look like anything else in Van Krimpen’s oeuvre, which tended toward the Renaissance in influence and style, they were presumably made by him in response to Cary’s dissatisfaction with the July 19 initials.

“Erasmus” initials for A Christmas Carol presumably designed by Jan van Krimpen. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

Page proof of “Stave One: Marley’s Ghost” of A Christmas Carol with “Erasmus” initial M presumably designed by Jan van Krimpen. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

Cary was apparently not pleased with the “Erasmus” initials either. At some point between early August 1929 and February 1930 he contacted Dwiggins about contributing an ornament for the title page of A Christmas Carol. [8] Why is unclear as the two men had yet to work together and Dwiggins had only recently begun to shift his career from advertising work to book design. Perhaps Cary saw America Conquers Death by Milton Waldman (New York: William Edwin Rudge, 1928), a book that was selected as one of the Fifty Books of the Year for 1928 by the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and was taken by its decorative initial V.

However, the initial in America Conquers Death is very cheerful and not at all what one might consider appropriate for the Victorian A Christmas Carol. But that is largely due to its bright red, blue, and green colors. If indeed it sparked an idea in Cary, it would have been its fundamental design rather than its coloration. It consists of a classical roman capital surrounded by floral decoration within an implied square. To make such an initial more gothic it would only be necessary to print the initial in a single, less sparkling color and add something macabre to the foliage. And this precisely what Dwiggins did in creating the initials for A Christmas Carol.

Decorative initial V from America Conquers Death by Milton Waldman (New York: William Edwin Rudge, 1928). Design by W.A. Dwiggins.

Although there is no documentary evidence, Dwiggins must have designed his five initials for A Christmas Carol in the fall of 1929 since his work on the title page ornament was begun in September  1930. [9] It is significant that the letter used to proof Dwiggins’ initials was M since it was one of two he had designed with faces hidden in the decorative foliage. Did Dwiggins intend the face to be that of Jacob Marley’s ghost? Only the M and the W fit the spirit of Dickens’ story while the A, T, and Y are merely decorative, little different from the initial V of America Conquers Death.

Van Vechten tested Dwiggins’ initials at two sizes: first at 8-lines high and then at 6-lines high. The latter was chosen for the book. Below are the five initials as they were finally printed. M for “Stave One: Marley’s Ghost,” W for “Stave Two: The First of the Three Spirits,” A for “Stave Three: The Second of the Three Spirits,” T for “Stave Four: The Last of the Spirits,” and Y for “Stave Five: The End of It.”

Original artwork for initials by W.A. Dwiggins for A Christmas Carol. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

Page proof of “Stave One: Marley’s Ghost” of A Christmas Carol with 8-line initial M designed by W.A. Dwiggins. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

Decorative initial A by W.A. Dwiggins for A Christmas Carol. Image courtesy of Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

Decorative initial M designed by W.A. Dwiggins for A Christmas Carol. Image courtesy of Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University. Note the faces hidden in the foliage.

Decorative initial T by W.A. Dwiggins for A Christmas Carol. Image courtesy of Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

Decorative initial W by W.A. Dwiggins for A Christmas Carol. Note the four screaming faces and two grasping hands concealed in the foliage.Image courtesy of Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

Decorative initial Y by W.A. Dwiggins for A Christmas Carol. Image courtesy of Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

The initials for A Christmas Carol apparently stimulated Dwiggins’ creativity. He created more in the same vein—minus the faces and shrieking heads—for Droll Stories by Honoré Balzac (New York: The Limited Editions Club, 1932), The Bashford Dean Collection of Arms and Armor in The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Carl Otto von Klinebusch and Stephen V. Grancsay (Portland, Maine: Southworth Press for the Arms and Armor Club of New York City, 1933), and an aborted edition of King Lear for the Southworth Press in 1935. The decorative portions of all of these sets of initials were made using Dwiggins’ stencil elements. [10]

Decorative initial T from Droll Stories by Honoré Balzac (New York: The Limited Editions Club, 1932). Designed by W.A. Dwiggins.

Decorative initial T from The Bashford Dean Collection of Arms and Armor in The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Carl Otto Klinebusch and Stephen V. Grancsay (Portland, Maine: Southworth Press for the Arms and Armor Club of New York City, 1933). Designed by W.A. Dwiggins.


The Title page
Cary intended to have A Christmas Carol completed by December 1929, but serious work on the title page doesn’t seem to have begun until early 1930. “Section Two: Development of the Title page and Introduction” of the scrapbook contains two page proofs and six comps of the title page; a drawing of a wigged head; original artwork and a negative photostat of Dwiggins’ ornament; four more comps and twelve more page proofs of the title page; and five page proofs of the introduction (written by Cary). The implication is that the items are presented in their order of creation, but this cannot be entirely true since the second title page proof with the imprint “Christmas 1929” bears Dwiggins’ ornament while none of the first six comps (marked VV 2/21/30) include it.

“VV” are Van Vechten’s initials. Their presence on the first set of title page comps for A Christmas Carol is a clear indication that he was more than the pressman and compositor of the Press of the Woolly Whale; that he had an active role in designing its books. [11] But the final decision on the designs—”the finger”—was made by Cary. In the case of the title page of A Christmas Carol Dwiggins also had his finger in the design. And, in the end, it was his views that prevailed.

The undated comps 7–10 must have been made months later in the fall of 1930 given that they all include Dwiggins’ ornament—a door knocker with a head (presumably that of Jacob Marley since the colophon refers to it as “Marley’s knocker”) and that Dwiggins mentions working on an ornament for Cary in a letter dated September, 1930. This dating is supported by two of the subsequent proofs bearing October 1930 dates on their reverse side. [12]

Original artwork and negative photostat of Marley’s knocker designed by W.A. Dwiggins for A Christmas Carol. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

Second proof of title page for A Christmas Carol. It is the first to include the Marley knocker ornament designed by W.A. Dwiggins. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

The second proof with “Christmas 1929” as part of the imprint was probably the first to be pulled using Dwiggins’ ornament since Marley’s knocker has merely replaced the spouting whale pressmark in a design that otherwise matches the first proof (see above). Comps 7-10 dispense with the compartmentalized design and the holly leaf border. Van Vechten focused on the sizes of the Lutetia type for the title, subtitle, author’s name, and imprint information. He struggled to incorporate Marley’s knocker into the design, at one point trying to have the curved part of the door knocker enclose the word “story” in the subtitle. Dwiggins gently nixed that idea, writing “I think the head should be out by itself” on the fourth proof.

Fourth proof of the title page for A Christmas Carol. The pencil annotation is by W.A. Dwiggins. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

Fifth proof of title page for A Christmas Carol. First pencil annotation by W.A. Dwiggins and second probably by Melbert B. Cary, Jr. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

The Marley’s knocker was moved down as Dwiggins had suggested. Then the title was changed from Lutetia capitals to upper- and lowercase Priory Black Text (Barnhart Brothers & Spindler) set on a curve and printed in red. This decision—probably Cary’s—was surely inspired by the original 1843 title page of A Christmas Carol. Dwiggins approved of the change. After this further proofs of the title page show only refinements to the rest of the copy (i.e. adjusting letterspacing, type size, and positioning). [13] The Press of the Woolly Whale issued its version of Dickens’ classic story in time for Christmas 1930.

Sixth proof of title page of A Christmas Carol with title set in Priory Black Text. An E has been mistaken for a C in “Christmas” and “Carol”. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

Title page of A Christmas Carol in Prose; Being a Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens (New York: Press of the Woolly Whale, 1930). Ornament designed by W.A. Dwiggins. Image courtesy of Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University

A Christmas Carol was chosen as one of the AIGA’s Fifty Books of the Year for 1930. [14] The book sparked a long friendship between Dwiggins and Cary that was cut short by the latter’s untimely demise from bone cancer in 1941 at the age of forty-nine. Although it was not designed by Dwiggins, it was the first of several projects they collaborated on in the following decade, the most notable of which was The Treasure in the Forest by H.G. Wells (New York: Press of the Woolly Whale, 1936).


Notes
1. For detailed information on the Press of the Woolly Whale see Melbert B. Cary, Jr. and the Press of the Woolly Whale by David Pankow, Carl Purington Rollins and Kenneth Auchincloss (Rochester, New York: RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press, 2002). A Christmas Carol is no. 9 in the Bibliography.
2. A Christmas Carol was designed by Cary and his pressman/compositor George W. Van Vechten, Jr. (1906–1962). It is understandable that A Christmas Carol is not included in Agner’s bibliography, but it more surprising—given its humorous M and W initials—that it is not noted in W.A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design by Bruce Kennett (San Francisco: Letterform Archive, 2017). Kennett has frequently stressed Dwiggins’ “mirthful” side.
3. Trial Proofs: Showing Progressive Development in the Design of A Christmas Carol June 1929–December 1930 Press of the Woolly Whale New York is in Box 8, Press of the Wooly Whale Records GEN MSS 932, Beinecke Library, Yale University. “Section Five: Binding” of the scrapbook contains a typewritten “Statement”: “The following is the true story of how the Woolly Whale edition of Dickens’ Christmas carol came to find itself between covers. The time elapsed between the first experimental sketch and the final delivery of the last batch of books was approximately five months, during most of which time we labored under the stress of, first, indecision, then bad luck, and later, oversight and actual carelessness on the part of the workmen employed in binding this volume. However, all that is now forgotten, happily, and we are able to recall without anguish, and indeed with regard for the humorous angle, the numerous steps involved.” Cary tried four binders (Quinn & Boden, George McKibben & Sons, William Edwin Rudge, Inc., and Scroll Club Bindery) before settling on McKibben. Even after that, problems were discovered with torn sheets and spotting on some of the forel skins.
4. “Section One: Determination of Type Face and Page Size” in Trial Proofs: Showing Progressive Development in the Design of A Christmas Carol June 1929–December 1930 Press of the Woolly Whale New York, Box 8, Press of the Wooly Whale Records GEN MSS 932, Beinecke Library, Yale University. Cary did not mark the final point size, but I am guessing it is 16 pt.
5. I am basing this chronology on the fact that the page proof with the red Erbar Medieval Initial precedes the correspondence with Van Krimpen in “Section Three: Selection of Initial Letters” in the scrapbook. Continental Type Founders also imported the Erbar Medieval Initials.
6. Jan van Krimpen to Melbert B. Cary, Jr. 19 July 1929 and Melbert B. Cary, Jr. to George W. Van Vechten, Jr. 28 July 1929. Both letters are bound into “Section Three: Selection of Initial Letters” in Trial Proofs: Showing Progressive Development in the Design of A Christmas Carol June 1929–December 1930 Press of the Woolly Whale New York, Box 8, Press of the Wooly Whale Records GEN MSS 932, Beinecke Library, Yale University. They are the only correspondence in the scrapbook.
7. There is no correspondence or notes regarding these initials. I am calling them the “Erasmus” initials because the page proof testing the M (not included in the scrapbook) has that name. The letters clearly bear a resemblance to the capitals of the Erasmus Initials designed by S.H. de Roos (1877–1962) for the Amsterdam Type Foundry in 1923, but it is doubtful that Cary commissioned them from De Roos.
8. The earliest reference to Dwiggins and Cary being in touch with each other is contained in a letter from Harry Gage to C.H. Griffith 13 May 1929 in Metroblack Folder, Box 6, C.H. Griffith Papers, Margaret I. King Library, University of Kentucky. In regard to Dwiggins’ desire to see his letter design experiments become typefaces, Gage told Griffith, “He has talked to Cary but is loath [sic] to tie up with a European company—too remote.” The two men probably met in person on October 23, 1929 when Cary gave a talk on European types to the Society of Printers in Boston. According to accounts of the talk, Cary mentioned Dwiggins’ stencil efforts. See The American Printer vol. 89, no. 6 (December 1929), p. 803. The earliest extant letter between the two men is W.A. Dwiggins to Melbert B. Cary, Jr. 19 September 1930 in Melbert B. Cary, Jr. Correspondence 1929–1941, Box 3, Dwiggins Ephemera Boxes, Melbert B. Cary, Jr., Wallace Library, Rochester Institute of Technology. It includes a reference to Dwiggins designing a title-page ornament for Cary, but it does not mention A Christmas Carol specifically.
9. I am assuming that Dwiggins designed the initials before he began work on the title page vignette. And that his work commenced soon after Van Krimpen’s initials had been found wanting. But it is perfectly possible that the initials were made sometime in 1930.
10. For more on Dwiggins’ stencil work see Stencilled Ornament & Illustration: A Demonstration of William Addison Dwiggins’ Method of Book Decoration and Other Uses of the Stencil, Together with a Note by the Artist by Dorothy Abbe (Hingham, Massachusetts: Püterschein-Hingham, 1979). Abbe makes no mention of these decorative initials or the initial V from America Conquers Death.
11. It is very likely that all of the comps are by Van Vechten since the remaining ones have circled numbers in the lower left corner which matches Cary’s instructions to him in the July 28, 1929 letter. Unfortunately, none of them are dated.
12. See W.A. Dwiggins to Melbert B. Cary, Jr. 19 September 1930 in Melbert B. Cary, Jr. Correspondence 1929–1941, Box 3, Dwiggins Ephemera Boxes, Melbert B. Cary, Jr., Wallace Library, Rochester Institute of Technology. Most likely the second proof was printed using type, rules and border that had remained locked-up since the printing of the first proof almost a year earlier. It can be assumed that Van Vechten and Cary spent the intermediate time proofing and printing the text pages, including the stave openings with the decorative initials, for the book.
13. On a paste-up of the title page with curved title in Priory Black Text (originally named Reed text) Dwiggins wrote, “I like the Dickensy look of the blackletter on a curve.” This proof is now in pieces which is why it is not included here as an illustration. The proof was created between two that are dated “10/21/30” and “10/29/30” respectively. See “Section Two: Development of Title Page and Introduction” in
Trial Proofs: Showing Progressive Development in the Design of A Christmas Carol June 1929–December 1930 Press of the Woolly Whale New York, Box 8, Press of the Wooly Whale Records GEN MSS 932, Beinecke Library, Yale University. Henry Watson Kent, Secretary of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, also poked his finger into the title page design, commenting on the 10/29/30 proof, “Too high / ‘in Prose’ is a part of the title *shd be in Old Eng. also?” His pedantic suggestion was not adopted.
14. A Christmas Carol: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens (New York: Press of the Woolly Whale, 1930) was “the first folio and first prose volume” issued by the Press. The text was handset in Lutetia by George W. Van Vechten, Jr. and Charles H. Richards. It was printed on Tarazona, a hand-made paper from Spain in an edition of 250 copies (with fifty reserved for “bibliophiles and those interested in Dickensiana”) in red and black; and three-quarter bound in green Turkey morocco with papers sides, gold stamped, by George McKibben & Sons. The top edge is gilt. This information is taken from the colophon which credits Dwiggins with the design of the title page ornament and five initial letters.