The Definitive Dwiggins no. 560—The Creaking Stair

Jacket spine and front for The Creaking Stair by Elizabeth Coatsworth (New York: Coward-McCann, 1949). Design, illustration and lettering by W.A. Dwiggins.

W.A. Dwiggins’ career as a book designer is tightly tied to Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. But here and there he designed a few books for other trade publishers, either as a personal favor to friends or as a means of exploring other aspects of his professional career. The Creaking Stair by Elizabeth Coatsworth (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1949) is the only book that he designed for the New York publishing house of Coward-McCann, Inc. [1] It is one of several books published in the late 1940s which served as a testing ground for some of the typefaces that Dwiggins had been working on for Mergenthaler Linotype since the onset of World War II. [2]

The Creaking Stair is set in Tippecanoe Italic with poem titles and running heads in Tippecanoe caps. However, the roman lowercase does not appear in the book. Tippecanoe was the name given to Exp. 283 which had begun life in 1942 as Exp. 268, an attempt to warm up Bodoni and Didot typefaces. [3] Dwiggins struggled to achieve his vision in 1942 and 1943, but in late 1946 he must have felt he was finally on the right track. He wrote to C.H. Griffith (1879–1956), Vice President of Typographic Development at Mergenthaler Linotype:

For the Exp. No. 283 (heavyface) trial I’d like to try, first, a couple of typical book pages—one prose and one poetry. The poetry one will help me with a book I have in hand—a group of spook poems by my friend Elizabeth Coatsworth (Mrs[.] Beston). The prose one, any straight-away copy like the Jefferson stuff. On a “natural” English Finish book paper.

Hold the poetry slugs for a little while after you print—or send them to Gehman Taylor… I want to try a picture to go with the type, with Gehman. [4]

Elizabeth Coatsworth (1893–1986), poet, novelist and children’s book author, was a neighbor of Dwiggins in Hingham, Massachusetts. Her book of “spook poems” was The Creaking Stair. How Coward-McCann became the book’s publisher is a mystery. Over the course of her long career as a writer, Coatsworth’s main publisher was Macmillan. Coward-McCann had published three of her books, the last one nearly a decade earlier: Compass Rose (1929), Here I Stay (1938), and A Toast to the King: A New England Story (1940). It is possible she shopped the manuscript around and Coward-McCann was the only company that was willing to meet Dwiggins’ requirements.

Dwiggins’ work for Knopf was part of a three-cornered relationship with Plimpton Press as the printer of the books he designed. They were located in Norwood, Massachusetts, a twenty-minute drive from his studio in Hingham. He wanted them to be the printer of The Creaking Stair, presumably to control the use of Tippecanoe as well as with his familiarity with the company’s capabilities. [5]

On July 25, 1947 Coatsworth wrote to Dwiggins to tell him that Coward-McCann had agreed to use both Plimpton Press and the new typeface. Apparently in return she had agreed to skip royalties up to 5000 copies because she wanted to see the book in print. “This book is to be for our pleasure and my pride,” she said. Cecil Goldbeck (1897–1958), editor and promotion manager at Coward-McCann, Inc., subsequently told Dwiggins that he had agreed to use the Plimpton Press in order to have the use of Dwiggins’ experimental typeface. Dwiggins was to be paid $300 for his work on the book plus 6% royalties. [6]

Title page of The Creaking Stair by Elizabeth Coatsworth (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1949). Design, “graphic accompaniment,” and lettering by W.A. Dwiggins.

Dwiggins’ work on The Creaking Stair involved more than book design. It was an opportunity—a “pleasure” as Coatsworth described it—for him to illustrate and ornament the poems. This was what he was referring to when he told Griffith that he wanted to test the typeface with pictures. Dwiggins contributed ten vignettes and seven decorative devices to The Creaking Stair, describing them collectively as “graphic accompaniment”. [7] They appear at the head of each poem.

“To a Ghost” from The Creaking Stair by Elizabeth Coatsworth (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1949). Typography, typeface, and ornament designed by W.A. Dwiggins.

The seven decorative devices or ornaments are used more than once, rotating throughout the book, for either five or six poems. This is the sequence:

ornament 1—”The Wind Shrieked Loud,” “By Command,” “Fragment from Nothing,” “Bramble Fingers,” “Judgment Day,” and “Dreams”
ornament 2—”Deserted House,” “The Ogre Entertains,” “Autumn in the Graveyard,” “Spring Hunting,” “The Black Pool,” and “The Wise Woman at Bethlehem Gate”
ornament 3—”Touchstone,” “Much Nicer People,” “The Kettle’s Tale,” “Epitaph,” “The Remnant,” and “Maidservant to the Ogre’s Ghost”
ornament 4—”The Ballad of the Peccatone Coach,” “Dry Season,” “Night Storm in April,” “The Lady,” “Lie Safe,” and “Concrete Trap”
ornament 5—”To a Ghost,” “The Devil Breaks an Appointment,” “Song to Night,” “Murder House,” “The Bondswoman,” and “Aldy Comes to an Inn”
ornament 6—”The Voice,” “Poor Relation,” “Forever Lulled,” “The Fates,” and “The Letter”
ornament 7—”Girl on the Wood Farm,” “Fairy Tale,” “The Cat and the Northern Lights,” “Luna,” and “Daniel Webster’s Horses”

Ornaments 1 to 7 and one vignette from The Creaking Stair by Elizabeth Coatsworth (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1949). Designed by W.A. Dwiggins.

The ornaments are biomorphic. There are hints of sea anemones, coral, wasp nests, roots, fungi, seed pods, and flowers. In their three-dimensionality and biology they are very different from the flat, geometric and abstract ornament that Dwiggins had been making for over twenty years. Similar designs appeared in several other works of his from the late 1940s, most notably notepaper for Alfred and Blanche Knopf, Bronabejjia: An Account of Travel in Rarely Visited Regions (New York: Hakluyt House, 1949), and Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World of Lemuel Gulliver [Gulliver’s Travels] by Jonathan Swift (Mt. Vernon, New York: Peter Pauper Press, 1948). [8]

Notepaper for Alfred and Blanche Knopf (c.1946). Design, decoration and lettering by W.A. Dwiggins. Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

Decorative initial A from Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World of Lemuel Gulliver by Jonathan Swift (Mt. Vernon, New York: Peter Pauper Press, 1948). Design by W.A. Dwiggins.

Title page of Bronabejjia: An Account of Travel in Rarely Visited Regions [by W.A. Dwiggins](New York, Hakluyt House, 1949). Design and decorative/illustrative border by W.A. Dwiggins. Image courtesy of the Cary Graphic Arts Library, Rochester Institute of Technology.

The ornaments are loose derivations from the work of Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1728–1808), the French artist renowned for spreading chinoiserie throughout Europe. Dwiggins had a nearly life-long fascination with Pillement’s work and frequently copied his designs in varying degrees. His most recent work influenced by Pillement were the decorations for a new edition of Java Head by Joseph Hergesheimer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946). [9] These biomorphic ornaments (specifically nos. 1, 2, 5 and 7) are indebted to Pillement’s flowers only as a starting point or inspiration. Dwiggins has added his own fanciful features. [10]

Flowers by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (Plate 3, upper left) from Fleurs, Oiseaux, et Fantaisies par Jean Pillement (1719–1808) (Paris: H. Ernst, 1924). Note the resemblance of the flowers at right to elements in ornaments 2 and 7.

There is one ornament or decorative element associated with The Creaking Stair that is Dwiggins’ usual flat abstract vein. It is the design that appears in black on the back panel of the jacket and stamped in silver on the front side of the binding.

Front side binding of The Creaking Stair by Elizabeth Coatsworth (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1949). Decorative element by W.A. Dwiggins.

In Dorothy Abbe’s copy of The Creaking Stair Dwiggins wrote, “Duddlubble bird on the cover and fungi inside seem to meet the mood of the poems.” [11] If the bird-like shape at the right is the Duddlubble bird—a creature whose name suggests those of Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky—then the rest of the decoration can be surmised to be its egg. But one can also see sets of stairs in the design.

There are ten vignettes: “The Snake,” “For What’s Awake?,” “Night of Hunger,” “In a Black Spring,” “The Fugitive,” “Nocturne,” “Poem of Dismissal,” “Hill Pasture,” “Pursuit,” and “To Poor Pygmalion”.T Similar in style to 19th century wood engravings, they are less interesting than the ornaments. The women in those for “The Fugitive” and “The Snake” have faces reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream.

Nine vignettes from The Creaking Stair by Elizabeth Coatsworth (New York: Coward-McCann Inc., 1949). Designed by W.A. Dwiggins.

Contemporary critics often accused Dwiggins’ illustrations as having stiff and wooden figures. That complaint is certainly borne out in several of these vignettes, such as “To Poor Pygmalion” and “In a Black Spring”. Several vignettes (e.g. “Hill Pasture”) seem to bear little relationship to the poem they accompany. However, “The Snake” is one of the best of the vignettes, both visually and in how well it reflects Coatsworth’s lyrics.

“The Snake” from The Creaking Stair by Elizabeth Coatsworth (New Yor: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1949). Typography, typeface, and vignette by W.A. Dwiggins.

Jacket and title page
The jacket (front and spine illustrated above) is one of Dwiggins’ most memorable. The woman hiding under a staircase or possibly entering an attic resembles Dorothy Abbe (1909–1999), Dwiggins’ caretaker and colleague for the last nine years of his life. Did she serve as the model?

Detail of photograph of W.A. Dwiggins and Dorothy Abbe (c.1954–1955). Photographer unknown. Image courtesy of Special Collections, Boston Public Library.

The lettering on the front of the jacket is a peculiarly Dwigginsian slab serif that has little precedent in his work. I suspect his decision to use such a letter may have been spurred by the designs for a headline typeface he was working on for Mergenthaler Linotype between 1946 and 1948. [12] The condensed sans serif lettering on the jacket spine is also atypical for Dwiggins.

The title page (see above) has more fantastic biomorphic forms, this time clearly linked to a staircase. The title and author lettering hovers between a light slab serif and a Fat Face. It is more closely related to the Tippecanoe typeface than the jacket lettering. In the lowercase one can see what Dwiggins was striving for in his attempts to breathe some life into the Didot/Bodoni types. Note especially the counters of e, a, n, and g. The lettering of Dwiggins’ credit is a Neoclassical italic that has little relationship to Tippecanoe Italic. It is noticeably lighter and has a small x-height.

It was not unusual for Dwiggins to eschew any attempt at consistency among the various parts of a book that he designed. He had no interest in the uniformity and consistency espoused by modernist designers. He was more willing to see the whole as a set of disparate but complementary parts, akin to the human body; and not as an accumulation of identical bits like the bricks in a building. Each element of The Creaking Stair—jacket, binding, title page, text page, ornament, vignette, etc.—plays a role in the overall ensemble.

Why did Dwiggins choose Tippecanoe Italic for The Creaking Stair rather than one of his other typefaces still in progress for Mergenthaler? Or, to put the question in another way, why did he choose The Creaking Stair as the first book to test out Tippecanoe—especially its italic? In an article for Publishers’ Weekly he provided some unsatisfactory answers. [13] His description of Tippecanoe and its features focused entirely on the roman (e.g. the “bat-wing tie” endings of its serifs and the entasis of its stems), with no mention of the italic. He emphasized its “dark complexion”, stressing that Tippecanoe was a still a book type and not a publicity type. Dwiggins went on to say that “…it is not lugubrious or funereal. I think you might describe it best as muscular… it has vigor.” He then suggested, quite surprisingly, that it would be good for hard-boiled detective novels! The closest he came to explaining its use in The Creaking Stair was to state that it set a mood “overtone”.

Detail of Tippecanoe Italic from The Creaking Stair by Elizabeth Coatsworth (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1949). Typeface design by W.A. Dwiggins.

An indication of Dwiggins’ attention to detail is his design of a unique pressmark for Coward-McCann, Inc. for use in The Creaking Stair. It has the same slab serif lettering found on the jacket. The biomorphic forms link it to both the title page and the poem ornaments.

Pressmark for Coward-McCann, Inc. designed specially for The Creaking Stair by W.A. Dwiggins.

1. The Creaking Stair is 49.03 in The Books of WAD: A Bibliography of the Books Designed by W.A. Dwiggins by Dwight Agner (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: The Press of the Nightowl, 1974). Coward-McCann was established in 1927. Acquired by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1936, it remained a separate imprint.
2. Other Dwiggins typefaces that were tested out in a similar way were Exp. 70 (Cambridge) in The Purloined Letter by Edgar Alan Poe (insert in The Dolphin, no. 4, part I [1940]); Winchester in Tristram and Iseult by Matthew Arnold (Mt. Vernon, New York: The Golden Eagle Press, 1946); Stuyvesant in The Shirley Letters, from the California Mine 1851–1852 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949); and Arcadia in Some Random Recollections by Alfred A. Knopf (New York: The Typophiles, 1949). Agner correctly says that The Creaking Stair was, “First, and perhaps only, use of Tippecanoe in a book.” But he does not note that it is principally the italic rather than the roman. For Tippecanoe and Stuyvesant see “Two new Type Faces, Two New Books” by W.A. Dwiggins in Publishers’ Weekly vol. 156, no. 11 (10 September 1949), pp. 1335–1339.
3. Mergenthaler Linotype designated all of its typefaces as experimentals and given a number while they were in progress. If a typeface was deemed ready for manufacturing it shed its experimental number and acquired a name suitable for marketing purposes. It is unclear when Exp. 283 became known as Tippecanoe (or why that name—presumably a reference to William Henry “Tippecanoe” Harrison (1773–1841), the ninth president of the United States—was chosen). It was Exp. 268 from January 30, 1942 to February 4, 1943 according to Griffith’s note on a letter to Dwiggins with that latter date. But the “First Test Proof of Experimental 283” is dated 22 November 1946. See Folder 11, Box 2, 2011 W.A. Dwiggins Collection, Boston Public Library. Either way, the typeface was still Exp. 283 when Dwiggins began planning to use it for Coatsworth’s book of poetry.
4. W.A. Dwiggins to C.H. Griffith n.d. [November 1946] in Folder Exp. 283, Box 6, C.H. Griffith Papers, Margaret I. King Library, University of Kentucky. I wish to thank Kent Lew for providing me with an image of this letter. Unfortunately, there is a gap in the documentary trail of Exp. 268/283 between December 1943 and November 1946. G. Gehman Taylor was one of Dwiggins’ favorite printers. His company at this time was called Rand Avery—Gordon-Taylor, Inc., located in Boston.
5. It should be noted that in setting The Creaking Stair in Tippecanoe, the printer had to have Linotype equipment and that Mergenthaler, located in Brooklyn, had to ship the matrices to them to typeset the book. Mergenthaler expected the printer to return the matrices so that no other book could be printed with the typeface.
6. Elizabeth Coatsworth to W.A. Dwiggins 25 July 1947; and Cecil Goldbeck to W.A. Dwiggins 9 December 1948 in Box 100(1), 1974 W.A. Dwiggins Collection, Boston Public Library. Since the Plimpton Press paid Dwiggins for the Knopf books they printed, they presumably supplemented the $300 offered by Coward-McCann.
7. Elizabeth Coatsworth to W.A. Dwiggins 16 June 1949 declared: “I am proud as punch to have a share with such type, such decorations and such illustrations… You have made me what I am today.” Box 100(1), 1974 W.A. Dwiggins Collection, Boston Public Library.
8. The Knopf notepaper was originally designed as a border for the title page of Alblabooks according to 1945/1946 correspondence between Alfred Knopf and Dwiggins, but in 1953 Dwiggins asserted that it was designed for special announcements. See especially W.A. Dwiggins to Alfred Knopf 5 November 1945 and 11 March 1946 in Folder 5, Box 732, Alfred A. Knopf Collection, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas; and note by Dwiggins on Sidney Jacobs to W.A. Dwiggins 27 October 1953 in Folder 5, Box 733, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas. In the January 11, 1946 letter Dwiggins complains that the Alblabooks title page border is “simply too damned handsome” for a series of cheap books. The initials used in Gulliver’s Travels are surrounded by stylized plant forms. The imprint for Bronabejjia (one of the Athalinthia stories Dwiggins was working on at the end of the 1940s) is fictitious.
9. In the colophon to Java Head, Dwiggins credited Pillement as the basis for his decorations. He worked on the book from September 1943 to March 1946, a period that coincided closely with his work on Exp. 283.
10. The relevant works of Pillement are his portfolios of fantastic flowers: Recueil de Nouvelles Fleurs de Goût: Pour la Manufacture des Etoffes de Perse (1760), Nouvelle Suite de Fleurs Idéale (1770), and Fleures Baroque (n.d.).
11. Dorothy Abbe’s copies of books designed or illustrated by Dwiggins are in the Dorothy Abbe Book Collection, Boston Public Library.
12. Here and there Dwiggins used a distinctive slab serif both for advertising work and for bookjackets, but virtually every example other than The Creaking Stair, consists solely of capitals. The only exceptions I have been able to find are “Seyla,” the caption to the headpiece illustration in The Drums of Kalkapan (1935), and the jacket of Java Head by Joseph Hergesheimer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946). Dwiggins’ Mergenthaler headline experiments in a slab serif vein are more condensed and sharper than the lettering on The Creaking Stair jacket.
13. “Two new Type Faces, Two New Books” by W.A. Dwiggins in Publishers’ Weekly vol. 156, no. 11 (10 September 1949), pp. 1335–1339.