The Definitive Dwiggins

The Definitive Dwiggins is devoted to surveying the life and work of W.A. Dwiggins (1880–1956), an American graphic designer, illustrator, type designer, calligrapher and letterer, marionette maker, and author. It is born of admiration often bordering on astonishment, but it is emphatically not hagiographic. Instead, it seeks to understand not only Dwiggins and his work, but to place both in historical context. It aims to discover his influences and sources of inspiration, to uncover the stories behind his designs, to try to discern his thinking about each aspect and element. The Definitive Dwiggins promises to correct existing scholarship on Dwiggins; challenge the myths that have built up around him; and, in doing so, create a fuller, more complex, and ultimately more authentic portrait of a fascinating figure in the history of graphic design.

The Definitive Dwiggins no. 46—Addendum on Maynard Co.

My friend Alex Jay (of the excellent website The Tenth Letter) sent me some microfilm images of Maynard advertisements by W.A. Dwiggins in the The Boston Herald that he got from a newspaper archive called Genealogy Bank. They do seem less scratchy and shadowy. But what is most important is that they are whole pages that provide a good indication of the environment in which the Dwiggins’ Maynard advertisements operated.
Below is the same “Pearl Necklaces” advertisement on back-to-back days in …
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The Definitive Dwiggins no. 45—More on Metro

Three years ago, for the Typographica annual review of the year’s typefaces, I chose to write about the Metro Nova typeface family designed by Toshi Omagari for Monotype. But instead of the usual 300 word review I wrote an extended essay on origins of Metro, explaining how Metro no. 2—which most people think of as Metro—came about and indicating how little of Metro was actually designed by W.A. Dwiggins. Stephen Coles, creator of Typographica, liked the deep background but since …
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The Definitive Dwiggins no. 43—Maynard and Microfilm

One problem in researching the career of W.A. Dwiggins is identifying and locating the advertising work he did from 1905 to the end of the 1920s when he shifted his focus to book design and type design. The space advertising work—as opposed to the direct advertising work—is especially difficult. [1] Much, if not all, of it was done for inclusion in the numerous Boston newspapers, either via advertising agencies such as the Cowen Company or directly for clients. [2] Copies of …
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The Definitive Dwiggins no. 42—The Annual of Bookmaking

The Annual of Bookmaking (New York: The Colophon, 1938). Binding design by W.A. Dwiggins.
W.A. Dwiggins was at the zenith of his career in 1938. The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) had held an exhibition of his work in November 1937, the first time that a living designer had been so honored. Over the course of the previous ten years Dwiggins had completed two typefaces (Metro and Electra) for Mergenthaler Linotype and was in the process of finishing up …
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The Definitive Dwiggins no. 15 Addendum—W.A. Dwiggins, Harry L. Gage and Lucian Bernhard on Modernism

As Dwiggins was writing Layout in Advertising the debate over modernist design in the United States was heating up. It was sparked not by the Bauhaus in Germany or the emergence of die neue typographie there and in Eastern Europe, but by the Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels held in Paris from April 28 to November 30, 1925. The exposition has given us the phrase Art Deco. [1] But at the time the graphic art associated with …
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The Definitive Dwiggins no. 15—The Origins of Metro

With the release of Metro Nova by Toshi Omagari in 2013, there has been renewed interest in Metro by W.A. Dwiggins. And with that renewed interest has come misinformation. has a brief history of Metro’s origins that manages to garble the facts, most of which are well-known. Here is their text:
One day in the late 1920s, C. H. Griffiths, who was responsible for typographic development at Mergenthaler Linotype at the time, read a magazine article bemoaning the lack …
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The Definitive Dwiggins no. 41—A Christmas card for Mrs. Foster

In several previous posts (nos. 3, 13, 25, 34 and 37) I have explored the sources that W.A. Dwiggins relied upon for his illustrations. In his work for The Merrymount Press these sources were often provided to him by his client, Daniel Berkeley Updike. A rare instance of Dwiggins discovering an historical source on his own for an illustration for a Merrymount Press job is the portrait of a Madonna and Child that graces the exterior of a 1908 Christmas …
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The Definitive Dwiggins No. 40—The Noble Order of the Golden Louse

For ten years I have been poring over W.A. Dwiggins’ surviving account books in an attempt to identify and locate the thousands of ephemeral design jobs he worked on between 1907 and the end of the 1920s.  Although much of the work is mundane and some of it trivial, all of it is fascinating since it tells us a lot about the nature of his career and of the state of American graphic design in these formative years.
One entry (of many) …
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The Definitive Dwiggins no. 39—The Cambridge City Bakery

“The Staff of Life” advertisement for The Cambridge City Bakery. From Frederic Goudy by D.J.R. Bruckner (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Publisher, 1990), p.48.
In his biography of Frederic W. Goudy, D.J.R. Bruckner shows the above image on p. 48 with the caption, “Advertisement for the [sic] Cambridge City Bakery designed by Goudy. This claim, for which Bruckner provides no documentation, has bothered me ever since the book was published. How did Goudy come to design the advertisement and when …
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The Definitive Dwiggins no. 38—Alvin Lustig and W.A. Dwiggins

The 1950 Fifty Books of the Year competition held by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) did not include a single book published by the publisher Alfred A. Knopf. This was the first time that had happened in the history of the competition. Knopf was not happy. He apparently complained to W.A. Dwiggins who responded with this note:
The whole art of book designer has been shaken loose from its foundations—there is not doubt about that.
It’s the work of these …
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The Definitive Dwiggins no. 37—The Mystery of the Printing Press

In W.A. Dwiggins’ account book for 1914 there is this entry: “JUNE / 1 PM MP redraw press salt } 20 00” Translated it says that he redrew a printing press, using a salt print as a guide, for the Merrymount Press and was paid $20 for his efforts. This is confirmed twice in his carbons. There is one dated 1 June 1914 that explicitly says, “Merrymount Press / Redrawing printing press 20 00” with payment made on June 20 of …
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The Definitive Dwiggins no. 36—Knopf Colophons

Recently, I gave a talk at The Book Club of California titled Beyond the Spine: A Closer Look at the Book Designs of W.A. Dwiggins for Alfred A. Knopf. While preparing the talk a few months ago, Jennifer Sime, the executive director of the club, asked me if I could prepare an article on short notice for the club’s quarterly newsletter. I jumped at the offer because it gave me an opportunity to write in depth about the colophons in …
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The Definitive Dwiggins no. 34—New Ideas in Illustration

“New Ideas in Illustration” advertisement by S.D. Warren & Co. (Print vol. V, no. 3, 1915). Illustration and lettering by W.A. Dwiggins (1914).
During his advertising career W.A. Dwiggins did a large amount of work for paper manufacturers and distributors, especially Strathmore Paper Company and S.D. Warren. His work for the latter occurred in two phases: 1911–1916 and 1917–1937. In the early years the work was done indirectly via Brad Stephens and his various businesses. [1] The later work was …
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The Definitive Dwiggins no. 28 addendum—The Humanists’ Library

Front of circular for The Humanists’ Library, first series (1907). Printed by The Merrymount Press. Image courtesy of Barry Snider.
Who designed the frames used on the front of the Humanists’ Library circulars? The first circular was issued in the spring of 1907. The frame is not signed. However, there is solid documentary evidence that, despite its precise, mechanical appearance it is the work of W.A. Dwiggins. His account book for January 4 of that year includes this entry: “Redrawing …
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The Definitive Dwiggins no. 24—Talks on Dwiggins

For the past fifteen years I have been giving talks on W.A. Dwiggins as a means of spreading the discoveries I have made about his life and career while my magnum opus remains in gestation. Below is a chronological list of the talks I have already given, including some in which Dwiggins is a player but not the main subject. They cover a wide range of topics since Dwiggins had a multi-faceted career. There are many other topics* that I …
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The Definitive Dwiggins no. 31—Early appreciation of Dwiggins

Announcement card for the Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston (1909). Designed and entirely hand lettered by W.A. Dwiggins.On p. 630 of the May 1915 issue of School Arts (vol. XIV, no. 9), a small card designed in 1909 by W.A. Dwiggins for The Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston is reproduced (see above). The card, part of a section of the magazine devoted to “Good Ideas from Everywhere,”  is praised for its “good pen lettering.” A few pages later, Henry …
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