Extracts From an Investigation Into The Physical Properties of Books



William Addison Dwiggins was born in Martinsville Ohio in 1880. Mr. Dwiggins vocations and avocations were myriad and intertwined. He was a letterer, calligrapher, book designer, type designer, illustrator, writer, publisher and a marionette designer, maker and playwright. Contrary to the adage, he was a master of all the trades in which he participated. In graphic design circles he is probably best known for coining the term “graphic design.” It is a disservice to his innovations and skill if he is remembered solely for that. In point of fact, he coined a better and more charming name for his design activities: “black-&-white-smith.” Mr. Dwiggins is at least as well known in puppeteer circles for his innovations in that field.


Published in 1919, Extracts From an Investigation Into The Physical Properties of Books is a short volume of 32 pages. The book begins with a single page preface Note, a handsome and skillfully executed chart, and a single page formal introduction. What follows, the bulk(?) of the book, are 6 consultations or interviews conducted by the Committee of experts in the field of publishing. The book ends with a two-page Abstract of the Committee’s Recommendations.


This book is joke. It is an artfully and humorously executed polemic. It is not intended as a ruse, the audience was in on the joke, but it is a scathing and sharply funny attack on the bookmaking business.

A tiny bit of background. Mr. Dwiggins determined a need for an American calligraphers association. None existed, so he created his own, the Society of Calligraphers. He was its only member. A note to his former teacher Fredric Goudy, reveals his plot: “Have had a big idea for some months that it would be good fun to start a Society of Calligraphers or something like that, damned exclusive and toppy—the two of us to begin with, in fact—devoted solely to fine lettering and writing.”*

The Society of Calligraphers are the originators of the investigation, on which the booklet purports to be extracted from. The preface Note states that the findings of the committee, engaged by the by the Society to study the quality of books were so “surprised” as to make waiting for the full report inadvisable. Mr. Dwiggins signs this note himself, with the title of Secretary. To reiterate, Mr. Dwiggins is the Secretary, the Committee, and the Society, sharing extracts from a report that doesn’t exist.

The next section begins with the sad results. The Committee’s examinations have revealed “all books of the present day are badly made.” To pinpoint the origin of this “evil” the committee has interviewed various experts in book publishing. What follows are 6 short consultations whose purpose is to uncover where things went awry.
The exchanges can be ridiculous while getting at truths. From the interview with Mr. B:
“—If I understand you correctly, do you mean to say it matters how a book looks?
 —That is the thought on my mind.
—That’s a new idea in book publishing!”
The critique includes the size and thickness of books, the quantity of type per page, the quality of type, the paper, the covers, the illustrations, the printers, the publishers; nothing is beyond his rebuke. The notion of booking making as a business rather than an art, as well as salesman are a particular focus, from Mr. McG:
“—It would seem, then, that the designing of the books is very much in the hands of the salesmen?
—Quite in their hands.
—Are the office-boys often called into consultation?”
The abstract of the Committee’s recommendations ends the book. It is full of surprises, humor and clever writing. It is funny enough that spoiling it seems unkind.


Extracts From an Investigation Into The Physical Properties of Books is a polemic and an inside joke of the highest order. Mr. Dwiggins’ attacks are so brutal that its historical insights have to be taken with a grain of salt. There is not much that is transferable to current practice except in the broadest sense. It is short enough to recommend to just about anybody with a passing interest in the subject. Developing an irresistible curiosity for the author appears a common side-effect afflicting those who have read the book.


William Dwiggins is known for coining the term “graphic design”, but this was the least of his accomplishments. This is a real book about a fake report from a fake society that is critical of bookmaking at the beginning of the 20th century. Read it because it is funny.


“—Apparently, then, there is no place in this country where one can learn how to design printing? —You can safely say that there is no such place”

“—The causes are everywhere —all through the rattle-trap, cheap-jack, shoddy work that is being done in every kind of trade. Nobody cares about making decent things anymore.”

“—Would you deduce, then, that the periodical and book publishing industry has failed to train the taste of its public in such matters? —It has done worse: it has depraved that taste. Because there was, not very long ago. a fine tradition in this country in the line of illustration.”

“—Has the firm ever looked into the question of good workmanship as a possible aid to sales?”

*The Calligraphic Side of W.A. Dwiggins by Bruce Kennett