- Purloined Letters and Prehistories of Graphic Design
The history of American graphic design and the field of American studies have a great deal in common, although there have been few opportunities for them to officially acknowledge each other. U.S. typographer and book designer W. A. Dwiggins introduced the term graphic design in the 1920s. Working with traditional methods of book design to produce a modern style that embodied the vitality of his era, Dwiggins referred to himself as a "graphic designer" so as to distinguish his production from that of the private presses, letterpress printing, and handset type.1 Yet even before he did, Americans were well prepared for both the term and the practice. As Ellen Mazur Thomson observes, the cultural preparation of graphic design occurred before the twentieth century in journals such as the Typographic Advertiser, the Printer's Circular, and the American Art Printer, produced for printers and type founders and first published in the 1850s. Although each of these journals addressed a different audience, they all introduced the practical and theoretical concerns that paved the way for the development of graphic design as a practice in the United States. Mazur Thomson reminds us that printers, typographers, and engravers performed the tasks we now associate with graphic design: the specifications for type use and placement, the layout, and the sequencing of pages.2 For the most part, historians of American graphic design are attentive to the technical means of typographic and graphic reproducibility and to all manner of printed materials, signage, trademarks, logos, and other graphic materials. Because they also have tended to focus on what Dwiggins engendered with his coinage, however, we [End Page 343] have a fairly good sense of graphic design in the United States from the 1920s on but, with rare exceptions, know very little about its prehistory.
Two recent scholarly books go some way to remedy this oversight. Michael Gaudio's Engraving the Savage: The New World and Techniques of Civilization addresses graphic materialities of engraving as a "formative element of ethnographic knowledge, particularly in the ethnographic literature on the Americas" (xii). Importantly, Gaudio explores both the material contingencies and the assemblies of the engraver's workshop—the space of print production, which was as much the location of the "savage" as the Americas were. To show this, Gaudio makes a case for "looking at the engravings" that were derived from the sixteenth-century painter John White's watercolor drawings and that deeply influenced ethnographic research on the Americas. If we look as Gaudio does, we find there are things deeply social and historical to discover in the graphic material itself.3 For him, the engravings made after White's watercolor drawings are the "stuff the savage is made of " (xxi). Whereas Michel Foucault and his followers, most notably Ian Hacking, have shown that the ontological status of a subject is closely linked to discourse, Gaudio pushes the constructivist model a step further, emphasizing "stuff " in the construction of the savage.4 Engraving is not an abstract but a material discourse, made up of plates, inks, tools, presses, and paper. According to Gaudio's historical ontology, the stuff of engraving constructs a new way for the savage peoples of the Americas to be. The graphic organization and typographic layout of engravings, circulated through media networks of reproduction, further solidifies the stuff of ethnography.
Oz Frankel's States of Inquiry: Social Investigations and Print Culture in Nineteenth-Century Britain and the United States accounts for the gathering and accumulation of data, modes of publication, and the state institutions and their proxies that partner up with print. Just as Gaudio's "savage" was a product of graphic and typographic processes, so, too, were the indigent in the United Kingdom and the Iroquois in the United States, to name two of Frankel's...