The “Webster’s Project” started in the summer of 1996 before I began my second year studying at the North Bennet Street School in Boston. At my grandmother’s farm in Maryland, under my grandfather’s favorite reading chair, I discovered a tattered 1898 edition of the International Dictionary. I’d always wanted one of these big old Webster’s and I figured it would make a great repair project.
While I was repairing the paper, re-lining the spine, and backing it with an extended alum tawed lining which I used to attach new split boards, and covering the book with alum-tawed goat, a classmate showed me a Sunday Globe Magazine article about the Merriam-Webster Co. in Springfield, MA. While repairing the book I had become somewhat obsessed with the engravings which were ganged together and printed at the back of the dictionary as the Illustrated Webster’s and I had been thinking about making a kind of miniature dictionary filled with these images. (I had also become fascinated with the techniques the company used to support the enormous bindings of the dictionary – but this will have to wait for another time.)
I wondered if the M-W Co. didn’t still have the engravings, so emboldend by the recent success of my artists’ book collaboration with Sam Walker, Putrefatti, I called up the M-W Co. and suggested I might make a letterpress printed book using the original engravings. I quickly put together a little mock-up using photocopies of the image section of my dictionary and was captivated by my photocopy mistakes where one page was printed directly on top of another, which would eventually lead to the “Double Webster” (Webster X2 – I haven’t settled on a name for that yet.) I am printing concurrently with the Pictorial Webster’s.
After meeting with the kind folks in the old Webster headquarters in Sprinfield, it seemed as if the project was a “Go.” The idea was that I would produce a hand-printed, hand-bound copy and then a trade edition would be made to retail for around $40 and be sold by M-W at bookstores. One of the aimiable vice-presidents took me out to lunch a this venerable restaurant with a back-room atmosphere (yes, this was before smoking was banned in restaurants) and I was incredibly nervous as I’d never been taken out to one of these important lunches before. Ah well, I guess M-W Co. won’t be picking up any more luch tabs for me – after about a year working on the project, discussing costs with commercial printers and working up various mock-ups trying to figure out how many engravings could comfortably fit on a page etc., it became clear the folks at M-W were losing interest. I don’t know if it was the fact that I said I needed to “spend time with the engravings and listen to what they were saying to me” or if they really were too overwhelmed with flap in the press about one of their new dictionary’s word-inclusions, but we drifted apart and I was given the green light to pursue the project on my own. (I still hadn’t set eyes on the engravings to determine if they were even in a condition to print from!) It turns out I didn’t need to work with the company at all as the engravings had been given to Yale in 1977.
I drove down to New Haven and discovered that the engravings were in a dusty corner of a locked stacks in the Sterling Library. Then curator, Bridget Burke, had the engravings moved to the Arts of the Book Press room where I began a year of organizing the images – we are now into 1997. The engravings are housed in five or six large cabinets each with twenty some drawers or cases filled with tens to hundreds of engravings each. There must be around 12,000 engravings. Each of the engravings is marked with a number, and the numbers are all presumably in an index book someplace. I have come to believe they are in the conference room in Springfield, MA. When the project was begun we didn’t know if they had any useful organization so I took on the task of organizing the engravings into categories: fish, birds, mollusks, footwear, forms of punishment, small weapons, sports and games, gods and goddesses, crustaceans, musical instruments etc. . . This took me the better part of a year and I gave up on some of the newer engravings used for dictionaries of the 1950’s because they are just too uninteresting. . . . speaking of uninteresting . . . please, if you are tiring of this – check out The Pages, or The Product!
I needed a way to label the images as I began to discover what they were. As you will see in The Process, the older engravings have manuscript on the bottom telling what they are, but the engravings from the International and later dictionaries have no markings save the numbers. I came upon a system where I chopped post-it notes into little squares I could temporarily stick to the sides of the engravings with my own notes of what the engravings were. I ended up purchasing the 1859 and 1864 dictionaries so I could identify more of the engravings. I photocopied the sections containing all of the images and used those as a reference. During this period I would work for 12 hour stretches at a time pouring over the fishes and birds. I was also drafting a loan agreement to enable me to borrow the engravings.
So many lucky turns of fate happened in all of this. I attended a conference as part of my job as conservator at the New England Historical Genealogical Society on borrowing materials for library exhibits held at Wellesley College. I borrowed language from their loan contracts and crafted an agreement which was acceptable to Yale. I had also seen a Vandercook Universal III advertised in The Printer. I raced down to Norfolk, VA, where a guy had three of these incredible Cylinder Letterpresses. I believe this is the best press for this job — built in 1968, the last or second to last year Vandercook produced them — it is not merely a proof press, but a precision press created specifically for small editions of half-tones and other fussy letterpress projects. So many things I did half with this project in mind – like the purchase of a model 8 linotype I made in 1996. I had no idea how to run it, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.