Pictorial Webster’s: The Process

The story begins with the engravings, themselves. You might imagine what a Hamilton Type CasEngravingse (a big flat drawer in layman’s terms) would look like from this small sample. These images have already been identified — the post-it notes on their sides have the name and any other note I thought necessary on them. You might notice the “Veins of a dragonfly wing” in the top center has notes indicating what the various cells on the wing are called. They have also been alphabetized to make it easier for me to create the text for them and arrange them into the book.

MeasuringEngravingWhat you see here is the form I created to make a log of the engravings I’m borrowing from Yale so I have a record of what I take and that they are all returned. It’s hard to see the engraving, but it’s “Velvet Grass” and it’s 5 picas wide. The engraving is sitting on top of the International Dictionary. When I get the engravings back to my shop I pull out my old dictionaries to see which dictionary the engraving first appears in, I check my spelling (I’m a terrible speller), and I copy down Latin names or other interesting features – say if an engraving has labelled parts etc. In this picture, just above the ruler, there is a funnel shaped image – if you look above, you can see it (“ventriculate”) in the lower left portion of the photo. This borrowing sheet now becomes my guide for linotyping the text to accompany the images. —– —- —– —– ——

linotypingHere I am at my Model 8 linotype, and it’s summertime, and I’m correcting something in the composing elevator. Notice the sheet above the keyboard where I type in the text. The linotype is an amazing machine — an operator merely types on the keyboards and brass mats assemble in the composing elevator w/ steel spacebands forming the spaces between words. Each mat has the mold of a letter punched in its backside. After a line is assembled, the operator depresses a lever and the machine takes over, casting this form into a line ‘o type and then re-distributing the mats and spacebands so you can start again.

cuttingslugsThe shiny silver things are the 7 point, 12 pica slugs cast on the linotype. The pen is to mark the metal for chopping on a leading cutter so the slugs will match the width of the engravings. This is an image of Umbel – the first line beneath it reads “Umbel” backwards so it will print correctly (Letterpress is direct as opposed to offset which is an indirect printing process.) on the paper. The second line has the number associated with umbel and the notation MN which means it is an electrotype that was created for the 1890 International Dictionary.

underlay1underlay2In addition to creating text for the engravings, each engraving must be checked to see that it is “type high.” This magnificent dial indicator is on loan from Fred Widmer who put it together using an old base from the Waltham Watch Factory and a new dial piece. If an engraving is not within a couple thousandths of .918″ high, it will either not get enough ink and enough pressure, or it will get too much ink and too much pressure when printing. Most of the engravings are low.You can see this engraving needed about 3 thousanths of an inch of underlay to reach “type high.” Notice I use old “Work in Progress!” for my 3 thousandth underlay needs. If an engraving is high, it might be because it had too much underlay put on in the 19th Century. This old underlay must be carefully removed w/ a wheat-paste poultice. Often you will find manuscript written by a draughtsman or the engraver indicating what the engraving is.Here is an example of what you might find: It reads “Hyperbola. Crabb. Page 246.” Crabb is the source from which the engraving was copied! I made scans of almost every engraving I cleaned and am planning to include a bibliography of the sources from which the engravings for the dictionary were taken in my book.

CrabbSince we are talking about the engravings — Here is my set-up for making my own engravings. You can see the various burins and a block of wood in a Korean letter vice. My opti-visor magnifying lenses are invaluable. Luke Hepler, a friend who did micro-injections of cells for electron-microscopy once explained to me that the human hand is able to adjust its movements to whatever the eye can see.This is just a test block in the vice.

EngravinganimageHere is an engraving of “Die Stock” and you can see that the drawing was reproduced photographically from some catalog as evidenced by the words “Die Stock” in the upper left.The engraver would then engrave the block leaving the black lines to print. These wood engravings created for the International Dictionary did not always have all the material cleared away on the engraving as it was not worth the time of the engraver to do that. (And it may have even helped with the electrotyping process?) This engraving would have a wax mold taken of it, copper would be electroplated to that mold and then the image would be backed with lead and mounted on a piece of wood to make a type-high block. I believe the way they dealt with the border areas was to fill only the image itself with lead, and the border areas would be nailed down to the base — thus becoming lower than the printing surface. (Please contact me if I give any poor information!)

die stock -2Here is my type and page setting area. On the table by the lamp is a page form being set.












Here you can see the first page of the “U’s” is being set. I created this page setting form using metal furniture and locking it up in a galley. I have four such forms. These images will have leading carefully set in between to fill up all the voids so that the engravings will not move during printing. For setting engravings, one doesn’t need excessive pressure, but it needs to be consistent from page to page. I usually rough set the two pages facing each other first so I know what each page spread will look like, then I, or an intern, finishes setting the page.

Once all 16 pages are set for a section, 8 of them are set into the press for a print run. I then spend a day proofing, and fixing underlay and then working on “makeready.” Makeready is adding or removing paper to the drum of the press to adjust the pressure in printing. Many of the mounted engravings have a certain amount of spring to them – it might be in part the wood they are mounted on, and also the looseness of their mounting. These images will get enough ink from proper underlay, but because of that spring, they will not receive enough pressure and so will not print well. To gauge pressure, one looks at the underside of a printed sheet at a low angle with a good light source behind. If one sees no impression at all, adding make-ready is imperative. Many times I have been seduced by a great first few impressions and not added adequate make-ready — partly in deference to the age of the engravings — only to discover twenty impressions later that the image isn’t really printing that well b/c it’s just not pressing the ink into the page. Yeah, you can’t always gauge on first impressions!

proofsHere are proofs I keep hanging over my interleaved stack of the run I’m currently printing. These help remind me of what a good and bad impression looks like over time. The ink I use dries much lighter than it originally appears — the ink seeps into the paper and so I must print slightly darker than I want the final pages to appear.



Here is an engraving sitting next to the print of the same engraving. The engraving was first used in the 1864 Dictionary, and the white you see in the wood engraving is French Chalk sprinkled on to help show what the engraving will look like.

filecabAfter I finish printing both sides of a run, the sheets get wrapped up and stored in my Webster’s Project file cabinet.You can see the piles of sections ong the bottom and top shelves of the cabinet. The other shelves have old proofs, makeready, and special proofing paper to use when the book is reproduced as a trade edition.




Pictorial Webster’s: the LONG Story of the Project

The LONG Story of the Project: ……….. …..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.

Pictorial Webster’s: More background

The Pictorial Webster’s is, in simplest terms, an artistic visual reference of what was important to 19th Century America.The 400 plus page volume is printed with the original wood engravings and copper electrotypes of the Merriam-Webster dictionaries of the 19th Century; namely the 1859 American Dictionary of the English Language (the 1st illustrated dictionary in America), the 1864 edition of that same Dictionary, and the 1890 International Dictionary. The Engravings are arranged alphabetically, a system of organization long shunned by lexicographers because alphabetical order grants no intrinsic meaning to any given grouping of words, but it is perfect for a book that creates its own immersive experience in imagery of a time gone by.

The Pictorial Webster’s is not to be understood as mere visual reference. I believe a person instinctively tries to find the connection between things when they are grouped together, and so when confronted by combinations of two or more images the mind looks for a link to give their grouping meaning. My hope is readers will “read the text” by relaxing their minds in studying the pages to allow their subconscious-ness to supply the connective meaning between images. The key-words at the tops of the pages might supply a theme to a reader, or merely be worked into one’s own narrative. In this way the book becomes a true surrealist experience. From the prospectus I created for the book, I write:

New ideas don’t spontaneously generate themselves, but come from the new combinations of old ones. In this vein, the Pictorial Webster’s acts as a visual Finnegans Wake of 19th Century America. Each reader will arrive at his or her own interpretation of the 400 plus pages of engraved images arranged with an artistic eye and loose adherence to alphabetical order. The reader will be free to appreciate each image or page on its own, or to string them together to make a visual stream of consciousness story full of new ideas sparked by forced associations.

The book is also a meticulously printed study of the art of 19th Century scientific and black-line wood engravings. To an engraving, the printing in this book is of better quality than the printing in the original dictionaries. Details are revealed that were lost in the original printings as this book is printed for the engravings rather than for the text, on better quality paper, with a more sophisticated press, and it is being printed with the engravings or electrotypes as opposed to stereotyped plates which would have been used for the edition printing of the dictionaries.


Pictorial Webster’s: About

Johnny Carrera has been working with the images from the original 19th Century editions of Webster’s Dictionary since 1996. To create the artworks in this series, Carrera organized, cataloged, restored, reprinted, ruminated over, recreated, recontextualized his favorites from more than 12,000 original engravings created by Merriam Webster, most from the 19th and early 20th Century. As a group, the images from Webster’s as seen by Carrera are a window into American knowledge during that period and a rich, resonant resource for tomorrow.

The culmination of this 13-year project was The Pictorial Webster’s: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities, published first by Carrera’s Quercus Press and in 2009, in an accessible hardcover edition by Chronicle Books. The 400 page book contains more than 3,000 illustrations from the series, including engravings dating back to 1859. While the images include the exotic, the mundane, the obsolete, and the iconic, they also tell the story of what matters by showing what gets organized and shared. Carrera has exercised considerable skill to allow the fullest, most open interpretation of the collection, creating an elaborate notation system to identify each image — and he’s added his own subjects where he felt it necessary.

While Webster’s is a list of meanings, the Pictorial Webster’s is much more. Carrera says, “Each reader will arrive at his or her own interpretation of the …. engraved images arranged with an artistic eye and loose adherence to alphabetical order. The reader will be free to appreciate each image or page on its own, or to string them together to make a visual stream of consciousness story full of new ideas sparked by forced associations.”

Provocative, informational essays before and after the visual “meat” of the book share more about the history of the images and about Carrera’s process.

Other items in the Chronicle series are the Pictorial Webster’s Pocket Dictionary (a smaller hardcover collection of images), a very cool set of rubber stamps, a set of A to Z Wall Cards, and a journal for artists and writers. For the collector, several different deluxe, hand-bound editions of the Pictorial Webster’s are also available in very limited quantities. Please inquire for details.

From time to time, Johnny makes limited edition t-shirts and other items, available here. Another project that is forthcoming is the Dueling Dictionary, a unique, inexpensive artists’ book showcasing a small selection of Webster’s images with competing words and connections on each spread.

In 2013, Carrera’s work with the Webster’s engravings was featured in Life’s Work: Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera, a major exhibition at MASS MoCA (open till January 2014). Adapting minuscule book illustrations to a large scale museum installation was performed with Carrera’s typical enthusiasm and grandeur: The original and adapted engravings and other images created by Carrera were printed large scale onto 17 x 12 foot sails.

The MASS MoCA show also includes a one-of-a-kind version of the Dueling Dictionary, printed on large sheets of wood and “bound” to a dedicated table, as well as vivid color screen prints juxtaposing images from the compendium. Silkscreen prints from this group, produced in very small editions, are available here.