R.F. DaBoll: Rich Influence On the Course Of Calligraphy

Raymond Franklin DaBoll (1892–1982)

To modern printers looking back over the past century, the art of calligraphy and the craft of printing seem to have become inexorably entwined, in spite of requiring somewhat different disciplines, although of course related ones.

According to the typographic historian Stanley Morison: “Calligraphy is the art of fine writing communicated by agreed symbols. If these signs and symbols are painted or are engraved on wood or stone, we have that extension of writing known as lettering, i.e., a large script generally formed with mechanical aids, such as the rule, compass, or square. But it is the essence of handwriting that it be free from such, though not from all government, and of beautiful handwriting that it possess style. . . . Calligraphy may be defined as freehand in which the freedom is so nicely reconciled with order that the understanding eye is pleased to contemplate it.”

A much-loved man who spent the major part of his long life successfully combining such relationships died recently at the age of 88. Raymond F. DaBoll unquestionably made the greatest contribution of any American to the present high state of that calligraphy now enjoys.

The esteem in which his work is held, however, stems not from his facility with the broad pen but also from his skill as a typographic designer. It was this latter attribute that helped him bring calligraphy into the market place as an important complement to typography itself.

Ray DaBoll was born in 1892 on a farm in upstate New York near the village of Clyde. It was while growing up in this rural setting that he demonstrated an aptitude for painting which resulted in his enrollment in the art department of Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute, now known as Rochester Institute of Technology. While attending here, he came across, in a printing periodical, the reproduction of a poem by Langdon Smith titled Evolution, which had been hand lettered by a Chicago artist named Oswald Cooper.

DaBoll was so entranced by this piece that he added a course in lettering and design to his program. The lettering taught was more architectural than typographic but it did introduce him to the exciting world of letter forms. He later paid tribute to his teachers for their insistence upon the dictum, “Design is order.”

Following his graduation, at which he was the recipient of an important award for painting, he went to Chicago to study at the Art Institute, then began his career in that city by working in art departments attached to engravers, printers and ad agencies.

In 1919 he received what he always considered to be his big break. He was sought out and interviewed for a position with Bertsch & Cooper, the outstanding typographic design studio in Chicago at that time. DaBoll was overwhelmed at the prospect of working with Oz Cooper, whose lettering had so inspired him when he was studying in Rochester. The three years he spent with Cooper were instrumental in providing the insights and experience which later brought him renown.

Oz Cooper, one of the great typographic designers of the period, had been introduced to lettering as a student of Frederic W. Goudy, who taught at the Frank Holme School of Illustration at the turn of the century.

Cooper’s ability as a letterer had attracted such wide attention that he was prevailed upon by the Chicago typefoundry of Barnhard Brothers and Spindler to design types. This relationship resulted in the enormously successful series of Cooper types, the first of which—Cooper Oldstyle—was issued in 1919. It was, in fact, this new connection that prompted Cooper to seek assistance in his shop.

Oz Cooper always maintained that it was due to Goudy, and Goudy alone, that “the degraded business of hand lettering as it existed at the turn of the century was raised to the dignity of a profession.”

Another outstanding calligrapher who first learned lettering in Chicago was the late Edward M. Catich, who never ceased to offer praise for the contributions of what he called the Chicago school of lettering. Father Catich often spoke of writing its history. It is unfortunate that he did not live to complete such a project.

Thus Ray DaBoll was most fortunate at this point in his development to be associated with the best practitioners then at work in the United States. He left the Cooper establishment in 1922 and served as art director for several other studios in Chicago until 1929, when he established himself as a freelance designer, a capacity in which he remained for the rest of his life.

DaBoll was always grateful for the help he received from his relationship with Oz Cooper. He repaid it in part by editing and designing for Chicago’s Society of Typographic Arts The Book of Oz Cooper, a really splendid tribute to the designer, published in 1949.

In 1937, Ray DaBoll turned from lettering to calligraphy when he enrolled in the classes taught b Ernst F. Detterer, curator of rare books at the Newberry Library. Detterer had been a student of Edward Johnston, the man primarily responsible for the great 20th century revival of interest in the Cancellaresca Corsiva. This running script was first fully described by the 16th century Italian scribe, Ludovico degli Arrighi, whose writing manual Operina was published in 1522.

Further impetus was given the movement during the 1920’s when an American typographer, Frederic Warde, collaborated with Stanley Morison and the Verona printer Giovanni Mardersteig, in the production of a reprint of the Arrighi manual. Warde also produced a printing type based upon this hand and named Arrighi.

DaBoll was caught up in this renewed interest in the chancery writing forms, and very quickly became the outstanding proponent of the style in the United States. When the Society of Typographic Arts decided to reprint in book form a two-part article which had appeared in The Inland Printer, written by Paul Standard, the New York calligrapher, DaBoll was selected to design the book and to supply the calligraphic notes of the author. Published in 1947, Calligraphy’s Flowering, Decay, & Restauration became a seminal book in the revival and has been influential to the present time. After many years in out-of-print status it was again published in 1978.

Paul Standard has since noted that a copy of it, seen in German by a young designer named Hermann Zapf, helped to spark the enthusiasm which kindled another great career in calligraphy and type design.

In 1948 DaBoll also made an important contribution to the production of beautiful writing in the broadside he wrote and designed fro the typographic series produced by the Eastern Corporation, a paper manufacturer. Headed by the title, Calligraphy: Disciplined Freedom is the Essence of It, this 17×22ʺ sheet has become one of the most desirable pieces in any collection of DaBoll’s graphic art.

As in so much of the work of this fine designer, the Disciplined Freedom sheet combines penmanship of a very high order with absolutely first-rate design. While many fine calligraphers have emerged during the last few decades, few indeed can manage to combine these skills so successfully.

While countless examples of DaBoll calligraphy exist and have served as inspiration for at least two generations of scribes, his real influence has been a personal one. Long after he had retired to Newark, Arkansas, he kept up a voluminous correspondence with young people in every part of the country. They sent their work to him for criticism and he always responded with warm-hearted enthusiasm. And many of his correspondents traveled out to Arkansas to talk to him and to discuss at first hand the DaBoll technique with the pen.

One of these young calligraphers, Ray Cusick, has since responded by writing a book containing essays and examples of DaBoll calligraphy. Titled With Respect to RFD, this splendid book was published in 1978 by TBW Books, Freeport, Maine. It remains the best single source of his work yet to be produced.

Still another testimonial is the beautifully produced A Visit to RFD, written in 1974 by G. Harvey Petty, the Indianapolis typographer and himself a calligrapher of note. This tribute is entirely in Petty’s fine hand and contains reproductions of many DaBoll pieces.

Currently the calligraphic revival is in full surge, often under the name of italic handwriting. The bookstores are full of manuals and of course the pen manufacturers are happily contributing to this reawakening. Naturally enough, most of the new scribes are intent only on correcting abuses of childhood writing classes, but surely these amateurs will be very much aware of first-class calligraphy wherever it may be found.

A book to be consulted wherever it can be located is the most ambitious DaBoll work of all, Recollections of the Lyceum & Chautauqua Circuits. This book, hand-written and illustrated b the artist, contains the memoirs of his wife, Irene, who spent a number of ears as a singer at the various Chautauquas which at one time were so important a part of American cultural life.

The last section of the book is concerned with calligraphy itself, containing letters from over 60 of his correspondents, in addition to alphabet sheets describing the formation of cursive letters.

I count myself most fortunate in having been one of Ray DaBoll’s friends for a good number of years, and I treasure that relationship with a man who obviously loved his craft and was so willing to impart his knowledge and warm understanding to those who sought it.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the September 1982 issue of Printing Impressions.



  1. Elizabeth Briggs says:

    I am Raymond DaBoll’s great neice. I remember the “Dear Ones” letters we would get from Aunt Irene. I also remember when they were in the nursing home in Elizabeth, IL, close to the farm I grew up at, after moving from Hinsdale, IL. I don’t have a lot of memories, but I’d love to share with you what I do have. Feel free to contact me at my e-mail address. Betsy (Elizabeth Briggs)

  2. David Rivad says:

    Wow, I can believe I found the person who created one of my most valued books. I been taking care of this book, because it used to be my Grandfathers. He was a carpenter and used this book to make his letters. The book was published: In 1956-1957 The name is Speedball Manual. The Spanish version. I found the creator.

  3. Rick Cusick says:

    This is obviously an old article because it’s been decades since i was called a “young calligrapher”, (referred to as Ray here but it’s Rick)…Still, it’s a very nice summary of Ray’s contributions.
    It was a joy to put together the tribute, “With Respect…to RFD, and honor to know Ray and Irene. i had the pleasure of visiting them at least once a year from 1971 to when they moved to the home in Elisabeth, ill.
    A couple of years ago, i was happy to learn that Ray’s papers were given to the Newberry Library, should anyone want to delve deeper into the life of this generous and kind man.

  4. […] most popularly known for a calligraphy textbook for Speedball, Raymond F. DaBoll was sometimes known as the Dean of American Calligraphy, whose work also encompassed collectible […]

  5. Sarah DaBoll Geurtz says:

    Ray was my great-grandfather. He was dearly loved and a gentleman.

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