A mystery begins with a brief, intriguing paragraph preserved in the Sutro Library scrapbooks. On February 15, 1963, Sutro Library’s legendary Librarian Richard H. Dillon, was quoted in the California State Library’s newsletter The Friday Intercom:
“Mr. Dorsey Alexander, a young calligrapher from Berkeley, has created a new ‘hand’ or alphabet script, which he hopes to use in advertising layouts. The script is based on some of the manuscript hands in volumes in the Sutro Library Renaissance Room collection, and out of gratitude, Mr. Alexander has called the new hand ‘Sutro Script.’ Mr. Alexander wrote Richard Dillon: ‘I am enclosing an alphabet modernized but inspired by the manuscripts you kindly allowed us to study. This note, of course, is written in the same hand. I am calling it Sutro Script because that seems appropriate.’”
What manuscripts could have inspired Mr. Alexander, and perhaps his friends—for he does say “…you kindly allowed us to study”? When they visited the Sutro Library Collection in 1963, was their focus the rare Yemenite Hebrew manuscripts from the 13th and 14th centuries, or the brilliantly colored, illuminated manuscripts from the European monasteries of the Middle Ages? Perhaps it was the hand-written Italian documents from Venetian families of the 15th to 17th centuries, or the incunabula collection of early printings from the 1460’s onward that sparked inspiration. Maybe it was the striking Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, or the Chinese trade painting books and scrolls from the mid-19th century they viewed. Could it have been one of the codices of Techialoyan manuscripts, an item in the Mexican Collection, or the broadside advertising posters from the Sutro Baths collection?
The Sutro Library Collection holds them all. It could have been any one, or several, of them!
At this time, the location of that 1963 letter from Mr. Alexander to Mr. Dillon illustrating the new “Sutro Script” hand is unknown. That note to Librarian Richard H. Dillon is the only reference to a script named in honor of the Sutro Collection we have found to date. Until the letter is discovered, the exact appearance of the script may remain a mystery. Was Mr. Dorsey Alexander’s “Sutro Script” employed by other calligraphers after 1963, and might it live on in advertising layouts past and present?
Starting with the man himself, an Internet search of the name “Mr. Dorsey Alexander” offers some promising items. WorldCat lists a book titled Spring, “Hand lettered and designed by Dorsey P. Alexander” 16 unnumbered pages, published in Berkeley, CA (1963) by Cody’s Books.
The Turtle’s Quill Scriptorium (originally located at 1290 Queens Rd., Berkeley, CA) is identified as the publisher of several charmingly titled books including Zooabet in 1967, Birds in 1968 by Joyce and Dorsey Alexander, and The Sea: Excerpts from Herman Melville published Christmas 1969, limited edition of 300, woodcuts by Joyce Alexander, text lettered by Dorsey Alexander.
By 1978 the Turtle’s Quill Scriptorium had relocated to Mendocino, CA. The Princeton Alumni Weekly of May 8, 1978 noted on p. 56, regarding the Class of ’37: “Dorsey Alexander is retired to Mendocino, CA where he and his wife, Joyce, have a publishing venture, ‘Turtle’s Quill Scriptorium,’ which has already published 15 books. He does the calligraphy while Joyce does the illustration.” Publications from that time and location include: Thaddeus: A Factual Account of the Founding of the First Mouse Symphony, by Joyce Alexander, Dorsey Alexander, 1978; Happy Bird Day & Poems, Woodcuts/Calligraphy by Joyce and Dorsey Alexander, 1980; A Flurry of Angels from Literature, Illustration by Joyce Alexander, Calligraphy by Dorsey Alexander, 1986; and A Packet of Rhymes: Scottish and English Folk Poetry from the Nursery, Linocuts by Joyce Alexander, Calligraphy by Dorsey Alexander, 1989.
Dorsey P. Alexander died January 18, 2009, in Mendocino, CA. A memorial published online on January 29, 2009 described him as an “expert calligrapher [who] produced over 24 books with his wife, Joyce, as illustrator under the name ‘Turtle’s Quill Scriptorium.’”
If this Mr. Alexander was indeed the “young calligrapher” who studied manuscripts in the Sutro Collection in 1962 or 1963, he appears to have lived a very productive life working in calligraphy design and book publishing. There are no references to advertising layout design or his Sutro Script. Is there a Sutro Script hand alphabet out there, somewhere?
Where does an Internet search for “Sutro Script” and “calligraphy” lead? It takes us to “fonts” and “families of fonts,” and then — “Sutro Family of Fonts”! Here we meet an energetic graphic designer by the name of Jim Parkinson.
Based in Oakland, CA and founder of Parkinson Type Design, Mr. Parkinson has been prolific in his career of type and font design, spanning nearly 55 years. Jim Parkinson’s Wikipedia page states he studied advertising design and painting at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and graduated in 1963. He worked for Hallmark Cards for a time, then returned to Oakland and freelanced as a lettering artist doing work for rock bands, sign painting, advertisements, and packaging.
Where does the Sutro Family of Fonts come in? Quoting Parkinson’s Wikipedia page:
“Although Parkinson’s lettering sensibility is rooted in old wood type and signage from the 19th century and during the first part of his career he used pen and ink for finished pieces, in 1990 Parkinson put away his pen and ink and embraced digital technology while working for the San Francisco Chronicle, designing fonts.”
“Sutro” is among the 39 typefaces designed by Jim Parkinson listed in the Wikipedia article at:
Ah-ha! A Sutro Digital Family of Fonts exists!
According to Parkinson’s website, the “Sutro Family” of fonts was designed in 2003 and evolved out of Parkinson’s work with Slab Serifs. Over time he has been “adding some things and dressing it up a little.” This typeface now has fourteen styles, published by Parkinson Type Design. The type is available at:
In broad strokes, both Alexander and Parkinson were studying in the Berkeley and Oakland area in 1963. Perhaps they knew each other? Richard Dillon describes Dorsey Alexander as a “young calligrapher from Berkeley who has created a new ‘hand.’” If our Mr. Alexander was in the Princeton Class of 1937, and graduated at approximately age 22, that would have made him about 48 years of age in 1963. Jim Parkinson would have been 21 or 22 years old in 1963.
We know Dorsey Alexander, and possibly someone else given the “us” mentioned in his letter, came to Sutro to view the manuscripts in the Renaissance Room in 1962 or early 1963. It could have been Alexander’s wife Joyce Tocher Parkinson, or a friend like Jim Parkinson, or someone else—including an entire class of students! Ahh, the possibilities!
Dorsey Alexander remained a respected calligrapher throughout his career, and sadly we have no examples of his Sutro script design. Jim Parkinson began as a pen and ink calligrapher and moved into digital technology for font design in 1990, publishing the Sutro Family of fonts in 2003. Perhaps this font family was originally inspired by material in the Sutro collection—or is the name coincidence only? I wonder…
Our search continues for the letter from Dorsey P. Alexander to Librarian Richard H. Dillon, thanking Dillon for access to the Sutro collection and illustrating his new hand, “Sutro Script.”
Who doesn’t love a mystery?
This blog post was written by Sutro Library’s wonderful volunteer, Pat Munoz.