My investigations into the source material have led to some interesting finds. In particular, I got my hands on a scan of the original Strand magazine from 1903, and looked at The Adventure of the Dancing Men therein. And, indeed, the drawings were very much different. This is definitely going to come into play with the font.
The first thing that stands out is the major difference in style. They’re much cruder stick figures, much more in line with the description in the story which says they resemble a child’s scrawl. While with the more common ones it is at least questionable, with these it would definitely be possible to see them, if chalked on a wall, as the work of children.
Another thing is even more interesting: In the last of the messages, the one that says “COME HERE AT ONCE,” there is in all the versions I knew before today an error in the text: it really says “COCE HERE…” But in the Strand original, it does not. That particular error was apparently introduced when original of the version I was working from — the public-domain version found in Project Gutenberg, etc. — was printed. That is also the one apparently known to most Sherlockians; I’ve come across mention of the C/M error on several websites. But I’m looking at the Strand drawings on my screen right now, and that error is not present. Interestingly enough, the P/V error is present in the original.
The drawings have an almost calligraphic look at times. I suspect the originals were drawn, not with a pencil as described, but with a fountain pen. There are some interesting differences between them and the ones “everybody” knows. The most immediately obvious difference is that the flags are outlines, not solid squares. Most of the figures’ legs are longer and their bodies shorter. Even the “legless” ones like H actually have snort little legs down at the base, rather than just feet.
It is also, by the way, apparent that they were drawn by the same hand, despite the first having been done by Abe Slaney, the second through fourth by Hilton Cubitt, and the fifth by Sherlock Holmes himself. The most distinct of them is the first, and that not by much. One would think the author or publisher would have made an effort to distinguish the supposedly “different” handwriting somewhat more clearly.
Also of interest, in several of the texts, particularly the third and fifth, there are distinct gaps between the words as well as the character with the flag signifying the end of the word. The gaps are present, though less marked, in most of the others. The story implies, where Holmes is talking about his decryption method, that the flags are the only means of distinguishing between the words.
All of this, plus the rather sketchy nature of the drawings, leads me to suspect that when the stories were collected in book form in 1905, the drawings were redrawn for better clarity (which caused the C/M error) and it is the 1905, or possibly later, version of the “Dancing Men” that we are all familiar with.
So what does this mean for the Slaney font? At the moment, sadly, not much. I have only a low-resolution image of the characters, and it’s simply not good enough to build a font off of. I can work with some pretty skimpy source material, but not with originals only 43 pixels high! (and not the greatest scan within those 43 pixels, either)
I’m working on getting either a much better scan, or physical access to the magazine to scan it myself. I’ve saved space in the font family — when I can build a font from the original Strand drawings, that will be Slaney Italic. (Regular is the straight font, Bold is the weathered version, and Bold Italic is the outline) Once I track down a reasonably local copy of the magazine (probably in a university library), I probably won’t be able to get to it until after MegaMooseCon. I have too much else to do, and too little time to do it in, to go driving around in quest of hundred-year-old magazines right now. Anyone who buys Cryptic Ciphers, however, will be entitled to that fourth face of Slaney; I’ll email it out when finished.