Emoji B4 Emoji

Large sheets of paper printed on one side and known as broadsheets or broadsides were, from the earliest days of printing in Europe, printed in the tens of millions. They were used for everything from official government pronouncements and announcements to letters of indulgence, propaganda, news-sheets, ballads, almanacs, and even proto-typographic posters.

Although broadsides are often described as cheap and ephemeral — and indeed many were — not all were short-lived. Many were handed out for free, and soon discarded or recycled; but many other broadsides lived longer lives. Some were engraved by accomplished artists and even hand-colored, and their artistic merit, curiosity value, and price ensured their survival. Today, we’ll take a brief look at several curious examples.

Rebus broadsides

Among the most curious broadsides are those printed in rebuses. Rebus writing substitutes pictures or symbols for words, but not in the same way that pictograms do. With pictograms, a picture of, for example, a bee simply represents the insect. But in rebus writing, a picture of a bee is used to substitute for the letter b or its sound — as in the title of this article. Likewise, a picture of an eye represents the letter i, and so on. The use of rebuses turns what is otherwise an unremarkable broadside advertisement into something much more engaging, fun, and valuable. Can you guess what it’s advertising?

Hieroglyphical advertisement. London, c. 1807. photo credit British Library

I’ve transcribed the first line of the above Hieroglyphical Advertisement. Now, it’s over to you!

Note that the above broadside is titled ‘Hieroglyphical Advertisement’. Use of the terms ‘Egyptian’ or ‘hieroglyphic’ were all the rage as Egyptomania swept across North America and Europe in the nineteenth century. A result of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the subsequent discovery of the Rosetta stone that was crucial to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs in the 1820s.

1. Rebus letter from the Duke of York to Mrs Clarke. Hand-colored etching, London, 1809. photo credit The British Museum
2. A rebus broadside, satirizing Count Tilly’s defeat at the Battle of Breitenfeld. 1632. photo credit The British Museum
Misogyny in rebus form: a broadside against women wearing low-cut dresses (quelle horreur!). The lower-right corner provides a transcription. France, c. 1650. photo credit The British Museum
Popular in the 18th and 19th centuries were love-letters written in rebuses and pictograms, and known as Hieroglyphic Valentines. photo credit Bodleian

Modern-day rebuses: IBM rebus logo designed by Paul Rand.
photo credit Cooper Hewitt

Emoji before emoji?

Although emoji started out as a limited number of symbols, they were eventually expanded into a dizzying number of pictograms and ideograms, many of which can be used in rebus writing. The ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, and Chinese, to name just a few, used rebuses thousands of years before emoji appeared on our screens. And it would appear that our fascination with symbols, of all kinds, and our willingness to experiment and use them in reshaping how we communicate is motivated by the very same thing that inspired our very distant ancestors — a desire to communicate better. 

Learn more:
For a history of emoji, read Keith Hudson’s tremendous 12-part series

Broadside rebuses online:
The Lewis Walpole Library

John Johnson Collection, Bodleian Library (rebus valentines)

ILT’s Pinterest collection of broadside rebuses

Related ILT articles:
Who Invented the Alphabet?

Magic Printed

Renaissance Memes

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