Very many thanks to Lynda Mugglestone for this analytical post on an advertisement for Solomon’s Cordial Balm of Gilead. This item is not in the Art of Advertising exhibition.
In Jo Baker’s Longbourn (2013), a novel in which the events of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are vividly retold from below stairs, it is perhaps fitting that Mrs. Bennet, sorely tried by the refusal of her daughter Elizabeth to marry Mr. Collins, retires to her dressing room in the company of a bottle of Cordial Balsam of Gilead. As an early nineteenth-century advertising in the John Johnson Collection persuasively asserts, this was an ‘admirable remedy’, suitable alike for ‘debilitated conditions’, ‘nervous weakness’, and ‘hypochondriacal afflictions’.
Female vulnerabilities were overtly addressed. Any women ‘affected with Langour, Headach, or Hysterical affections’ would benefit, contemporary readers were assured. So, too, would anyone in need of ‘relaxation from juvenile indiscretion’. Given Elizabeth’s intransigence, Mrs. Bennet’s self-medication is generous and abundant. In Baker’s novel, half a bottle swiftly disappears.
The medicinal qualities of balms can, in term of language, be traced to medieval times. A balm is an ‘aromatic ointment for soothing pain or healing wounds’, the OED confirms. Balm of Gilead has, however, its origin in Biblical authority. ‘Is there no balme at Gilead? is there no Physician there?’ as Book 8, Verse 22 of Jeremiah demands. The Liverpool-based Samuel Solomon (c.1768-1819) would, from c.1796, provide a very profitable response. On one hand, Solomon’s tactical appropriation of Balm of Gilead was used to denote one of the most prominent quack products of the late eighteenth century and nineteenth centuries. On the other, a decision to appropriate the status and learning of the ‘physician’ was deployed to equally good effect, as in the ‘M.D.’ which followed Solomon’s name in the various promotional publications and pamphlets he produced. A quack, as Samuel Johnson had stated in 1755 was, by definition, ‘a Boastful pretender to arts which he does not understand’. A doctor, in contrast, brought an undisputable claim to authority.
Boastfulness is perhaps an inevitable property of the language of advertising. Even so, Solomon’s preferred diction in advertising his ‘Cordial Balm of Gilead’ remains striking. Prefixes (‘inestimable’, ‘unprecedented’) deftly remind of the unparalleled qualities now offered to the consumer. Efficacy (‘wonderful success’) is extolled in similar ways, in remedial effects marked by their speed (‘instantaneously receives’) and unqualified strength (‘braces the nervous system…disburdens the viscera’ while throwing off ‘viscid strong humours’). Its popularity was lauded to equal effect. Sales, Solomon declares, have been ‘wonderfully great’, with ‘demand far exceeding any medicine ever published’, and a geographic range that includes ‘Europe’ and ‘America’. Advertising can easily become eulogy: ‘Thousands at this moment live to praise the day they first applied to this remedy, and enjoy the blessings of health, who might have dropped into an untimely grave’. A balm, Solomon stresses, can be a ‘social benefit’. The Cordial Balm of Gilead, was undoubtedly expensive —but, given its range of uses, it was also promoted as a bargain at half a guinea a bottle.
As a cordial balm moreover, its branding usefully harnessed antithetic qualities. Balms are conventionally solids, applied externally in order to soothe and restore. Cordials, in contrast, were traditionally depicted as fortifying from within, quickening the circulation or increasing the power of the heart. A cordial is ‘any medicine that increases strength’, Johnson explained in 1755. A cordial balm, at least rhetorically, could suggest its own innovatory synthesis, able to calm as well as fortify, sooth as well as invigorate — in ways that gave substance to the diverse lists of ailments for which restitution was promised, whether ‘Flatulence’ or ‘Palpitations’, ‘pain’, or ‘Difficulty of Respiration’. A conspicuous clustering of Latinate terminology (‘viscid’, ‘viscera’), and a catalogue of diagnostic nouns (deglutition referred, for example, to ‘The act or power of swallowing’) brought their own implied authority. Price and polysyllables both reinforced the elite status of the patent medicine purveyed.
We might note, even so, some interesting absences. The advertisement details, across two pages, the diverse conditions for which remedy is now apparently provided. The rhetorical power of lists, and their cumulative effect, is plain. So, too, is the range of human debility and the anxieties that can thereby be manipulated, as in the deliberately affecting details by which, for those denied this medical miracle, ‘the body is weakened’ while other symptoms (‘paleness, bodily decay, emaciation, and the eyes sink into the head’) await the hapless sufferer. The power of purchase might intentionally be secured on several levels. But the purchaser is, in reality, no wiser about what is being bought. Conviction must rest on credulity, rather than on a list of ingredients and their tried and tested benefits. If, in other accounts, Solomon stresses the presence of ‘some of the choicest balsams and strengtheners’ as components of his ‘noble Medicine’, alongside its scientific basis (‘reiterated experiments, and close application to practical chemistry’), advertising maintained a determined non-specificity. As William Helfand suggests, the ‘Cordial Balm’ was, in reality, probably a composite of ‘a few herbs and spices dissolved in a substantial percentage of old French brandy’. Certainly, Mrs Bennet in Baker’s fictional account, quaffs it with alacrity, finding her troubles eased. A cordial, as Johnson added, can be ‘anything that comforts, gladdens, and exhilerates’. Ease can, however, also be addictive – evident perhaps in the invitation to purchase by the case for those who, whether by accident or design, had become regular consumers.
William Helfand, ‘Samuel Solomon and the Cordial Balm of Gilead’, Pharmacy in History 31 (1989), 151-59.
Many thanks to Prof Lynda Mugglestone (Pembroke College, Oxford) for a fascinating analysis of one of the earliest exhibits in the Art of Advertising exhibition.The language of advertising is the focus of Lynda’s chapter in the accompanying book, The Art of Advertising.
For modern readers, the Antipestilential Quilts advertised in the eighteenth century might perhaps suggest a more powerful version of an anti-allergy duvet –– a tempting fusion of warmth and protection in which unwanted symptoms are warded off as one sleeps. The reality was, however, rather different. Quilts of this kind were not comfortable coverings for a bed but portable artefacts worn on the body (near ‘the Pit of the Stomach’, as the advertisement above helpfully clarifies). As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, they are pads or dressings, layers of material used in the aim of medical treatment, and often coated with an unguent or ointment. For the OED, quilts of this kind were last recorded in 1684. The Antipestilential Quilts of Georgian England display, as such, surprising longevity.
They are surprising in other ways, too. ‘The great Art in Writing Advertisements is the finding out of a proper method to catch the reader’s Eye’, Addison declared in the Tatler in 1710. This advertisement proceeds, however, by stealth. The heading suggests, at first glance, a set of instructions for use — a piece of informative prose rather than persuasion. We are told where the quilt is to be worn, and how we might secure it (‘with a Ribband or Fillet’). We might, it indicates, need another ‘Ribband’, too, to go round the body. We are also told the best way to dry it, and the requirements of weekly application. Only gradually are its persuasive claims revealed, along with its stated efficacy against ‘the Small Pox’.
‘An eruptive distemper of great malignity’, as defined by Samuel Johnson in his own Dictionary of 1755, smallpox was the most dreaded – and most infectious — disease of the eighteenth century. Thought to be implicated in circa 1 in every 5 deaths, it displayed two-yearly cycles of virulence between 1750-1800. In the advertisement above, it is woven into the text on four separate occasions, an insistent reminder of what is at stake. Like Covid-19, it was an air-borne and viral infection, a disease of proximity and contact which accounted for a third of childhood deaths in the seventeenth century, and some 400,000 deaths a year across Europe in the eighteenth. Those who survived were scarred for life. A ‘pit or scar made by the smallpox’ was a pockhole, another entry in Johnson’s Dictionary confirms. Yet, at least within this advertisement, immunity from pocks and disease alike was extended to those in possession of a quilt of this kind, and who don it as directed. ‘No person who has not had the Small-Pox, or is obliged by his Profession to visit infected Places, ought to be without it’, readers were informed. Anxiety and reassurance are carefully balanced in the narrative which unfolds. For those with an Antipestilential Quilt, infection holds no fear. The quilt is a tangible form of shielding, actively ‘fortifying’ those who purchase it. Conversely, those without such protection are both vulnerable and exposed. Deft, too, is the reference to ‘Convulsion’. For infant sufferers of smallpox, convulsions were a telling – and dangerous – symptom; the ‘Cradle’ referred to in line 19 evokes innocence (and the prospect of innocent suffering) alongside a calculated prompt to parental responsibility and guilt. Being quiltless is made a calculated risk. Across the advertisement, positive verbal constructions work to the same ends, reinforcing the stated efficacy of a product that ‘will preserve … from Convulsions’ and by means of which ‘the Blood purges itself of malignant Humours’ to leave the body at ease. If further ‘Equilibrium’ is required, a little ‘Wine and Water’ is all that is needed.
We are, of course, in the realm of quackery rather than medicine proper. Even so, embedded medical diction draws on the Latinate and authoritative (‘insensible Perspiration’) as well on the time-honoured and traditional. As such, it deploys not the new-fangled inoculation — a word used after 1700 in relation to smallpox, and a process adopted by the pioneering Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in 1718 — but the familiar model of the bodily ‘humours’, and the salience of sweating out ‘ill humours’ such that the balance that illness has disrupted is restored. Superlatives (it ‘may be worn … with the greatest Safety’) as well as economy (with careful use, it will last for ‘twenty Years or more’) do their own persuasive work. Only in the final paragraph do the clinching details appear of where this extraordinary, and exclusive, commodity can be obtained, and by which the ‘Manner of Wearing the Antipestilential Quilt’ is extended to anyone who can afford it. We might begin therefore with apparent instruction in something we already own. We end with the details by which this potent object of desire can be acquired, alongside the promise it brings.
Promise is, of course, a weasel word in its own right. On one hand, as Johnson noted, it is a ‘declaration of some benefit to be conferred’. Nevertheless, as he added, it is equally bound to ‘hope’ and ‘expectation’ – and to that anticipated but not by any means realized. Here, too, the Antipestilential Quilt proves exemplary. Purchase might, at least temporarily, allay concern but striding into ‘infected places’, even if wearing an Antipestilential Quilt, risked highly adverse consequences. Few, in this light, would be in use for twenty years. The projected discourse of economy was, quite literally, false, as, of course, were the protective merits urged upon potential consumers. As other advertisements for this product in the late eighteenth century make plain, the real promise of the Antipestilential Quilt relied on credulity and the power of belief. It might, as in the London Chronicle in 1773, hence be depicted as ‘an infallible ANTIDOTE against the SMALL POX’ but, ‘worn by way of an Amulet’, it is, in essence, a talisman against infection. In this further strand of advertising, the details of ‘insensible Perspiration’ were removed in favour of prominent scare-mongering. Amulets, like the processes of infection, work in invisible ways. Empirical evidence is provided by an experiment ‘tried in Paris’ in which medical ethics – and childhood safeguarding — are conspicuously absent. Instead, six healthy children ‘put to Sleep with persons who had the Small Pox in the most inveterate Degree’, present proof of efficacy (and pressure to buy). Given the protective immunity of a Quilt, three children retain ‘perfect Health’. Those denied ‘this Preservative’ are less fortunate, being ‘seized with this Disease within 48 Hours’. For susceptible readers, the moral of was plain. The text – and the sales pitch — conclude with directions for purchase, and a reminder to acquire only the genuine article, available from Mr Baldwin in Fleet Street whose monopoly was thereby rendered secure.
*On the historical background to smallpox in Britain, see S. R. Duncan, Susan Scott, and C. J. Duncan, ‘The Dynamics of Smallpox Epidemics in Britain, 1550-1800’, Demography vol.30 (1993), 405-23.
** Edward Jenner’s introduction of vaccination for smallpox at the very end of the eighteenth century gradually reduced mortality. Smallpox was formally eradicated in 1980.
A very tiny piece of ephemera in The Sayers Collection represents a very big story.
The document, a piece of cardboard 3 x 2 inches, appears to be nothing more than a cabin assignment on board Cunard’s wonderful Queen Mary for a person named ‘E. Appell’.
This person was assigned to Cabin M71, in an Upper Berth. The possibility of a lower berth has been crossed out. “So, what”, you may think. “What makes this so special?”
What makes it special is the stamped franking on the back. It was applied in Southampton, so the passenger was travelling westbound. And the date? On 22 May 1946, the Queen Mary was totally engaged in ferrying War Brides – thousands of them – from Britain to North America at the end of the Second World War.
It took a lot of courage to travel from the U.K. to join a man who would not be wearing a handsome uniform when you were reunited with him, in an unfamiliar town or city where the language was the same but the houses and cars were different and people had a ‘a funny accent’.
In The Sayers Collection there is more ephemera from War Bride journeys – menus, postcards, Cunard Captain greetings, and even a note from one of the cabin crew reminiscing that they carried War Brides westward, and on the eastbound return trips they carried German Prisoners of War being repatriated to their homeland.
Ephemera brings new life to historical events. If a member of your family was a War Bride, you can now add more information to your genealogical resources.
This ephemera and a large number of other Ocean Liner items is contained in The Sayers Collection in the John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Library. A vast quantity of other ocean liner ephemera capturing social, shipping, historical, and commercial information in The Sayers Collection, continues to migrate across the Atlantic to the John Johnson Collection.
In the 1890s, after decades of experimentation, colour and photography came together in the form of photomechanical printing in colour. The constituent hues of the original to be reproduced were separated by means of colour filters (red for cyan, green for magenta, and blue for yellow). A combination of three colours could produce an acceptable colour image. Black was sometimes added to produce what would be called CMYK today, but printing in three colours remained the norm for the first few decades of the 20th century. Such methods of colour printing were applied to lithography a little later than to relief printing.
The Sparling Cut Male
The rise of online shopping has changed the way we browse brands and products completely. Wholesale catalogues are increasingly rare, with the whole thing replaced at any rate by an online search. That’s not so much a bad thing — online catalogues are great in many ways. But I can’t shake that nostalgia for the real thing, and I remember fondly the excited flick-through of an Argos catalogue in the run-up to Christmas, and all those glossy, enticing pictures in that ‘laminated book of dreams’, to steal a phrase from Bill Bailey. Argos stopped producing physical catalogues around 2018. But it was all very fun.
Recapturing transient cultural moments like these is at the heart of The Art of Advertising, which explores the production and dissemination of advertisements from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Catalogues are valuable compendia of advertisements in their own right (the oldest date to 15th century Europe) and yet their survival rates are slim: generally speaking, ephemera repositories considered catalogues to be books; libraries saw them as ephemera. Adding to this, mail-order catalogues and advertisements were profuse: ‘junk mail’ of this kind is rarely treasured. Not infrequently, the quality of mail-order items themselves was brought into question, even with the zenith of the department store and the upsurge of ‘reach-me-down’ clothing in the early twentieth century. Accordingly, the catalogue’s status as ‘literature’ has been questionable at best, despite evidence of essentially literary endeavours from at least 1863. To add to this ongoing discussion – and to argue the case for a literary revaluation – I am going to focus on one particular example from the exhibition: The Sparling Cut Male menswear catalogue.
The front cover of The Sparling Cut Male is displayed in the first case of The Art of Advertising, representing contemporary developments in photomechanical printing in colour and the advent of the colour-printed catalogue that is so familiar to us today. A full-colour printed catalogue was uncommon in 1926: it was more normal to have art paper covers printed in colour and the rest of the catalogue in black and white on inferior paper. Sparling Cut was by no means the first company to take advantage of the printed catalogue, and certainly made no revolutionary impact on catalogues and consumer culture at large. In fact, it’s hard to find out anything about Sparling Cut: all evidence suggests a small-to-medium-sized business operating out of two premises in the City, arriving on the scene sometime following the First World War and continuing to occupy advertising space until at least the Second World War, before winding up in 1974. The Bodleian holds only two issues: Vol 1. No. 5 and No. 6, which features in The Art of Advertising. No. 5 has colour wrappers, but is printed in black-and-white, making No. 6 even more unusual. As an exemplar of the technical possibilities of the three-colour process, this Sparling Cut catalogue provides a window into the fashion culture of the early twentieth century – a period of rapid sartorial change and development – and these publications are unique, even by modern standards, for their stylish design, comic vision and emphatic textuality.
With this gorgeous front cover for No. 6, Sparling Cut sells before anything else the feeling of wearing a Sparling suit. There’s a touch of Bright Young Things tempered with a pecuniary pun on ‘figures’. And note that twee attribution: ‘Edited by Old Man Sparling in his Sanctum’. Where many catalogues of the period offer little more than descriptive lists dressed up in sales jargon, The Sparling Cut Male distinguishes itself with lengthy interpolations of prose and poetry. Upon opening each issue, the reader meets with a reflective address from the ‘Old Man’ on his literary labour of love. Just look at the foliate capital that crowns the first sentence of this issue:
It’s helpful here to adopt Clare Rose’s conception of the ‘frustrated author’ to describe Old Man Sparling (if indeed he is a real person, and not the creation of a penny copywriter). In the introduction to No. 6, Old Man Sparling has ‘[laid] down the shears in favour of the pen’ and welcomes ‘this editing business’ from his ‘Editor’s chair’. He directs us to ‘my special article on page 4’. Every employee has been ‘schooled in a unique method peculiar to my business’; if anything seems a bit complicated, simply consult ‘your friend’ Sparling. From these first pages alone, Sparling catalogues are evidently a playfully erudite affair.
Its literary contributions are a mix of poems, letters of thanks, musings on fashion, jingles, and satirical fiction. The best of these is a ‘Day in the Life of a Sparling Cut Male’, attributed to an ‘ardent supporter’ of the ‘Sparling Cut cult’. In this page-long story, a young man recounts the life-changing power of a Sparling suit: he arrives at work to be immediately summoned by his boss, who offers ‘my salary doubled’, ‘a seat on the board’, and ‘his youngest and prettiest daughter with an income of £10,000 per year’ — all thanks to Sparling Cut! In a similarly ironic fashion, the front cover for Vol. 5 shows a dapper young man (we assume wearing Sparling) utterly failing to win the attention of a woman. In the article ‘—Then I Woke Up’, Old Man Sparling receives a knighthood for ‘making England the best-dressed country in the world’ but (you can guess from the title where this is going) it is revealed to be a dream. In any view, self-deprecation is an audacious marketing strategy. Somehow, Sparling Cut makes it work. This dry, urbane humour is reminiscent of the Fortnum and Mason catalogues praised by George Bernard Shaw.
Complementing the text are vibrant, full-page colour images. Old Man Sparling explains:
The illustrations in this edition of the “Sparling Cut Male” are from living models wearing “Sparling Cut” clothes, and are the work of that brilliant artist, Mr. Wilton Williams, and to whom we are much indebted for his faithful reproductions.
Wilton Williams (fl. 1915-1930), perhaps best known for his ‘Blackpool’ poster for Great Central Railway, brings here the same vibrant energy to the fore. Thinking about modern catalogues again (I think particularly of the Argos catalogue), part of the magic of those catalogues is not only the visible representation of objects, right there in all their glossy glory, but a kind of emotive mimesis: staged actors bounced with delight on that trampoline you wanted, played the latest games console, built that Lego set you were dying for. Likewise, when you flick through a volume of Sparling Cut you are struck by the sheer activity of its models, who are visibly social, energetic, and (perhaps most importantly) enjoying demonstrable degrees of personal and societal success. Sparling Cut men (and women, too) look like they’re having fun, both at work and at home.
The John Johnson Collection has many menswear catalogues to choose from. By considering how Sparling Cut advertises its products compared to its contemporaries, we learn a lot about changes in fashion in the early twentieth century. As the stuffy formality of Edwardian dress fell out of favour, and a freer sense of style developed alongside relaxed delineations of dress, white-collar men of older dispositions responded with what Maria Constantino calls ‘a mechanised and industrial order’: strictly practical, multi-purpose business suits, in a limited range of dark, muted colours. (One thinks of T. S. Eliot’s crowd over London Bridge in The Waste Land.) For reference, here is a second menswear catalogue from this period, for Clement H. Sunderland, which in contrast to The Sparling Cut Male is practically funereal:
The hallmarks of a more conservative style are evident here, right up to the neoclassical backdrops: double-breasted jackets, a restricted range of trouser pairings, and spats. However, the ‘speeding up of life’ — strongly associated with the rise of the department store, ‘reach-me-down’ mass produced clothing and, for men, a slim, ‘youthful’ body shape — meant that savvy retailers responded with an emphasis on style and colour, sparking ‘the struggle between youth and age’. Single breasted suits with two or three buttons (slightly in at the waist) became fashionable, in a range of colours and patterns. The Sparling Cut Male locates itself firmly on-trend against ‘the Dullness of Yesterday’:
‘Mass-produced’ did not need to mean ‘ill-fitting’, and many outlets provided tailoring services as standard. And just as well: ‘a perfect fitting around the hips’ repeats the assertion that a 1920s suit is not only for working – it is also for dancing.
To finish up, here are two phrases from The Sparling Cut Male. The first is “it’s colour we want in the hum-drum of everyday life.” The second is “express your personality” — a provocatively modern slogan, printed on the back pages. There’s no doubting that Sparling Cut offered a wide range of patterns, colours and style for the fashion-conscious male. However, it’s important not to overstate Sparling’s apparent uniqueness. To understand its place in men’s fashion in the early twentieth century (and also in the history of catalogues) it is useful to think about The Sparling Cut Male in terms of what it is not. Despite the dapper outlook, Sparling Cut never strays into the territory of the dandy or the aesthete. Its branding and artwork are definitively not art-deco or modernist, and its male models preserve middle-class decorum and to all extents and purposes ‘fit in’. In this sense, Sparling Cut toes the fine line between the practicable reality of the suit and the freedom of personal style, without veering wildly in either direction. It emerges as a dual compromise — on the one hand, between the price- and fashion-conscious individual; on the other, between the two aesthetic extremes of the avant-garde and conservativism.
 See Clare Rose, Making, Selling and Wearing Boys’ Clothes in Late-Victorian England (Ashgate, 2010), pp. 90-2.
 With thanks to Julie-Anne Lambert for this information.
 Surviving records are slight, and runs of The Sparling Cut Male are undated. Vol. 1, No. 5 can be dated confidently to 1926 from a reference on its introductory pages. This places No. 6 (the exhibition copy) within a year at most, given the pace of fashion. Vol 1. No 14 was sold at an online auction at an unknown date. https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/original-vintage-1920-1930s-mens-218962059. It is worth noting that No. 14 reprints the same illustrations used in Nos. 5 and 6.
Photographic methods began to influence commercial printing in the closing decades of the 19th century. They depended on two developments. One (affecting relief printing only) was controlling the etching of the metal when lowering the unwanted parts. The other was the manufacture of crossed-line screens that could break down the continuous tones of an image into binary dots of various sizes, small ones in light areas, larger ones in dark areas. The main limitation of photomechanical printing in relief was that the resolution of the grid of dots limited the kind of paper used, the commercial norm being 133 dots to the inch (52.36 dots to the cm). From A Brief Guide to Printing Processes in the Exhibition.
From cars and aeroplanes to telephones and domestic gas stoves, The Art of Advertisingshowcases many great inventions of the early 20th century. The Baird Televisor was the first commercial television, manufactured by Plessor (now BAE Systems), and marketed as ‘the very latest marvel . . . Not a photograph, nor yet a shadowgraph, but an actual moving image’. Its inventor, the Scottish engineer John Logie Baird (1888-1946), was a pioneer of early television who had demonstrated the first live television broadcast in 1926, the first cross-country broadcast in 1927, and the first transatlantic television signal in 1928. The Baird Televisor, sold to the public from 1929, brought ‘the very latest marvel’ into the home for the first time.
The Televisor was a mechanical television — the precursor to analogue. Its black-and-white ‘moving image’ was the result of decades of experimentation and invention, adapting the image-scanning ‘Nipkow disk’ patented by the German inventor Paul Gottleib Nipkow in 1885. As the diagram below demonstrates, a bright light was projected onto the subject through a Nipkow disk. The reflected light was then captured by photo-sensitive selenium cells and converted into an electric signal, which was displayed on the home receiver kit via its own Nipkow disk (the upright drum on the model shown above). This YouTube video from Technology Connections provides an excellent breakdown of the complicated science behind mechanical televisions — though Baird’s 1923 prototype ran on just a few bike lights, old cardboard, and glue — but if you want to skip the science, just know that the earliest screens produced an image not much wider than an inch and a half.
The Baird Televisor had a resolution of 30 lines, corresponding to the 30 holes in its Nipkow Disk. The higher the resolution, the bigger the Nipkow disk needed to be, and this was impractical (and incredibly noisy) for home systems. Although the Televisor is certainly bulky by modern standards, it is important to counter our sensibility for thinner, sleeker appliances by drawing attention to the Televisor’s biggest rival: the cinema, which predated television by over a decade. As Donald F. McLean writes in his re-examination of early television, Restoring Baird’s Image: ‘it is hard for us to appreciate how significant a hold cinema had when television first started.’ That Baird managed not only to capture moving images without conventional film and transmit them over great distances but achieved this in a device no bigger than a moderately-sized CRT is a marvel in its own right, remembering that cinema was not required to transmit beyond the walls of the movie theatre — and it didn’t project ‘live’.
Understood in this context, the ‘DAILY BROADCAST’ detailed bottom-right in our advertisement for the Televisor takes on critical importance as a persuasive device. To justify its high cost and position itself as a valid competitor to the cinema, the Televisor had to give people a reason to stay indoors. Enter the British Broadcasting Corporation, and its first foray into television. On the face of it, the Televisor schedule is conspicuously limited to a half-hour slot on weekday mornings. In fact, the first BBC broadcasts in 1929 didn’t include sound — but a complete broadcasting schedule from 1930 digitised by the Early Television Museum reveals that an additional evening transmission was broadcast from midnight to 12.30am on Tuesdays and Fridays. The schedule is viewable here (content warning: one programme contains the use of a racial slur). These early programmes have more in common with theatre than cinema, with vocal or instrumental recitals and solo comedic entertainers dominating the line-up. While it’s true that ensembles such as ballet troupes occasionally feature, early television favoured the lone performer.
Look back at the advertisement and notice the shape of the screen. Unlike modern televisions, it is portrait-oriented: allegedly, John Logie Baird initially conceived of his invention as a real-time communication device, much like the modern video call, and devised screen-space optimised to the dimensions of the single caller. And, like video calls, it’s more difficult to fit a crowd into a portrait rather than a landscape screen. Whatever the reason, Televisors, and all subsequent models including the 1933-4 Mirror Drum, retained this odd orientation.
So what was early television actually like for contemporary audiences? As this 1928 review of a Televisor demonstration suggests, the answer is perhaps ‘not great’:
For however groundbreaking it was, mechanical television could not match the high definition and manoeuvrability of the film camera, and a clear display could be difficult to achieve. The Baird receptor could not move (i.e. it could not pan), regular synchronisation was required, and its reliance on bright artificial light confined it to dim indoor studios; as such, a static actor or performer aided by high-contrast makeup and lighting produced the most reliably watchable content, especially on early Baird models. In fact, the first television image, transmitted in 1925 from John Logie Baird’s laboratory, was a heavily made-up ventriloquist’s dummy called ‘Stooky Bill’.
The first British radio play, Luigi Pirandello’s The Man with a Flower in His Mouth, was staged in July 1930 on a Baird Televisor. This incredible 1963 recreation by the original producer using a refitted Televisor demonstrates the slow, characterful acting demanded of 30-line resolution:
By 1930, higher-definition electronic analogue televisions were in commercial production, and Baird himself demonstrated 120-line projection television in colour at the Dominion Theatre in 1938. By the 1940s, electronic analogue television had completely replaced the inferior mechanical systems (the BBC switched to electronic Marconi-EMI systems in 1935).
Despite its short lifespan, the original Baird Televisor achieved something extraordinary. It introduced televisions and broadcasting to the public, and paved the way for greater invention and competition. The Televisor promised technology ‘only dreamed of by writers of fiction’: live, moving pictures, transmitted near-immediately across land and sea. Its futuristic claims were supported in its advertising material by the use of photomechanical printing which, just like its product, brought a true-to-life image before the viewer’s eyes.
In an age where even 24-hour cable seems antiquated, and media is increasingly mediated by our own schedules, it’s mindblowing to consider the technological effort that went into making audiovisual entertainment possible. Next time you’re bored of Netflix, remember poor John Logie Baird working overtime just to make a blurry face flicker on a monochrome screen…
Further reading and resources:
Donald F. McLean, Restoring Baird’s Image (a selection is available here via Google Books).
An alternative approach to colour wood engraving was chromolithography, which became the main means of producing coloured advertising after the introduction of machine printing in the late 1860s. The design was drawn by a team of artists on a set of stones (later plates), each one devoted to a particular colour and parts of the image. These colours were then printed one after another so that they blended visually. The variety of lithographic markmaking and the far greater number of colours used (often 8 to 15 in advertising) meant that the end product could be richer and more subtle than a colour wood engraving. In this print the colours are shown separately in the margin.
As many as fifteen hues (ten in this case), printed from as many different stones, were routinely used by advertisers. This proof, still displaying its set of colour tablets, uses stippled dots to fuse the colours.
Like ‘ephemera’, the term ‘chromolithography’ is perhaps off-putting. Both terms represent, however, items that are both familiar and immediately appealing.
Chromolithography is a magical process, resulting in (at best) beautiful images in colour, the richness of which results from the successive layers of colours and tones inherent in their printing.
Chromolithography was anything but simple: large, sometimes huge, slabs of stone had to be quarried (usually in Bavaria) and transported. The stones had to be prepared for printing. The desired image had to be divided into its component colours and tones for printing, each on a separate stone. All needed perfect registration. It is almost miraculous that it worked, never mind that it became commercially viable. The (rare) surviving key-line drawings and ‘progressives’ are crucial to understanding the process. Although two colours are combined on each card, the Liebig series of collectable cards devoted to the creation of a twelve-colour chromolithograph shows something of its complexity. We have this series, from 1906, in Italian.
Around 1,881 series of Liebig cards were produced in several languages from 1872 to 1975, with some isolated later series in the 1990s and early 2000s.
It has been a privilege to benefit from the expertise of the world authority on lithography and chromolithography, Michael Twyman, who has identified the printing processes of all the exhibits in ‘The Art of Advertising’ including the number of colours in the (high proportion of) chromolithographs. These analyses are available through the image captions in the online version of the exhibition and give an insight into typical practices of the time.