Here, Steven Heller explores the history of the public notice—a design artifact that has changed little over the past few centuries. This article first appeared in Print Magazine. Check out the latest issue or subscribe today.
The public notice was carved, engraved, printed and posted in public space to convey commands, proclamations, decrees and warnings to all. What distinguishes it from its direct ancestor, the advertising poster, is that as a rule (and tradition), the power of the public notice derives from the printed word rather than image. “[A]t the very heart of the phenomenon of writing … the study of the printed notice begins,” writes Maurice Rickards in his classic The Public Notice: An Illustrated History (1973). He adds that the public notice was devised for another significant purpose: as an expression of intense social forces.
The public notice is not simply a throwaway trifle or trivial bit of paper. As Rickards asserts, “Historically, [the public notice] represents an extension of the power of the ruler—authority mass-produced.”
Prior to the printed word, royal edicts and commands were broadcast through shouting chains of soldiers. In antiquity, athletes, notably marathon runners, served as transmitters too (Rickards notes that some dropped dead from exhaustion on completion of their missions).
So thank heavens for printing. But even when technology allowed for mass-produced notices, widespread illiteracy among the masses required that a town crier read the notice aloud before posting it, often to the accompaniment of drum rolls or trumpet fanfares.
The public notice was a ruler’s way of impressing upon his subjects and pressing flesh without actually having to do so. “[T]he document came to be seen as a tangible contact with the very will and person of the ruler himself,” Rickards writes. It was the most palpable means of exercising authority. Its posting was considered law, its desecration a criminal act.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the public notice was as much a weapon as a tool. It was also the origin of what George Orwell called “new-speak,” and what Rickards deems “the resounding language of the throne room,” which often began with “Whereas …” and quickly became the start of the legalistic jargon that continues to befuddle us to this day. With jargon came increased use of verbiage and the public notice’s “fulsome sense of its own justification.”
Another distinction from the traditional advertising poster is the public notice’s somber essence. Whereas the poster offers the bright side of communication, the classic public notice was fairly grim. In general, they were typographically functional without flourish, though type styles changed slightly in accordance with the spirit of the message.
In their day, stern warnings were set with heavy Gothic letters, quite differently than calls for volunteers, where the tone of the “ask” required a lighter or friendlier typeface. By contemporary standards, the multiple typefaces on some have an appealing retro allure
Today, the antique public notice is recognized for hybrid fat faces—extra-bold wood and metal types developed in the mid-19th century by Robert Thorne and William Thorowgood. There was such a flood of these impactful font styles, it seemed an infinite number of them were at the printer’s disposal.
Rickards notes that these fat faces were the biggest thing to hit the printing industry in 300 years because they spread so quickly throughout Europe, and America, too. “Printers who had been sedately chugging along with their book-style layouts suddenly found a whole new typographic world.”
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this typographic explosion was how printers became content managers. Remember, there was no such thing as graphic design in the mid- to late-19th century, so the printer was not just the layout expert but an editorial one too. It may have started with the modest printer selecting words that were typeset in bold or italic for emphasis. Of course, the size of printing offered some real limitations, but as printers saw samples of more ambitious public notices, increasing numbers tried their hand at creating expressive type selections.
The standard look of a public notice evolved from simple type composition to more elaborate concoctions. “In the ideal form the public notice stresses key words and phrases so as to convey an immediate telegraphic impact,” Rickards writes. To aid in creating the big bang, subsidiary clauses and qualifying phrases were usually set in smaller type.
From among the most common public notices in the United States and England, wanted posters are perhaps the most fascinating for two reasons: the state of violent crime in the late 19th century, and the way criminals were described. (As one wanted poster for a murderer went, “Teeth are even, but dirty. Chews snuff . … Walks rather slow but regular. Was wearing black hat, cheap gray coat and gray pants, but pants did not match coat.”)
The most famous American example of the genre (seen above) is this 1865 notice: “$100,000 REWARD!” … “THE MURDERER of our late beloved President, Abraham Lincoln, IS STILL AT LARGE.” The typographic style of this and similar notices doubtless influenced the eventual screaming headlines of the tabloid newspaper format, developed in the early 20th century.
While the public notice evolved into the advertising poster in one direction, on the other it continued pretty much on the same path into the present day. More efficient ways of distributing public messages developed—one example of which is the public notice section in most newspapers, required by law to announce land sales or local legislation.
But there’s still a need for certain written (text-only) announcements, like public health warnings (e.g., a choking poster). What’s more, today’s notices do not use the same idiomatic and cropped language.
Progress is inevitable, but try as we might, how can today’s public notices top the classic poetics of, “PLEASE DO NOT SPIT IN THE CARRIAGES. IT IS OFFENSIVE TO OTHER PASSENGERS AND IS STATED BY THE MEDICAL PROFESSION TO BE A SOURCE OF SERIOUS DISEASE.”
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