ASCII Art - a century before ASCII
May 24, 2017 11:36 AM   Subscribe

In the days before widespread high-resolution graphics, many of us were familiar with ASCII Art, either on screen or printed out. But there were predecessors in the form of typewriter art. (Previously) And going through newspaper ads in old issues of the New York Times and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jacob Harris has found 19th-century examples of typeset images made of letters, as well as larger characters composed of smaller ones.

Of course, it's anachronistic to refer to this as "ASCII Art" since the ASCII standards committee didn't even get to work until 1960.
posted by larrybob (18 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
posted by HakaiMagazine at 11:40 AM on May 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

I took 3 semesters of touch typing in junior high and we'd regularly get to have fun/extra credit assignments that were a list of spaces and characters to type and more spaces and more characters and carriage returns and if you followed all the instructions correctly you'd get a picture at the end. The pages of instructions had cryptic titles so you didn't know what you were going to get. It was fun.
posted by hippybear at 11:56 AM on May 24, 2017 [8 favorites]

I can not stress enough what an amazing resource the Brooklyn Daily Eagle archive is, especially if you're local. My favorite finds are the various incidents attributable to parrots.
posted by phooky at 12:33 PM on May 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure I remember some little typewriter art cartoons in MAD Magazine. I don't know if it was just a one-off thing, or an occasionally-recurring feature, or if I'm mis-remembering things entirely.
posted by Wolfdog at 12:39 PM on May 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

When we were little, my sister and I had a big old Woodstock typewriter. We used it to make newspapers, and we used typewriter art for the pictures. Anytime I tried to do a human face, it would turn out looking like a clown, so the big headline story in any newspaper I did was always about a famous clown dying.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:39 PM on May 24, 2017 [9 favorites]

Previously-ish :
Drew Toothpaste on twitter... In a real bound book, not just these dailies and broadsides.
posted by cyclotronboy at 12:58 PM on May 24, 2017

There was a guy living on a different floor of my first year university residence (this was back in 1992) who printed out a bunch of ASCII porn and taped it to the outside of his bedroom door. When people complained and/or ripped it down he tried to turn it into some sort of stand for freedom of speech, blah blah blah, before he was ultimately forced by the school to knock it off.

I wish I could finish the story with something like "And that young man's name was...MILO YIANNOPOULOS. And now you know...THE REST OF THE STORY," but this was Canada and I don't remember his name. Whoever he was, he probably works on Bay Street now.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:14 PM on May 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

I took 3 semesters of touch typing in junior high and we'd regularly get to have fun/extra credit assignments

Same here for my junior high typing class -- the genius of it was that we only got to do these fun assignments if we finished our regular typing work quickly and accurately enough. Great motivation for a course where nobody much cared what their grades were.

My typing skills have paid the rent more than once over the 25 years since I took that class. Time well spent.
posted by asperity at 1:24 PM on May 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

I don't think y'all are quite getting it though. Its not like these are typed; these are laid out by hand one letter (and space and shim) at a time.

What twists my noggin a bit is that "Treasurer" illustration -- I assume the type has been shaved down for the inverse image but before hot type where you'd have long beautiful blocks to work with. Clever, whoever it was...
posted by Ogre Lawless at 1:33 PM on May 24, 2017 [6 favorites]

The post's got links to articles about both pre-ASCII kinds of text art, typewriter and typeset! Which is awesome. I wish my linotype operator grandfather were around to ask whether he'd ever produced any of this stuff.
posted by asperity at 1:49 PM on May 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Not sure what the method is with the "Treasurer" illustration. It seems like there is a slight angle to the illustration part compared to the type, which makes it seem like it's put in as a plate. So it may have been produced in some other way than straight typesetting.

I asked Art Chantry (Previously) about it and he suggested the illustration was done with a gouache resist and then typed over, then the water-soluble resist was removed. Could also be a rubber resist - for instance, something like rubber cement or latex can be used on paper as a resist.
posted by larrybob at 2:14 PM on May 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Bah, its all for the same hipster run company in Brooklyn...
I mean, come on - now we evidence these guys aren't treading new territory.
posted by Nanukthedog at 2:50 PM on May 24, 2017

Just late enough that some of the modernist concrete poets might have seen such ads growing up, but much later than the first typeset shape-poems.

The practical analysis of why advertisers had a financial motive and technological need to do this was nice. (BIG TOM CAT is just genius blooming on the desert air, though.)
posted by clew at 3:03 PM on May 24, 2017

I can't imagine shaving out the image and ruining that much type. Maybe using stereotype techniques? Take a mold of the typeset Bs, and then cast it as a solid plate and carve out Mr. Treasurer.
posted by redsparkler at 3:26 PM on May 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ah but did they put these up on bulletin boards?
posted by srboisvert at 4:03 PM on May 24, 2017

These ads are definitely cool, but using arrangements of words or letters to make specific shapes is a rather old idea isn't it? As in concrete or shape poetry.
posted by peacheater at 9:04 PM on May 24, 2017

My typing skills have paid the rent more than once over the 25 years since I took that class. Time well spent.

In, um, 1981 (?) when I enrolled in touch typing at my junior high, I took it mostly because I had already studied classical piano for 6+ years and so it was an easy A. By the time I'd done all three semesters of it offers (two on manual, one on electric, all touch typing reading from mounted manuscripts to transcribe, whee fun) I had ZERO IDEA that typing without thinking and having a warmed-up speed of around 100wpm would be something that would be so valuable to my life as it developed across technological development.

Time well spent, indeed.
posted by hippybear at 2:29 AM on May 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

"Curse you Red Baron !!"
posted by scruss at 7:31 PM on May 25, 2017

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