Color Coded

Today’s post features a contest and an unusual piece of the history of printing technology.

First, the contest. The first person to solve the puzzle below has their choice of prizes: either a subscription to the 2012 edition of Occasional Nuggets or a copy of The Voice of the Whaleman.Here’s the rebus, which appears as a standalone, single-sheet piece of advertising ephemera:

One clue to the date of this slip of paper is at the very end, in the reference to “RICE’S Patent Color Printing Attachment.” You may have already noticed that although the advertisement is printed by letterpress, five separate colors are used. Traditionally, that would require either five separate runs through the press, or very carefully inking each section with a different colored ink between each impression. In either case, that would be a difficult and time-consuming process. Rice’s Color Printing Attachment seems to have solved the problem for at least one printer (a bonus prize for anyone who figures out who that printer at 5 Hawley Street in Boston was). In an 1869 patent (available online via Google Patents) Israel G. Rice describes a device using “distributing-rollers of various widths with distributing disks of corresponding diameters, placed at right angles and impinging upon them, by means of which I am enabled to put upon lines of printing-types, inks of any desired colors, and to print at one impression on the same sheet, several colors.” (A picture is certainly worth a few thousand words in this case, and the patent includes some helpful diagrams.) The apparatus was designed to be applied to “any press,” and although the results seem perfectly good in this example, it doesn’t seem to have caught on.

Another clue that might be of use is the reference to “J.W. Tufts & Co.” An 1879 Boston directory lists a James W. Tufts under the heading of “Soda, Ale and Beer Apparatus,” which gives a hint to at least one group of symbols above.


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