Friday, December 17, 2010

Good Luck in the N(ewe) Y(ear)'s L(otter)y

Hieroglyphs, cuneiform, Latin words in gothic script, a rebus lottery ticket, hand written letters of Thomas Jefferson - all of these can be found at The Alice. Only one, however, relates directly to the New Year... It is a wonderful little lottery ticket - or ad for the lottery - hanging on our third floor.

This special ticket - a rebus - was printed in London in 1816-1817 utilizing a puzzle language that combined words, parts of words, and illustrations. In some cases the picture represents the sound of another word, such as a drawing of a female sheep (ewe) to mean 'you'... at other times it represents the actual word, as in the picture of a man for the word 'man'. The word Rebus is Latin meaning "by things" and it can refer to the symbols that represent words or phrases, or it may be used to refer to the entire document on which a rebus is employed.

Alice's lottery ticket is a framed rebus, bought in England in 1939, that has become more difficult to comprehend as society has changed. Symbols that would have been more universal in 1817 are now more challenging to decipher. For example, the author frequently uses a small image of a square brick building for the word or sound 'in'. Without the translation at the bottom of the page, I would not have known that this little building was an Inn!

It was popular in the 18th and early 19th century to write letters in rebus form. The most well known user of the rebus may be Lewis Carroll who wrote rebus puzzle letters to young friends, as well as looking glass letters that had to be held up to a mirror to be read. Another common use of the rebus was for heraldic coats of arms, or a family crest, in which pictures represent the family name or history.

Many ancient languages employed pictures to convey more complex ideas when a hieroglyph could not directly represent the word or concept. Our lottery ticket (or ad) is not a very complex document, just a lot of fun to look at and try to decipher without the help of the tiny translation printed at the bottom of the page. The lottery office would surely have wanted to make this document eye-catching and fun, yet including the solution to the puzzle was necessary to ensure they got the word out and sold more tickets!

After this week our lottery ticket, and the entire collection, will be somewhat inaccessible until we open again for tours in the spring of 2011. In the meantime, come and visit and see for yourself if you are able to decipher this wonderful document - Oh! - and do have a Happy New Year!