Onomatopoeia is the term used for words that sound like what they are describing
— words like zip
, for instance — although the concept, it should be noted, is hardly limited to the English language
. Every culture has its proprietary sounds, its bespoke idioms and particular turns-of-phrase, and the beauty of the sound-like-what-they-are examples lies in their tendency to defy language barriers. (An English person's tick tock
translates, in Romanian for example, to the nearly identical tic tac
So what do we call it when book jacket designers deploy a similar strategy in the effort to use the cover itself to illustrate a book's content?
The answer: biblionomatopoeia.
First In A Series: Cartophily
Ogden Optical Illusion Cards, early 1930s
The practice of saving cigarette cards — a sub-genre of collecting known as cartophily
— formally lies somewhere on the spectrum between postage stamps and posters. (If they resemble the former in their diminutive size, they aspire to the latter in their sheer ambition and scope.) Featuring subjects as diverse as racehorses, hieroglyphs, footballers
, aircrafts, optical illusions
, heraldic symbols, squirrels, pistols, maps and the monarchy, these miniature cards were initially placed in cigarette packages as stiffeners. A history of their popularity and publication can be loosely said to parallel the rise and fall of the tobacco industry as a whole.
Cigarette cards appeal, like many things, because they participate in a larger gestalt: are we compelled by some kind of material challenge? ("Collect 'em all
!") Are we drawn to their essential incompleteness, mirroring on some gut level our own incompleteness? Is it optical, formal, emotional — this mesmerizing lure? In this, the first in a series of essays on its baffling appeal, let's ask the basic question:
What is it about the series that fascinates us so?Ogden "Footballers" Cards, early 1900s
Cigarette cards, as a series, can be traced back to the 1880s — coincidentally, about the time Eadweard Muybridge
was conducting experiments on the very subject of the relationship
between static and kinetic images. (Muybridge will be considered in a
subsequent post, as will Andy Warhol
, Chuck Close, handwriting primers, baroque ornament, political campaign buttons, Mallomars, and more.)
Today, it's easy to relegate cigarette cards to a kind of been-there-done-that paper trail — old, dead, dinosaurs of a dessicated era...