It’s interesting to study the evolution of design. It’s even more interesting when you understand the correlation between history and design; to see how design is influenced by societies and cultures, events and technology as well as how design influenced those things in turn. Some of my favorite designs came from the period encapsulating the American Revolution, and what better time than now, in the midst of President’s Day, to share those designs with you?
Perhaps you’ve seen this famous cartoon designed by Benjamin Franklin. Somewhat crude – Franklin wasn’t necessarily known for his artistic ability – but the advertisement made a point that lingered in the mind and influenced political thinking. The snake was cut into segments, each representing the colonies (the New England states were lumped together); at the time, superstition held that a snake, cut into pieces, would come back to life if it were reassembled before sunset.
Franklin’s snake made another appearance in the masthead of “The Massachusetts Spy,” a controversial newspaper first published by Isaiah Thomas in 1770. But the snake isn’t the only design in the newspaper’s very busy and somewhat-intricate masthead: note the other drawings and the wild lettering. This paper was truly revolutionary, often referred to as “the most daring production ever published in America.”
Everything John Trumbull
Trumbull’s paintings are perhaps the most famous from the revolutionary period, though his famous versions of historical events all came after the war itself ended. It was Trumbull who painted “The Declaration of Independence” – the version that made it on the back of the two-dollar bill. His painting “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill” was completed in 1786, just three years after the war ended.
Not everything that came from this period was war-related, and even the most mundane items are notable for their design. Case in point: someone put a lot of thought and effort into this birth certificate design, circa 1783.
John Singleton Copley was another noted artist of the period, and his work “Watson and the Shark” made him both rich and famous. The painting was inspired by a true life event in which 14-year-old Brook Watson was attacked by a shark of the coast of Havana. The boy lost his right foot, but was saved by his shipmates, and ultimately grew to be a successful merchant.
Some designs become famous because they are masterfully remarkable; some become famous because they are so remarkably important. The latter is the case with Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” a volume we’ve all likely read and studied. Though the design is completely unremarkable, I would like to draw attention to the various degrees of letter-spacing, or tracking, on the title page.
When it came to the Revolutionists’ uniforms, well, they were anything but uniform. I encourage you to visit this link and run through each page to see the huge variety of uniforms – and lack thereof – our forefathers wore while defending our freedom.
Product design was just as important to American success as anything else, and it is likely that many revolutionists toted a long rifle into battle. Adam Haymaker was one of the earliest and most notable long rifle makers, and his signature designs proved quality and demonstrated pride in his work. Notice the stock carvings and the style of the maker’s initials on his guns.
There are many, many more designs from the revolutionary period – crockery, famous family coats of arms, architecture, and of course Betsy Ross’s flag. Do you have a favorite?