Thursday 21 February 2013

Pictogram lottery advert - puzzle solved!

The official translation of this baffling rebus or pictogram is:

"Catch Fortune when you can.  As every man would rather get money than not, the attention of all is called to the New Lottery, in which, by a small risk, they may get an independent fortune. They should hasten to the nearest lottery office, and then, by purchasing even a share, they may secure what they desire, and which cannot fail to make the mare go, and place them (if money be their deity) in an earthly paradise."

The address at the bottom is for BISH, 4 Cornhill and 9 Charing Cross, London.

We set colleagues, museum visitors, our facebook followers and readers of the Yorkshire Evening Post of trying to decifer this, and it was also picked up by the Telegraph Online.  A few observant people spotted that there were a couple of other versions of this puzzle on the internet, most notably on the Hull museums collections website
The Hull version of the advertisement included the solution at the bottom (something that J.R. Hunt of Worcester felt his customers didn't need!).   There is also another example in the British Museum, which also appears to include the answer.

The advertisement was designed by Thomas Bish who has been recently researched by Gary Hicks, author of 'The First Adman: Thomas Bish and the Birth of Modern Advertising', published by Victorian Secrets, November 2012.  Gary Hicks kindly got in touch with reference to the article in the Telegraph Online and says:  This looks like a lottery advert by Thomas Bish (1779-1842) who pioneered modern advertising in order to sell tickets in the old state lottery, which Parliament abolished in 1826 following a campaign by William Wilberforce. It would therefore date from before 1826.

Bish was a strange mixture of idealist and spiv who managed to be expelled from both House of Commons and the Stock Exchange in the same year. Returning to Parliament as MP for Leominster in 1832, he formed an unlikely alliance with the Irish radical leader Daniel O'Connell to campaign for Irish reforms.

But Bish was also a marketing genius, hiring the essayist Charles Lamb as copywriter and the great George Cruikshank as illustrator. Techniques he pioneered included spin-doctoring, graphic design, the use of modern typography, direct marketing and even early market research.

One of his many innovations was the use of enigmatic pictorial puzzles to grab the attention - like the one you have and which Richard Cooke (Telegraph comments) seems to have solved. These posters advertising forthcoming lotteries would be plastered everywhere by hundreds of skilled bill-stickers hired by Tom Bish.

Cash prizes of £30,000 (about a £1 million today) were quite common.
[information courtesy of Gary Hicks]

Despite the official transcription being revealed, there have been many suggestions of alternative translations of the rebus which sometimes seem an improvement on the original. The section that proved most baffling was near the end.

The phrase "to make the mare go" comes from the old saying "money makes the mare go" which is no longer in common usage. It appears in this old nursery rhyme:
Will you lend me your mare to ride a mile?
No, she is lame leaping over a stile.
Alack! and I must go to the fair!
I'll give you good money for lending your mare.
Oh. oh! say you so?
Money will make the mare go.

There were many alternative suggestions made including:
  • to make the Lame (pictogram of a Lame Horse) go
  • pony - American expression "pony up" meaning aquittal of debt
  • Could be "pony" (London slang for £25) which is reasonable for a prize of £30,000!
  • which cannot fail to make the (night)mares go
  • cannot fail to make the heart (hart) go
  • cannot fail to make the charges go
  • cannot fail to make the [burden] go, and [shell] them
  • 'the nag leave them'. The nag meaning the nagging worries of poverty (also suggested as a term for "wife")
  • To make stock go and leave them if money be their deity. A play on words because you already have share, you will then have stock and share as in finance. Your animals won't be needed any more to earn a living because you will have lots of money.
  • The "blues" is just a guess. In America, "Old Blue" could be the nickname for a farm horse.
  • buck. As in cannot fail to make a buck.
  • a "dun" (= brown horse/debt collector) 
  • I think the horse actually stands for 'brood'. The horse looks pregnant. A breeding mare is called a brood mare. Brood in this case could stand for "family
  • Cannot make the Marengo (Marengo being an old Italian coin)
  • Which cannot fail to make the man you are go (manure).
  • cannot fail to make the paltry go, and leave them. I should imagine that most monies ever thought of by the working man WOULD have been paltry compared to the Lottery prize!
  • Hours (horse)
  • fail to make the grade (a white horse is a grey in equine terms)
Thanks to all  who replied to this appeal and helped solve the riddle.  We apologise that we can't offer a £30,000 prize!.  The advertisement is currently on display at Abbey House Museum in our exhibition "Fate and Fickle Fortune", where it is displayed near another early relic of the first British lottery, a ticket from 1792.

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