The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Bruff’s Artistic Code Cracked by Clever Collaborators
A few weeks ago, we asked for your assistance in decoding the rebus letter included below. The response received was overwhelming, providing not only a near universal transcription of the letter, but also assurance that all of you who routinely take time to read The Bigger Picture truly enjoy our posts. Personally, I was pleased and impressed to see our readers engaged with each other, offering suggestions and assistance by posting comments, working collectively, with considerable pride, towards a common goal: a careful and precise transcription.
The Smithsonian Institution has been affectionately referred to as “the nation’s attic” for years, which in some ways is appropriate, as our collecting scope is broad, only a fraction of our holdings may be displayed at a given time, and all of our materials have been amassed for the people not only of the United States, but for all people, to enjoy. Here at the Smithsonian, and at the Archives, it is a goal of ours to excite the learning in everyone, and the exercise of deciphering this rebus letter with input from the public is an excellent display of this philosophy in action. I thank you for your contributions, and must also thank my colleagues Susannah Wells for her work on the enhanced, transcribed version of the letter below, and Catherine Shteynberg for uploading the text and images that make this blog so interesting and enjoyable.
Note: As mentioned in the earlier blog post, please be advised that the letter below includes sensitive imagery/language. We determined that it would be best to post the letter as it was written in 1843, with the appreciation that historical documents should not be censored, but rather viewed as products of the era in which they were written.
My initial post on the rebus letter opens with perhaps antagonistic commentary on text messaging. While I may be somewhat of a technophobe, I appreciate that there are many positives that occur with the embracing of new methods of communication (including the example above). Facebook, Twitter, and blogs are fine examples of social media tools being employed by the Smithsonian to reach a broader, perhaps more distant audience, and I applaud such efforts. I do believe, however, and take the liberty of assuming that you will concur, that the impressive characteristics of this rebus letter are the time, pride, and painstaking detail invested by the author to impress the recipient. And it worked, as the letter was retained, and has been enjoyed by all of us. It is as if J. Goldsborough Bruff is speaking to us across the centuries, suggesting that an individual be proud of their endeavors, and anything worth doing, is worth doing well.