Heavens to Betsy!

By | July 1, 2016

One of the thorniest issues in modern electronic publishing has been the traditional problem of converting on-screen colors (RGB) to printable colors (CMYK). We often hear of difficulty matching certain brand colors, but there is actually another popular and important set of colors that can’t be completely reproduced using either RGB or CMYK colors. Know why? Because they were designed to be reproduced on cloth. These colors are specified using a swatchbook called the Standard Color Reference of America produced by the Color Association of the United States (CAUS), formerly (until 1955) the Textile Color Card Association of the United States. Various Pantone Matching System approximations have been devised (186 C, 193 C, or 200 C for one of the colors, and 281 C or 288 C for the other). The third color is simply “white,” which is easy enough. Got it yet? One of the colors is officially called “Old Glory Red” and the other is “Old Glory Blue.” Of course, we are talking about the official colors used on the American flag.

The flag has a colorful history (as it were), and has obviously changed subtly as new stars needed to be added. The current 50-star version was designed by Robert G. Heft in 1958, who was then a 17-year-old high school student in Lancaster, Ohio. His flag design started as a school project, and Heft only got a B– on it. That didn’t matter, though, because Ike liked it; President Eisenhower chose Heft’s design out of 1,500 submissions and on August 21, 1959, Executive Order No. 10834 hefted Heft’s design as the official 50-star flag of the United States, which we still use today.

There remains some debate as to who designed the original “stars and stripes,” although a stars and stripes motif is common in heraldry, which is likely where it originated. (The Betsy Ross story we learned in grade school is about as apocryphal as George Washington chopping down the cherry tree.) Also of some modest debate is where the name “America” came from. It is commonly accepted that America was named after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Clouding matters is that it was not common at the time to name countries or continents after an individual’s given name unless s/he were royalty. It would have been more common to use the surname, which means that technically we should be the United States of Vespucci, which would have been pleasing (says a guy named Romano).

It has been claimed that America was actually named after Richard Amerike (c. 1440–1503, ap Meryk, also written Ameryk), a Welshman who relocated to England and became a wealthy merchant and eventually sheriff of Bristol. The evidence—mostly circumstantial—was offered in 1908 by Bristol historian Alfred Hudd, who noted that Amerike had largely financed the 1497 expedition of Genoese explorer John Cabot ( Giovanni Cabotto), who was the first European to reach North America (obviously, the ancestors of the Native Americans got here first). Hudd also cited as evidence a letter from 1497 that indicated that the name “America” was well-known—at least in Bristol—at that time.

This year (1497), on St. John the Baptist’s day (June 24th), the land of America was found by the merchants of Bristow, in a ship of Bristowe called the ‘Mathew,’ [Cabot’s ship] the which said ship departed from the port of Bristowe the 2nd of May and came home again the 6th August following (Hudd, 1908).

And while it may have been well-known in Bristol in 1497, the name “America” wasn’t known to Europe in general until a decade later, when it appeared on an extraordinary map.

Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann were German cartographers who produced a 1507 masterpiece of mapmaking called, succinctly, “Universalis cosmographia secunda Ptholemei traditionem et Americi Vespucci aliorum que lustrationes” (aka “A drawing of the whole earth following the tradition of Ptolemy and the travels of Amerigo Vespucci and others”). It was wood block-printed on 12 separate 18×24-inch sheets and, when tiled, measured more than 4×8 feet. It was the first attempt to map the entire world, and was one of those revolutionary documents that changed everyone’s conception of the world, as it was the first map to include the New World. Waldseemüller and Ringmann had been working from a letter written by Vespucci (although the letter was later disputed and believed to have been a fabrication based on a real letter written by Vespucci) called “Mundus Novus” (“New World”) that ostensibly chronicled his voyages across the Atlantic between 1497 and 1504, identifying the land he had reached as indeed a new continent, dismissing Columbus’ notion that the Western Hemisphere was actually Asia.

To honor Vespucci, the cartographers bestowed this new land with the name “America” (a Latinization and feminization of Amerigo). It was rare to name such an important new place after a living person, and Waldseemüller apparently thought as much, because when he revised the map in 1513, he removed the name America and replaced it with “Terra Incognita.” Later cartographic works restored the name America and it seems to have stuck. (By the way, Hudd’s theory about Amerike is not really accepted by too many historians. It had been also suggested that the “stars and stripes” was based on Amerike’s coat of arms, but that’s even more of a reach.)

In this age of GPS and Google Maps, we take actual printed maps for granted (if we take them at all), but cartography—the art and study of mapmaking—is equal parts science and craft, precision and beauty, and mapmaking technology has evolved with the times and new printing techniques. Originally drawn and painted laboriously by hand using brushes on parchment, maps soon were created using relief printing (via wood blocks), copperplate engraving (aka intaglio), and lithography.

A unique map printing technique called cerography (from the Greek for “wax printing”) took the cartographic world by storm in the latter half of the 19th century. It was invented in the 1830s (patented in 1839) by Sidney E. Morse (1794­–1871), brother of our old friend Samuel Morse. See Purinton, 2003, for the exact details, but cerography is a type of wax engraving. A thin layer of wax (the exact composition of which was a “secret sauce” proprietary to different manufacturers) is applied to a blackened copperplate. The image is either drawn, traced, or stamped into the wax, and a printing plate is created from the engraved wax via stereotyping or electrotyping. This plate could then be used on conventional letterpress presses. There were many advantages to this process—for example, text and images could be combined on the same plate—and later developments incorporated photographic imaging. Cerography was eventually rendered obsolete by photoengraving. So it goes.

Before he dabbled with mapmaking, Sidney Morse had embarked on some publishing ventures, mostly religious publications. In 1823, with his brother Richard Cary Morse, he founded the New York Observer, and before that, in 1816, he was the original editor of a brand-new religious publication called The Boston Recorder. Known as just The Recorder, it was established by Nathaniel Willis (1780–1870), himself the son of a newspaperman named Nathaniel Willis. In 1827, Willis fils launched a weekly religious publication for children called The Youth’s Companion, and served as its editor for about 30 years. Its original vision, said Willis and co-publisher Asa Rand, was to encourage “virtue and piety, and…warn against the ways of transgression.” Originally published by the Perry Mason Company (whence the name of Erle Stanley Gardner’s crime-solving lawyer—Gardner was a fan of the magazine as a youth), it took a while to become a success, and was taken over by a series of publishers throughout the years. In the 1890s, it changed its target audience to include adults, and when it added a health column for older folks, its circulation soared. Funny how things don’t change. Contributing writers included Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Booker T. Washington, Jack London, and other literati.

The September 8, 1892, issue included a special feature. One of The Youth’s Companion’s promotional activities was selling American flags (they sold 12×18-inch silk flags for 30 cents each) and the publication was planning a national “flag day” for schoolchildren in conjunction with Columbus Day, which that year commemorated the 400th anniversary of his sailing the ocean blue. The editors of the magazine went one step further and decided to go for the patriotic gusto and come up with something that kids could recite as they saluted the flag. Coming up with this text fell to Francis Bellamy, a former Baptist minister who worked in the magazine’s promotion department. He locked himself away for two hours and what he came up with—and, after a few tweaks, was published in the September 8, 1892, issue—began, “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands…” The Pledge was first recited in public schools on October 12, 1892, and has been a staple ever since.

And if you’re pledging allegiance to the old red, while, and blue, make sure they’re the right colors.

On behalf of The Digital Nirvana, have a happy and safe Independence Day weekend.

If you enjoy these historical digressions, 21 of my Digital Nirvana posts from last year have been collected into a new book called Printing Links, available in paperback from Amazon.



Standard Proportions For The United States Flag, http://www.usflag.org/flag.specs.html.

John R. Hébert, “The Map That Named America: Library Acquires 1507 Waldseemüller Map of the World,” Library of Congress Information Bulletin, September 2003, http://loc.gov/loc/lcib/0309/maps.html.

Alfred E. Hudd, “Richard Ameryk and the name America,” read May 2lst 1908, Proceedings of the Clifton Antiquarian Club Vol VII 1909 – 10, http://www.cliftonantiquarian.co.uk/CAC_docs/CAC%20Ameryk.pdf.

Frederic Hudson, Journalism in the United States, from 1690–1872, Harper & Brothers, 1873, pp. 295–296.

Peter MacDonald, “The Naming of America,” BBC, March 29, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/tudors/americaname_01.shtml#three.

Scott Miller, The President and the Assassin, New York: Random House, 2011, p. 120.

Nancy Purinton, “A Historical Map-Printing Technique: Wax Engraving,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, JAIC 2003, Volume 42, Number 3, Article 4 (pp. 419 to 424), http://cool.conservation-us.org/jaic/articles/jaic42-03-004.html.

Frederick N. Rasmussen, “A half-century ago, new 50-star American flag debuted in Baltimore,” The Baltimore Sun, July 02, 2010, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2010-07-02/news/bs-md-backstory-1960-flag-20100702_1_48-star-flag-blue-canton-fort-mchenry.

Jim Sielicki, “Robert G. Heft: Designer Of Americas Current National Flag,” United Press International via The Exchange, July–August 1988, archived at http://www.usflag.org/flagdesigner.html.

“Cerography,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 28, 2016, retrieved June 14, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cerography.

“Flag of the United States,” Wikipedia, last modified on June 12, 2016, retrieved June 14, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_the_United_States.

“Pledge of Allegiance,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 29, 2016, retrieved June 14, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pledge_of_Allegiance.

The Youth’s Companion,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 28, 2016, retrieved June 14, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Youth%27s_Companion.



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