Sun vignette has been greeting readers since 1837

No, Dear Reader, you are not caught in a time warp or a victim of a delayed April Fool's prank. You are not in "The Twilight Zone" and your eyes are not deceiving you.

What you're looking at is The Baltimore Sun's vignette, or nameplate, as it appeared on May 17, 1837, when the newspaper first came off founder Arunah Shepherdson Abell's R. Hoe & Co. Press in his 21 Light St. office.

We are republishing this venerable nameplate today in honor of the 173rd birthday of Vol. 1, No. 1 of The Sun. When the first Sun was published, Martin Van Buren was president (he was the eighth) and there were 26 states in the Union.

baltimore sun vignette through the years

The Baltimore Sun vignette through the years.

A constant feature of The Sun from its first edition has been its nameplate, which has evolved over the years. H.L. Mencken, longtime Sun and Evening Sun editor and writer, graced the emblematic and symbolic artwork with the term "the vignette." A vignette is French for "young vine" and is a printer's term for the vine-line traceries that once embellished page borders in books and magazines.

The Sun's vignette "has a certain grandeur to it and is one of the most unique in the newspaper business," said Joseph Hutchinson, former art director of The Sun who works in the same capacity for Rolling Stone magazine in New York. "It is a link to the newspaper's past and it reflects the history of Baltimore."

Every 20 years, the vignette is re-registered with the U.S. Patent Office as the trademark of The Sun.

Since 1837, the nameplate or vignette has been modified 14 times. However, two ever-present elements have endured: a steam locomotive and a sailing ship. And throughout most of the newspaper's history, they have been traveling in opposite directions.

The inclusion of the locomotive commemorates the founding in 1827 of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the nation's first common-carrier railroad. The Baltimore clipper represents the city's shipbuilding industry (sadly, no longer part of the city's industrial base) as well as its waterborne connection to international commerce.

The rising sun with outstretched, finger-like rays, encircled by two goddesses, was first published on May 6, 1839, and was the forerunner of the newspaper's motto, "Light For All." The motto first appeared the next year on a banner held aloft in an eagle's beak soaring over a sun. In 1983, it was moved to the base of the vignette.

Since March 8, 1852, the eagle, symbol of the United States, has been perched atop a federal shield with 13 stars representing the country's original 13 colonies, of which Maryland was the seventh.

Many of the items in the vignette have been a constant since 1840, among them Themis, the Greek goddess of justice, who holds a sword in her right hand and the scales of justice in the other.

A brush and palette are symbols of the arts and culture, while a beehive represents the state's industrial workers. A tied sheaf of wheat standing behind the beehive honors the state's agricultural community.

In 1965, a serious revision of the vignette was proposed by G. Elmore Evans, The Sun's promotion manager, who in a letter to general manager Donald H. Patterson Sr. suggested that the vignette did not reflect modern times and was somewhat cluttered by more than 20 items.

Evans furnished a detailed list of what was entwined in the vignette: "Land, sun rays, two beehives, eagle, woman, locomotive, water, ship, paper scroll, artist's palette and brushes, shield, sword, viaduct, sun, lighthouse, anchor, bale of cotton, scale of justice, sheaf of wheat, sickle."

He suggested a more streamlined vignette featuring a modern diesel locomotive to replace the steam engine and an ocean liner in place of the old sailing vessel. He even thought a modern jet liner coursing the skies ought to be included.

Patterson took the matter to Charles H. "Buck" Dorsey, The Sun's managing editor, who expressed little enthusiasm for the proposed revision.

"I am a complete conservative in such matters, and I would not want to change," he wrote in a letter to Patterson.

The vignette remained unchanged until 1982 when then-publisher Reg Murphy ordered a study of the nameplate. A year later, the Murphy-era nameplate was introduced that featured a more simplified look.

With the 1995 redesign of the newspaper, a more three-dimensional vignette was unveiled.

In 2005, a colorized version of the nameplate made its debut. The steam engine once again regained its balloon stack, while the steam- and sail-driven ship was shorn of its funnel.

"Clearly the masthead captured the ambition and tried to express the character of 19th-century Baltimore and of Maryland," said Robert J. Brugger, author of "Maryland a Middle Temperament 1634-1980" and regional book editor for the Johns Hopkins University Press.

"Here, proclaimed the paper, one found industry and the industrious but also a port with romantic ties to the outside world; a respect for liberty; and a love of country befitting the city of the 'Star-Spangled Banner.'"


Vote for your favorite Baltimore Sun nameplate, view a gallery of historic front pages and learn more about The Sun's past at baltimoresun.com.

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