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The Possible Origins of 7 Instantly Recognizable Visual Clichés

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Have you ever seen someone throw an old shoe at a stray cat that’s yowling on a backyard fence? Or witnessed a circus elephant rear away in fear when a mouse crosses its path? A whole host of images have become iconic over the decades—thanks to movies, cartoons, and comic strips—despite the fact they’ve never actually been seen in real life (at least by anyone alive and reading this article).


The image of a person so destitute that he is reduced to wearing a barrel held up by a pair of suspenders was first popularized by political cartoonist Will Johnstone. His first such portrayal of “The Taxpayer,” a person from whom the IRS has literally taken the shirt off their back, was published in the New York World Telegram in 1933, and would reappear frequently as the Great Depression continued to wear down America’s morale. In reality, though, barrels aren’t cheap, and the logistics (not to mention the risk of splinters in uncomfortable bodily areas) of actually outfitting one for daily wear make this an unlikely alternative to public nudity.


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A sophisticated swain sipping fine champagne from a seductive sylph’s stiletto is the very picture of elegant decadence. Legend has it that this tableau originated at a party held in 1902 at Chicago’s Everleigh Club, one of the nation’s most exclusive brothels at the time. The guest of honor was Prince Henry of Prussia, and during the festivities one of the house “butterflies” (as the working girls employed by the club were called) was dancing on a tabletop to “The Blue Danube” when her slipper flew off of her foot and knocked over a bottle of champagne. A member of the Prince’s entourage supposedly picked up the slipper and placed it to his lips, sipping the bit of bubbly that had dripped into it. “The darling shouldn’t get her feet wet,” he explained to onlookers. (However, there are also those who say the original champagne-from-a-shoe drinkers were Russian ballerinas of the late 19th century, or members of Toulouse Lautrec's set from around the same time.)


Several years ago, President Obama warned some St. Patrick’s Day partiers at the White House not to get too rambunctious—specifically, to refrain from putting lampshades on their heads—since there were plenty of photographers lurking nearby, and the pictures may well come back to haunt some members of Congress in attendance. It’s impossible to pinpoint when someone donning a lampshade as headgear signaled that the party had officially kicked into high gear, but a 1928 Baltimore Evening Sun piece entitled “Life of the Party” seems to indicate that the practice was common enough at the time to warrant a “been there, done that, caught heck from my wife the next day” reaction from readers. Before that, the image likely arose out of vaudeville, and was then popularized by early silent films.


We usually see this image, of a chef expressing the perfection of the meal he’s prepared, on restaurant signs or menus—and more often than not, the pictured chef is Italian. The meaning is immediately understood: the food served in this establishment is done to perfection. But outside of any TV/movie restaurant scene featuring Vito Scotti as a gourmand, has anyone ever really witnessed a chef recommending a dish with such a gesture? The cliché itself, however, may have some basis in an actual Italian hand gesture of kissing the fingertips before tossing them away—a move meaning something like "beautiful," "delicious," or "as good as a kiss."


It’s doubtful that any financial institution ever actually transported cash in containers emblazoned with giant dollar signs—in the grand scheme of things such markings would seem counter to standard security precautions, no? Interestingly enough, however, in April 2015 a gentleman robbed an Olympia, Washington, Subway restaurant and provided a homemade dollar sign bag to the startled sandwich artist (whom he warned “not to do anything funny,” in true film noir fashion). True, he didn’t wear a Lone Ranger mask and horizontally-striped shirt while committing his heist, but the local flatfoots nabbed him nevertheless.


The “hobo stick” or, more properly, bindle originated (as the name suggests) with the vagabonds and migratory workers of the Depression. Hobos were frequently penniless, so they hopped on freight trains and traveled from city to city looking for work. Plastic shopping bags hadn’t yet been invented, so hobos tied their meager belongings into a large kerchief and hung the bundle from a stave or stick for ease of carrying. Somewhere along the way, the hobo stick became a symbol cartoonists used to instantly identify a child as a runaway, as in Norman Rockwell’s famous 1958 Saturday Evening Post cover entitled “The Runaway.”


Thanks to pop culture staples such as the board game Stratego and MAD Magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy” comic strip, Baby Boomer-era American youngsters grew up thinking that all bombs looked like a bowling ball with a fuse sticking out of the top. The cannonball-style bomb does, in fact, have some basis in history; after gunpowder reached Europe in the 1300s, for several centuries Western militaries used dark metal spheres filled with explosives, sometimes designed to be shot out of a cannon. The addition of a loose string wick, however, seems to be a cartoonist's fantasy.

All images via iStock except where noted.

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Courtesy Umbrellium
These LED Crosswalks Adapt to Whoever Is Crossing
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Courtesy Umbrellium

Crosswalks are an often-neglected part of urban design; they’re usually just white stripes on dark asphalt. But recently, they’re getting more exciting—and safer—makeovers. In the Netherlands, there is a glow-in-the-dark crosswalk. In western India, there is a 3D crosswalk. And now, in London, there’s an interactive LED crosswalk that changes its configuration based on the situation, as Fast Company reports.

Created by the London-based design studio Umbrellium, the Starling Crossing (short for the much more tongue-twisting STigmergic Adaptive Responsive LearnING Crossing) changes its layout, size, configuration, and other design factors based on who’s waiting to cross and where they’re going.

“The Starling Crossing is a pedestrian crossing, built on today’s technology, that puts people first, enabling them to cross safely the way they want to cross, rather than one that tells them they can only cross in one place or a fixed way,” the company writes. That means that the system—which relies on cameras and artificial intelligence to monitor both pedestrian and vehicle traffic—adapts based on road conditions and where it thinks a pedestrian is going to go.

Starling Crossing - overview from Umbrellium on Vimeo.

If a bike is coming down the street, for example, it will project a place for the cyclist to wait for the light in the crosswalk. If the person is veering left like they’re going to cross diagonally, it will move the light-up crosswalk that way. During rush hour, when there are more pedestrians trying to get across the street, it will widen to accommodate them. It can also detect wet or dark conditions, making the crosswalk path wider to give pedestrians more of a buffer zone. Though the neural network can calculate people’s trajectories and velocity, it can also trigger a pattern of warning lights to alert people that they’re about to walk right into an oncoming bike or other unexpected hazard.

All this is to say that the system adapts to the reality of the road and traffic patterns, rather than forcing pedestrians to stay within the confines of a crosswalk system that was designed for car traffic.

The prototype is currently installed on a TV studio set in London, not a real road, and it still has plenty of safety testing to go through before it will appear on a road near you. But hopefully this is the kind of road infrastructure we’ll soon be able to see out in the real world.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Here's How to Turn an IKEA Box Into a Spaceship
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Since IKEA boxes are designed to contain entire furniture items, they could probably fit a small child once they’re emptied of any flat-packed component pieces. This means they have great potential as makeshift forts—or even as play spaceships, according to one of the Swedish furniture brand’s print ads, which was spotted by Design Taxi.

First highlighted by Ads of the World, the advertisement—which was created by Miami Ad School, New York—shows that IKEA is helping customers transform used boxes into build-it-yourself “SPÄCE SHIPS” for children. The company provides play kits, which come with both an instruction manual and cardboard "tools" for tiny builders to wield during the construction process.

As for the furniture boxes themselves, they're emblazoned with the words “You see a box, they see a spaceship." As if you won't be climbing into the completed product along with the kids …

Check out the ad below:

[h/t Design Taxi]


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