From an erotic hanky to a cranial contour chart, via a tree of life, there are some curious examples of information design in our collection.
Infographics existed before you thought they did
Saucy silk handkerchief
This hanky is graphic in more ways than one. Like a piece of concrete poetry, verse describing an erotic encounter is laid out in the shape of a pair of breasts. The words are those of the French poet, Évariste de Parny, who is best known for a collection of love poems called Poésies érotiques (1778).
Prism of many colours
Early naturalists struggled to find an accurate way to measure colour when examining specimens. James Sowerby's solution was to create this prism. It provides a simple, reliable and easily replicated tool for identifying colours.
These diagrams are taken from Florence Nightingale's book, Notes on matters affecting the health, efficiency, and hospital administration of the British Army: founded chiefly on the experience of the late war. An early pioneer of information design, Nightingale's polar area charts were a compelling way to present statistics, vividly conveying the high proportion of deaths caused by disease. She used them to campaign successfully for better conditions in hospitals.
Laws of variation
This evolutionary scheme appears in Charles Darwin's book, On the origin of species by means of natural selection, in a chapter called 'Laws of Variation'. Using a much more minimalist graphic approach in comparison to Haeckel below, Darwin's simple line diagram still has something of the tree about it.
Tree of life
From his book, Generelle Morphologie der Organismen, Ernst Haeckel's tree of life shows the evolution of different species. The chart is split into three main categories: Plantae, Protista and Animalia. But the fact they are all part of the same tree, branching off the same trunk, suggests that everything is ultimately connected.
Tableau of eyeballs
Showing a wide range of intricately coloured human irises, this table appeared on a fold-out plate at the back of Alphonse Bertillon's book, Identification anthropometrique: instructions signaletiques. A pioneer of forensic investigation, Bertillon was a French police officer who created a system for identifying criminals based on physical measurements.
Facial and cranial contours chart
This diagram appears in the 34th annual report made by the Medical Officer of Health for Willesden in north west London. The report aims to describe "the vital statistics and sanitary condition of the urban district of Willesden for the year 1909", and this chart classifies people into "racial types" by the shape of their head. It's the work of Dr. Thomas Smurthwaite, a local man who the Medical Officer of Health for Willesden says has carried out a series of "anthropological investigations".
About the author
Helen is a Digital Editor for Wellcome Collection.