The Brooklyn Furniture Company's designs would look right at home on a Geocities page or designed within Broderbund’s The Print Shop software, because they all stem from the same need: to be more expressive than technology otherwise allows. In the early days of computers, those first graphics were text inside terminals or printed by daisywheel printers. However, unlike other ASCII art, the designs in these newspapers were definitely not created on typewriters—but painstakingly composed one letter at a time with blocks of type by professional typesetters. Nor are they actually art per se, but stylistic tactics employed to exploit scarcity as an advantage.
For most of the 19th century, newspapers were slim things. Every page had to be typeset by hand, meaning that the largest daily newspapers stretched to only 8 or 12 pages—and many were even shorter. Advertisers soon figured out how to exploit this scarcity of space by buying more ads than they needed, perhaps to deny their competitors any room. But once they had all that real estate, what do they do with it? The first and simplest approach was just repeating the same 3-line advertisement over and over again. Next, advertisers soon learned to add large amounts of blank space to make their ads pop more on the page, but that still didn’t make them any more visible from a distance. Bigger text was the next logical step, but it’s not clear whether that was technologically possible—or, if it was, economically viable. An ingenious solution emerged: What if, instead of giant letters, you could build large letters out of smaller blocks of text? I haven't yet figured out the exact point when and where this practice started, but I did learn that it predated even the 1870s. I found an 1860 ad for hoop skirts in the shape of a skirt. And in 1862, Smith & Brothers brewery in New York placed ads with ASCII text in several papers nationwide.
In many newspapers, these early examples of text art vanished not long after they arrived. Only months after the 1878 ad of “the president” in the Sun, such designs had seemingly disappeared from that newspaper, and apart from the two advertisements I had found, the style apparently never caught on in the Times. But why not? To answer that, I looked more at the Eagle where I found the earliest ads—and where they survived for several decades longer than everywhere else. They are there in 1881, when one bold advertiser filled an entire page with ASCII text. There are there in 1888, when the Eagle advertised its election night almanac in the familiar large letters. They are there all the way up to July 3, 1892, a day the same Brooklyn Furniture Company again ran a half-page ad with their address in large ASCII letters. And, then, on July 5th, they were completely gone, replaced by modern layouts and fancy typography. Those upgrades likely explain, at least in part, what happened. ASCII art flourishes most when technology is limited; you don’t need Print Shop anymore when you can do digital layout on your computer and have an inkjet printer.
The late 19th century was an era of rapid technological innovation for newspapers, as new technologies like hot metal typesetting made it easier and faster to compose each page. This in turn allowed newspapers to expand in size—reducing the advantage of scarcity for advertisers, but also offering more options for them. This likely happened at various points in the 1880s for various newspapers, but I was able to trace the Eagle’s transition to an exact date. Along with the half-page Brooklyn Furniture Company ad that appeared on July 3, the Eagle ran its own ASCII ad that day to announce that their new offices would open in two days. Then, on July 5, the Eagle ran a short item proclaiming its new building as having the “finest composing room in the country.” In other words, the Eagle had finally upgraded its old technology, and with that, the first era of ASCII ads was suddenly over.