Shop Signs

(Case 1, nos. 1-7) 

The story of the trade card is intimately linked to that of the trade sign. From the time of Charles I, a tradesman would advertise the location of his shop by displaying a sign—painted, carved in wood or made in pewter, copper or iron—which was typically hung from an iron bracket or fixed to a post outside. Initially, signs were identified with particular trades: for example, the Wheatsheaf with haberdashers and linen-drapers, the Golden Fleece or Indian Queen with mercers, the Lamb with hosiers and milliners. However, these connections soon became blurred. The primary tie was between the sign and the premises to which it was attached (rather than the trade). It was a visual indication of the address, and commissioning a new sign would not only be expensive but potentially damaging to the business, by breaking this link. When changing premises, a tradesman would be inclined to preserve the existing sign, often adding to it an element of his own trade or the sign of his former master. Also, as particular trades tended to be concentrated in the same part of London, the tradesman needed to stamp his individuality on his sign. These factors gave rise to the curious hybrid signs satirised in this squib from the British Apollo of 1716 (quoted by Sir Ambrose Heal in Signboards of Old London Shops):

I’m amazed at the Signs
As I pass through the Town,
To see the odd mixture;
A Magpie and Crown,
The Whale and the Crow,
The Razor and Hen,
The Leg and Seven Stars,
The Axe and the Bottle,
The Tun and the Lute,
The Eagle and Child,
The Shovel and Boot.

Trade signs would be depicted on tradesmen’s cards or bill headings, on trade tokens (issued by tradesmen as a substitute for currency from 1648 to c.1672 as a result of a shortage in small coins and precious metals) and sometimes in newspaper advertisements (as in the Maidenhead, sign of John and Elizabeth Cluer, nos. 84 and 83). They served as a visual reminder of the address of the establishment, to the customer or potential client, who was not necessarily fully literate.

In April 1762, there was a Grand Exhibition of the ‘Society of Sign-Painters’, put on by Bonnell Thornton at his Rooms in Bow Street, promoted through the St James’s Chronicle (who also printed the catalogue) and involving William Hogarth (see part 4). Eighty-four signs and twenty-five carved figures were shown, some created specially for the exhibition, others borrowed from local tradesmen and from sign painters’ workshops. Although the exhibition was partly in defiance of the Society of Artists (with whom both Thornton and Hogarth had strained relations), it was also a recognition of the importance of this form of street art. June 1762 saw, however, the sudden demise of this art form.

Before 1762 there had been a very little experimentation with street numbering in isolated parts of London. In 1762, in the wake of various accidents associated with trade signs falling down (their brackets were often in a state of disrepair) and in order to encourage the circulation of air in narrow streets, a proclamation was issued ordering the removal of hanging signs in the City of London, and in 1763 there was a similar decree for the City of Westminster. This was reinforced by Paving Acts in 1766 and 1768. Provision was made for the numbering of houses and a genre of popular or street art suddenly ceased to exist. Whereas in Paris (where a similar edict had been passed in 1761), shop signs were preserved and are now exhibited in the Musée Carnavalet, in England (with the exception of inn signs) they all but disappeared. The trade card therefore constitutes an invaluable record of the appearance of the old shop signs. Trade signs lingered on, both in addresses and in depictions on trade cards and bill headings, long after the last hanging sign had disappeared. Businesses were reluctant to relinquish their association with their sign. They were also reluctant to order new stocks of stationery or, more expensively, to commission new copper plates. In many cases, the new numbers were spatchcocked onto the plates, usually gaining some prominence from the lack of blend into the whole. The presence of a number does, however, aid in dating trade cards as post-1762.

The other effect of the abolition of trade signs was (eventually) to simplify addresses, which had been elaborately descriptive (At the Sun, the corner of White-Fryers Gate in Fleet-Street or At the Angel, over against Gutter-Lane in Cheapside, for example). However, even without a trade sign, many tradesmen continued to rely on the descriptive address for some time, as in the example of Grammar and Dawes’s Nottingham Stocking Manufactory in Princes-Street, Three Doors from the Park Gate, Great George Street, Westminster (no. 258).

Case 1 Supplementary Images

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