A Forest of Signs (Snippets 50)


An illustration of the “last remaining” bookseller shop sign in London, from “The Book of Days” (1869)

For the 50th “snippet”, we turn our attention to Fifty Years’ Recollections of an Old Bookseller by William West, published in 1835.  There is much of interest in this autobiography, including the author’s early life, first experiences of London and the beginnings of his career working for a bookseller as a teenage apprentice.  But for this snippet, I have selected a quote which gives a little insight into one small aspect of life in London in the late 18th Century – hanging shop signs.  These are still commonplace and are mostly associated with public houses, but until the late 18th Century they were much more common for all sorts of establishments.  Laws were introduced in the 1760s and 1770s to compel the gradual removal of the boards, for reasons addressed by West in the following extract:

The reader has doubtlessly heard of the origin of many signs, and the cause of the discontinuance of those projections, that not only darkened the metropolis, but, among other benefits, in heavy city showers, bestowed gratis, those baths that were not considered the most salutary. Striking instances of this nature were produced at the various inns, etc. where separate signs where hung across the street, describing the places of destination they had conveyances to; but what appears most ridiculous in the signs of our forefathers was, the inapplicability of many of them. I shall instance a few, particularly such as attach to literary friends.

Amongst the booksellers, of no very early date, may be enumerated; Crowder at the sign of the Looking-glass; but, as knowledge is the mirror of the mind, perhaps it was not objectionable. Next comes Longman, at the sign of the Ship; and, as the members of that respectable house have sailed through with so high a character, no objection ought to be made to their symbol; but Baldwin, at the sign of the Rose, and Evans (with whom I served my apprenticeship), at the sign of the Red Lion, cannot so well be, accounted for. Of Buckland, at the sign of the Buck, except from etymology or similarity of sound, we cannot perceive the sense. Key at the sign of the Hare, perhaps, may be more allowable; for Jonathan, like his Transatlantic namesake, was early in the field of the book tribe, with his specimens of paper. White, at Horace’s Head, in Fleet-street, and Rivingtons, at the Bible and Crown, in St. Paul’s Church-yard, were classically and religiously correct; the latter have, continued their sign for about a century. Cobbett put up the Bible, Crown, and Constitution, in Pall-Mall; but, if we may judge from his general habits, he could only have done so, that he might be afterwards able to say he had pulled them down…

Before 1766, the signs are described as large, finely gilt, and very absurd; golden perriwigs, saws, axes, razors, trees, lancets, knives, cheese, salmon… half-moons, sugar-loaves, and Westphalia hams, were repeated unmercifully from Whitechapel to Piccadilly. One perambulating the streets must have felt rather unpleasantly during a high wind, when hundreds of signs were swinging on rusty hinges above him, threatening a descent; and pent-houses and spouts pouring cascades upon his luckless head.

That was the 50th snippet on Windows into History.  If you would like to explore some of the previous ones, the easiest way to access them is via the Contents menu at the top of the page.  Thank you for reading, and I hope you stay with Windows into History for the next 50 snippets!


About Windows into History

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyardview.wordpress.com Administrator of frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in 18th Century, 19th Century, Autobiographies, Books, History, London, Snippets and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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