The language of the walls: Victorian posters

13 07 2012

1. Orlando Parry, ‘A London street scene’, 1834, watercolour

In 1855, James Dawson Burn’s book The Language of the Walls argued that reading posters could be revelatory: the mass of announcements on London’s walls display the roots of a new kind of language, that which underpinned the developing commodity culture of Victorian Britain. In the same way, Orlando Parry, the painter of A London Street Scene (1), shows posters as a new visual extravaganza to be admired. Here, St Paul’s Cathedral is literally shut out by this modern spectacle, the cornucopia of typefaces offering their own fascinating insight into the life of the city. Although the cliched cast of London social characters that fill the lower half of the painting ignore the bill-sticker pasting up his latest offering, Parry has clearly paid microscopic attention to the details of these curious objects – their typefaces accurately reflecting what would have been available to printers in the mid-1830s.

2. ‘The billstickers’ exhibition’, Punch, 29 May 1847, p. 226

Throughout the Victorian period, Punch featured many cartoons showing wall posters in London. Yet, unlike Parry, it mocked the supposed value of the spectacle they generated. In 1847, Punch drew attention to the daily ‘Bill-stickers’ exhibitions’ that could be seen almost anywhere in the city (2). With St Paul’s again obliterated by a makeshift wall of gigantic posters, Punch shows a respectable group of visitors come to see this impromptu exhibition. Here, everything is exaggerated, dictated by competition, and leading to an illegible mass of words and images. Such a spectacle reflected the quackery and puffery of advertisers, one that needed to be better regulated and controlled.

3. ‘The result of careless bill-posting’, Punch, 5 November 1898, p. 115

Yet, the accretions of posters on walls might also lead to the formation of new unintentional meanings. So ‘the result of careless bill-posting’ (3) in 1898 was an accidental joke – the bemused onlookers wondering if they really should try this strange specimen of exotic animal in their baths. Although Punch is probably only interested in the comic potential of such accidental juxtapositions, this image also hints at other concerns. As the cartoon graphically demonstrates, reading posters was not like reading books or newspapers – one had to be able to negotiate these random juxtapositions, to be able to read in a different way. This was a peculiarly modern form of perception, being able to decipher the new visual language of the commodity, one that was dictated by free competition. The result  – a kind of visual pandemonium – might confuse or delight in equal measure; despite their commercial basis, its very freedom that governs the arrangement of these posters might lead to new and unexpected meanings if we had the right perceptive tools to decipher them.

4. ‘Picturesque London – or, sky-signs of the times’, Punch, 6 September 1890, p. 119

In 1890, Punch pictured what it saw as the logical development of the city poster – a skyward development of advertising where the ‘swinging signs of ogre Trade’ invade ‘the smoke-veiled vaults of heaven’ (4). Here, gigantic letters float freely or on balloons, obscuring St Paul’s or even the sun, while outsized binoculars, gloves, hats, umbrellas and bottles soar to ‘monstrous heights’ above the city. With savage mockery, Punch uses this vision of future ‘sky-horrors’ to castigate the laissez-faire attitude towards posters and hoardings – a warning of what may result if advertisers are left unchecked. Yet, this is also a strangely prescient image – a kind of Heath-Robinson version of the skyward spectacle of Blade Runner (1982) or an anticipation of the sign-as-architecture that came to define the cityscape of Las Vegas. And was it this image that inspired Frank Gehry to commission Claes Oldenburg  and Coosje van Bruggen to build part of the Chiat/Day Building (1985-1991) as an enormous pair of binoculars – an iconic herald of the dissolution of modernism into a melting-pot of styles?

Curiosities of the Victorian census

25 04 2012

'Filling up the census paper', Punch, April 1851, p. 152.

From the introduction of the modern census in 1841, the census anecdote or ‘curiosity’ became a regular feature of newspaper columns. With the 1851 census came a plethora of ‘amusing’ returns: an Anglesey householder including all his animals on his census paper; a rural householder near Belfast writing under the column ‘Deaf and Dumb’, ‘Husband, not deaf, wish he was’; while a householder in Great Bowden in Derbyshire wrote ‘married, and sorry for it!’ in the column on marital status.

'Case of census-conscience', Punch, 15 April 1871, p. 147.

The 1871 census brought stories of the death of a young woman in Liverpool while filling out her census paper, and the case of a householder in rural Devon who was fined £1 for refusing to fill out his schedule because ‘he knew neither his own name nor his place of birth.’ Coverage of the 1891 census included more stories of householders refusing to complete their returns and widespread coverage of the sad story of Lord James Douglas forced to appear before the West London Police court after his children filled out the census paper while he was ill in bed, describing his wife as a ‘cross sweep’ and a ‘lunatic,’ and his son as a ‘shoeblack.’ The public ridicule he suffered seems to have contributed to his tragic death by suicide on 5 May 1891.

'Humours of the census', 11 April 1891, p. 479

If newspapers found amusement or pathos in the census returns, others found opportunities for social satire, especially on the question of women stating – or rather misstating – their ages. This problem had been of serious concern to the General Register Office, the organisers of the census after 1841. In 1851, they suggested that women over 20 depressed their ages because they ‘choose, foolishly, to represent themselves as younger than they really are,’ a point reiterated by them even as late as 1901.

'The census', Punch, 20 April 1861, p. 162

From 1841 onwards, satirical publications seized on this subject to make polite social comedy. If The Satirist set the scene in 1841, arguing that the ‘vague’ question on age in the census schedule was in response to women not wanting to state their exact age, then Punch, founded in that year, took up the subject in almost every subsequent census. Its 1861 cartoon ‘The Census’, shown above, is typical of its coverage, showing a middle-class family of two with their census-night visitor grouped around a table, on which the elderly head of the household is filling in the census paper. Asking his equally elderly spinster visitor, Miss Primrose, what he should write for her age, she states ‘The same as dear Flora. Twenty last birthday!’ Such gentle satire could descend into outright farce: in the same year, the Adelphi theatre in London staged its own take on the census, titled The Census: a Farce in One Act, in which the census schedule took centre stage, around which a variety of social embarrassments were played out in quick succession.

Measuring Victorian London: Mogg’s cab fare map

3 01 2012

1. Mogg’s Postal-District and Cab-Fare Map, 1859. Drawn by Edward Mogg, lithographed by C. Whittingham, London, published by William Mogg, London. 532 x 720 mm (Paul Dobraszczyk)

Running parallel to the development of fare books in the nineteenth century (like Mogg’s Ten Thousand Cab Fares) was the publication of what might be described as ‘at a glance’ information: that is, information contained on one sheet of paper in the form of comprehensive fare tables or maps. Books of fares, no matter how well designed, were clearly problematic to use, whether carried in a pocket or consulted in a cab: in a book format information could never be ascertained ‘at a glance’; pages had to be turned, indexes consulted, destinations and cab stands memorised.

2. Detail of Mogg's Cab-Fare map, 1859

Mogg attempted to address this problem with his series of Postal-District and Cab-Fare maps (1 & 2), drawn by his brother Edward. Superimposed onto a conventional topographic map of London are grid squares at half-mile intervals, labels of the postal districts, and the four-mile radius from Charing Cross (shown as a dark circle) that marked the transition from a sixpence to a shilling fare per mile. In addition, referencing aids are included around the edges of the map: letters along the top and bottom; numbers on the sides. In the 33-page index that accompanied the map and listed 3,000 places, readers were instructed on how use the map (3): first, they were to locate their required destination in the index, and, second, to memorise the letter and figure of the square required (4). By then consulting the map and matching the letter and figure to those given around its edges, the user could find the required place ‘instantly’.

3. Explanation of how to use Mogg's map

4. Index to Mogg's Cab-Fare map

Whether cab maps were indeed ‘useful’ to visitors to London is difficult to ascertain. Punch, in 1851, provided its own satirical image of a map like Mogg’s being used (5). It showed two visitors to London engaged in a ‘topographic problem’, that is, trying to use a similar map to find their way from Seven Dials to the Eastern Counties Railway Station (now Liverpool Street), a distance of about 3 miles. With one visitor holding the map securely while the other squints up close at the obviously far too detailed map to try and measure the distance with his fingers, Punch mocks the optimistic claims publishers like Mogg generally made of their maps.

4. 'Topographical problem', Punch, 1851

Measuring Victorian London: Mogg’s cab fare book

12 12 2011

1. Title page of 'Mogg's Ten Thousand Cab Fares' (1859)

In the 1840s and 1850s one publisher dominated the field of London transport guides: William and Edward Mogg. In 1844 Edward Mogg published his first Omnibus Guide which also included a separate section detailing cab fares. Better known was his brother William’s Ten Thousand Cab Fares (1 & 2), first published in 1851 and running to many editions. The authority of this guide centred on the fares being calculated by ‘actual admeasurement’, apparently undertaken at dawn when the city was quiet, with 104 destinations measured from 74 stands using a perambulator.

2. List of fares from the cab stand at Adam Street West

It appears that readers responded enthusiastically to this new guide: The Times celebrated it as ‘one of the most useful little books that have issued from the press that would make London’s cabmen honest’. Such was its fame that the eponymous hero of Robert Surtees’s 1852 novel Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour had his Mogg as a constant companion in his pocket, not for resolving disputes with cabmen but for working out fares in his armchair at home, as a means of relaxation (3). This even extended to keeping it under his pillow at night.

3. Mr Sponge reading Mogg's book of cab fares

Mogg himself encouraged his readers to come to his own offices in cases of disputes with cabmen, where he would act as a mediating authority. If Mogg’s knowledge of London’s distances was not in question, others doubted their own abilities: one writer to The Times in March 1851, anticipating the number of visitors to the Great Exhibition who were likely to become victims to extortionate cabmen, asked: ‘who but Mr Mogg is in a condition accurately to determine exact distances?’ The Illustrated London News encouraged cabmen themselves to read Mogg, the result being that when a cabman was asked his fare ‘there would be no hesitation in his voice or manner’ for ‘he would know the precise sum and would wish for no more’ (4).

4. The Illustrated London News on London's cabs in 1853

Not surprisingly, passengers did not share this hope: even as late as 1870, one regular cab user complained in The Times that even though he had studied his Mogg well and knew ‘the exact length of a shilling fare’, he was still perplexed by the lack of a fixed system of fares. A self-confessed ‘short-sighted, corpulent, dowdy’ man, he felt helpless in the face of disputes with ‘rough’ cabmen who, as countless Punch cartoons showed, had an intractable tendency to rip-off their customers (5).

5. One of many cartoons in Punch picturing the delicate relationship between cab drivers and passengers

The world in a book: the Post Office London Directory

22 11 2011

1. The Post Office London Directory, 1858 (Collection of Michael Twyman)

Founded in 1800 by inspectors of the Inland letter-carriers called Ferguson and Sparkes, until 1836 the Post Office London Directory consisted mainly of an alphabetical list of names of merchants and trades in London with their occupations and addresses. The first edition in 1800 had only 250 entries; by 1839, just three years after Frederick Kelly took over the company, the directory ran to 1,187 pages with many dedicated to advertisements of one kind of another. By the time that this edition was published in 1858 (1), Kelly was issuing two versions of the directory annually: a shortened edition shown here, containing 2570 pages of close-set type, which included 366 pages of advertisements; and the full edition – in 1858, a book 11-cm thick (2).

2. Advertisements on the page ends of the Post Office London Directory, 1858

3. The Post Office London Directory for 1854 according to Punch

4. Punch's Post Office London Directory for 1859

From the early 1850s, Punch remarked upon the increasing bulk of Kelly’s London directories. In 1853, picturing a man carrying the enormous book on his back (3), Punch argued that the directory ‘laid open’ the ‘mysteries of the streets of London’ with a minuteness that even the most comprehensive city guidebook could not compete with. As an enormous encyclopaedia of London, the directory ‘not only contains all that we want to know, but precise information as to at least a couple of millions of people whom … we sincerely hope that we shall never know’. By 1859, Punch’s version of the London directory had grown to man-size proportions (4). Drawing attention to its materiality – six inches thick and weighing half a stone – the journal wondered at the work involved in the production of the directory but, as before, thought that most people would never read it, despite the fact that it would be often in their hands for the ‘occasional dip’.


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