Although the Age of Enlightenment included a rise in literacy, visual cues were still a staple of navigating the urban environment. Shop signs were powerful illustrative indicators of the type of businesses they promoted. Such signs were initially linked with particular trades. The sign of three balls indicated a pawnbroker. Chemists used a pestle and mortar sign. Hosiers and milliners employed the image of a lamb, whilst haberdashers and linen drapers most often used the symbol of a wheat sheaf.

However, when businesses changed premises, tradesmen would invariably preserve existing signage or add an element of their own. This blurred trade specific symbols, linking signs to particular locations instead. These resulting hybrids were often curious and idiosyncratic. As a commentator to the British Apollo magazine noted in 1716, ‘I’m amazed at the Signs, As I pass through the Town, To see the odd mixture; A Magpie and Crown, The Whale and Crow, The Razor and Hen, The Leg and Seven Stars, The Axe and the Bottle […]’.

This complex use of symbols was mirrored on trade cards used by retailers to promote their wares. A trade card for ‘Mrs Phillips’, who sold female contraceptives, illustrates how signage was appropriated to help customers locate particular shops. It states she could be found at ‘no.5, in Orange-Court, near Leicester-Fields, one End of the Court comes to Castle-Street, joining the Upper Mews-Gate. To prevent Mistakes, over the Door is the Sign of the Golden Fan and Rising Sun’.

By the mid-eighteenth century, physical inconvenience began overshadowing the promotional value of signage. French tourist Francois-Maximilien Misson observed that shop signs in the British capital were ‘commonly very large, and just out so far that in some narrow streets they […] run across almost quite to the other side’. The density of such signs, coupled with their tendency to creak and fall down in poor weather caused the City of London and Westminster to ban them in 1762 and 1764. The Pavement Act subsequently reinforced this measure in 1766 and 1768. This prompted shopkeepers to fasten signs against buildings, which de-cluttered the street and ultimately placed a greater emphasis on shop windows.


Links to collections:

The Fitzwilliam Museum
Waddesden Collection of trade cards – a searchable database of mostly European eighteenth century trade cards.
Bodleian Library – the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera. The searchable database includes an array of eighteenth-century trade cards and bill headings.


Source: Consuming Passions: Shopping for Luxury in Georgian Britain (Fairfax House, 2015)