Victorian London - Advertising - Street advertising

    “To whom are you bowing with so much heroic devotion?”
    “Whom? Why to Mr. Falcon, on the other side of the street.”
    “So you have found an acquaintance already? That is a rare case; Many a man walks about for weeks without seeing a face he knows; and you have scarcely left the house when—”
    “But do you really think I know that Mr. Falcon on the other side of the way?” Saying which the mysterious doctor bows again; and I, taking my glass, find out that there are a dozen Mr. Falcons, hoisted on high poles, parading the opposite pavement. Twelve men, out at elbows, move in solemn procession along the line of road, each carrying a heavy pole with a large table affixed to it, and on the table there is a legend in large scarlet letters, “MR. FALCON REMOVED.” It appears that Mr. Falcon, having thought proper to remove from 146 Holborn, begs to inform the nobility, the gentry, and the public generally, that he carries on his business at 6 Argyle-street.
    The Doctor, crossing his arms on his chest gravely, while the passengers are pushing him about, says:
    “Since Mr. Falcon is kind enough to inform me of his removal, I believe I ought to take off my hat to his advertisement. But only think of those poor fellows groaning under Mr. Falcon’s gigantic cards. He is an original, Mr. Falcon is, and I should like to make his acquaintance.”
    Again the Doctor is wrong in fancying, as he evidently does, that Mr. Falcon sends his card-bearers, with the news of his removal, through the whole of London. Why should he? Perhaps he sold cigars, or buttons, or yarns, in Holborn; and it is there he is known, while no-one in other parts of the town cares a straw for Mr. Falcon’s celebrated and unrivalled cigars, buttons, or yarns. His object is to inform the inhabitants of his own quarter of his removal, and of his new address.
    The twelve men with the poles and boards need not go far. From early dawn till late at night they parade the site of Mr. Falcon’s old shop. They walk deliberately and slowly, to enable the passengers to read the inscription at their ease. They walk in Indian file to attract attention, and because in any other manner they would block up the way. But they walk continually, silently, without ever stopping for rest. Thus do they carry their poles, for many days and even weeks, until every child in the neighbourhood knows exactly where Mr. Falcon is henceforward to be found, for the moving column of large scarlet-lettered boards is too striking; and no one can help looking at them and reading the inscription. And this is a characteristic piece of what we Germans call British industry.
    There is no other town in the world where people advertise with so much persevering energy—on so grand a scale—at such enormous expense—with such impertinent .puffery—and with such distinguished success.
    We have just reached a point in Holborn where, a great many streets crossing, leave a small, irregular spot, in the middle. In the centre of this spot, surrounded by a railing, and raised in some masonry, is a gigantic lamp post, and the whole forms what one might call an island of the streets. Every now and then the protection of this island is sought by groups of women and children who, amidst the noise and the wheels of so many vehicles that dash along in every direction, shrink from a bold rush across the whole breadth of the street. As Noah’s dove thought itself lucky in having found an olive branch to alight on amidst the waters of the deluge, so do tender women breathe more quietly, and look around with greater composure, after having reached this street-island, where they are safe from the ever-returning tide of street life.
    Leaning against the lamp-post we are at leisure to look around and see the moving beings, things, and objects, which rush past on every side; and for the nonce we will devote a special attention to the various advertising tricks.
    The time—Night. One of those clear, fogless, calm summer nights which are so “few and far between” in this large town. The life-blood in the street-veins runs all the fuller, faster, and merrier, for the beauty of the night. Holborn is inundated with gas-light; but the brightest glare bursts forth exactly opposite to us. Who, in the name of all that is prudent, can the people be who make such a shocking waste of gas? They are “Moses and Son,” the great tailors and outfitters, who have lighted up the side-fronts of their branch establishment. All round the outer walls of the house, which is filled with coats, vest; and trousers, to the roof, and which exhibits three separate side fronts towards three separate streets, there are many thousands of gas-flames, forming branches, foliage, and arabesques, and sending forth so dazzling a blaze, that this fiery column of Moses is visible to Jews and Gentiles at the distance of half a mile, lighting up the haze which not even the clearest evening can wholly banish from the London sky.
    Among the fiery flowers burns the inevitable royal crown, surmounting the equally unavoidable letters V.R. To the right of these letters we have Moses and Son blessing the Queen in flaming characters of hydro-carbon. to the left they bless the people.* (*God save the Queen,” and “God bless the people,” are the legends of these Mosaic Illuminations). 
    What do they make this illumination for? This is not a royal birthday, nor is it the anniversary of a great national victory. All things considered, this ought to be a day of mourning and fasting for Messrs. Moses and Son, for the Commons of England have this very afternoon decided that Alderman Salomons shall not take his seat in the House.
    Motives of loyalty, politics, or religion, have nothing whatever to do with the grand illuminations executed by Messrs. Moses and Son. The air is calm, there is not even a breath of wind; it’s a hundred to one that Oxford Street and Holborn will be thronged with Passengers; this is our time to attract the idlers. Up, boys, and at them! light the lamps! A heavy expense this, burning all that gas for ever so many hours; but it pays, somehow. Boldness carries the prize, and faint heart never won fair customers. And if it were not for that c—d police and the Insurance Companies by Jingo! it were the best advertisement to burn the house and shop at least twice a year. That would puff us up and make people stare, and go the round of all the newspapers. Capital advertisement that, eh! 
    Being strollers in the streets, we delight in this extempore illumination. It is our object to see and observe; and Messrs. Moses and Son convert night into day for our especial accommodation. A whole legion of lesser planets bask in the region of this great sun. Crowds of subordinate advertising monsters have been attracted to this part of the street, and move about in various shapes, to the right and to the left, walking, rolling on wheels, and riding on horseback.
    Behold, rolling down from Oxford Street, three immense wooden pyramids—their outsides are painted all over with hieroglyphics and with monumental letters in the English language. These pyramids display faithful portraits of Isis and Osiris, of cats, storks, and of the apis; and amidst these old-curiosity-shop gods, any Englishman may read an inscription, printed in letters not much longer than a yard, from which it appears that there is now on view a panorama of Egypt, one more beautiful, interesting, and instructive than was ever exhibited in London. For this panorama— we are still following the inscription—shows the flux and reflux of the Nile, with its hippopotamuses and crocodiles, and a section of the lied Sea, as mentioned in Holy Writ, and part of the last overland mail, and also the railway from Cairo to Alexandria, exactly as laid out in Mr. Stephenson’s head. And all this for only one shilling! with a full, lucid, and interesting lecture into the bargain.
    The pyramids advance within three yards from where we stand, and, for a short time, they take their ease in the very midst of all the lights, courting attention. But the policeman on duty respects not the monuments of the Pharaohs; he moves his hand, and the drivers of the pyramids, though hidden in their colossal structures, see and understand the sign: they move on.
    But here is another monstrous shape— a mosque, with its cupola blue and white, surmounted by the crescent. The driver is a light-haired boy, with a white turban and a sooty face. There is no mistaking that fellow for an Arab; and, nevertheless, the turban and the soot make a profound impression.
    “We are being invaded by the East !“ says Dr. Keif. “They are going to give a panoramic explanation of the Oriental question. If I were Lord Palmerston, I ‘d put a stop to that sort of thing. It’s a high crime and misdemeanour against diplomacy. Pray call for the police !"
    But Dr. Keif is wrong again. On the back of the mosque there is an advertisement, which is as much a stranger to the Oriental question as the German diplomates are. That advertisement tells us, that Dr. Doem is proprietor of a most marvellous Arabian medicine, warranted to cure the bite of mad dogs and venomous reptiles generally; even so, that a person so bitten, if he but takes Dr. Doem’s medicine, shall feel no more inconvenience than he would feel from a very savage leader in the Morning Herald. The mosque, the blue crescent, the gaudy colour; and the juvenile Arab from the banks of the Thames, have merely been got up to attract attention. There need be no very intimate connexion between the things puffed and the street symbolics which puff them. Heterogeneous ideas are as much an aid to puffing as homogeneous ideas. If ever you should happen to go to Grand Cairo, rely on it, every cupola of a mosque, peeping out from palm-groves and aloe-hedges, will remind you of Dr. Doem and his Arabian medicine, as advertised in Holborn in Europe. Allah is great, and the cunning of English speculators is as deep as the sea where it is deepest.
    Hark! a peal of trumpets! Another advertising machine rushes out of the gloom of Museum Street. In this instance the Orient is not put in requisition. The turn-out is thoroughly English.
    Two splendid cream-coloured horses, richly harnessed; a dark green chariot of fantastic make, in shape like a half-opened shell, and tastefully ornamented with gilding and pictures; on the box a coachman in red and gold, looking respectable and almost aristocratic, with his long whip on his knee; and behind him the trumpeters, seated in the chariot, and proclaiming its advent. In this manner have the people of London of late months been invited to Vauxhall, to that same Vauxhall which under the Regency, attracted all the wealth, beauty, and fashion in England which, to this very day, still attracts hundreds of thousands; whose good and ill fame has crossed the ocean. Even Vauxhall —the old and famous —makes no exception to the common lot; it is compelled to have its posters, its newspaper advertisements, and its advertising vans.  
    In no other town would such tricks be necessary conditions of existence; but here, where everything is grand and bulky—in this town of miraculous extent, where generations live and die in the East-end without ever having beheld the wonders of the West-end—among this population, which is reckoned by millions instead of by hundreds of thousands—here, where all press and rush on to make money or to spend it—here, where every one must distinguish himself in some way or other, or be lost and perish in the crowd—where every hour has its novelty—here, in London, even the most solid undertakings must assume the crying colour of charlatanism.  
    The Panorama of the Nile, the Overland Route, the Colosseum, Madame Tussaud’s Exhibition of Wax-works, and other sights, are indeed wonder-works of human industry, skill, and invention; and, in every respect, are they superior to the usual productions of the same kind. But, for all that, they must send their advertising vans into the streets; necessity compels them to strike the gong and blow the trumpet; choice there is none. They must either advertise or perish.  
    The same may be said of great institutions of a different kind; of fire and life insurance companies; of railways and steamers; and of theatres—from Punch’s theatre in the Strand, upwards, to the Royal Italian Opera, which ransacks Europe for musical celebrities, and which, nevertheless, must condescend to magnify its own glory on gigantic many-coloured posters, though it has managed, up to the present day, to do without the vans, trumpets, and sham Nubians.  
    It is either advertising or being ruined. We have said it before. Many of our readers will think this a bold and unwarranted assertion. It is neither the one nor the other; for it is founded on the experience of many men of business. Of many examples we quote but one.  
    Mr. Bennett keeps a large shop of clocks and watches in Cheap-side. His watches and clocks are among the best in London; they have an old-established reputation, and they deserve it. But their reputation is not owing to their excellency alone; it required many years of advertising years of continual and expensive advertising, to inculcate this great fact on the obtuse, bewildered, and deluded Londoners. Thanks to Mr. Bennett’s perseverance they were at length convinced. And, when a few years ago, the reputation of the firm had spread throughout the length and breadth of the land, it struck Mr. Bennett that now was the time to put a stop to this expensive process of advertising. “In future,” said that gentleman, “I mean to take the full interest from my capital instead of paying part of it to the printers.” And he set at once about it. In the year in which Mr. Bennett took this bold resolution, the firm spent a few thousand pounds less than usual in advertisements. But the consequences made themselves felt; and as month followed month, they became still more disagreeably perceptible Mr. Bennett understood that in London virtue is its own reward, provided it keeps a trumpeter; and as Mr. Bennett was not an obstinate theorist, he had again recourse to the printing press. He advertises to this very day, and to a greater extent, if possible, than formerly. In proof whereof we quote his advertisement in the Catalogue of the Great Exhibition, on which occasion he paid £900 (say nine hundred pounds sterling), for the insertion of his advertisement on the back of the wrapper.  
    Mr. Bennett’s business is as prosperous as ever. Of course, his Watches were quite as good during the period he did not advertise; but the public was about to forget him. Advertising is an indispensable item in the expenditure of a London trader.  
    While we were talking of Mr. Bennett’s Shop in Cheapside the little lamp-post Square in Holborn has become more quiet. Two coal waggons, each with four elephantine thick -necked, broad-footed horses  have suddenly emerged from the darkness of one of the side-streets The half-circle which these clumsy horses must make in order to obtain a locus standi in the street of Holborn, causes a general stoppage among the vehicles, which up to the present have been proceeding in regular order, at an all but uniform pace. For a few moments we are relieved from the clanking of chains, the rattling of wheels, and the dull rumbling of wooden pyramids and vans. Now is the time for the lesser sprites of the advertising mysteries.  
    A boy on our right puts printed papers into our hands. On the left, the same process is attempted by an elderly man of respectable appearance, who jerks his arm with what he believes to be a graceful indifference, while everybody else would mistake that same jerk for a convulsive gesture of despondency. Just. before us we have a man with a pole and board, recommending some choice blacking, and on the opposite pavement there is a Hindoo dressed in white flannel, with a turban on his head, and with all the sorrow of a ruined nation in his handsome brown face and chiselled features. At his side is a little girl dressed in filthy rags. The Hindoo has a bundle of printed papers in his hand, sabbatarian, temperance, and other tracts—inestimable treasures—which he offers to the public at the very low price of one penny each. That poor fellow got those tracts from some sacred society as a consideration for allowing them to convert him to Christianity. But his sad face is a sorry recommendation of the treasures of comfort he proposes to dispose of. Better for him to stand in primitive nudity among his native palm-forests, adoring the miracles of nature in the Sun, and in Brahma, than to shiver here on the cold, wet pavement, cursing the torments of want in the image of the sacred Saviour. On the banks of the Ganges that man prayed to God; here, among strangers, he learns to hate mankind. But then he was a pagan on the banks of the Ganges; on the banks of the Thames he has the name of a Christian. Whether or no the Christian is really more religious than the Pagan was, is a question which seems to give little trouble to the pious missionaries. The Bible Society has done its duty.  
    Our worthy friend, Dr. Keif was, it seems, also struck with the melancholy aspect of the Hindoo. He made a bold rush across the street, put some pence into the tiny brown hand of the little girl, and took in return a tract on “True Devotion,” which he did not read, but crushing it into a paper ball, angrily, threw it into the gutter. He had taken the tract out of consideration for the poor man’s feelings. “It’s begging under the pretence of selling,” said the worthy Doctor in a great rage, “but since the delusion is a comfort to him, I would not for the world offer him money without taking one of his papers !“  
    It was very naughty in the Doctor to fling that tract away as he did. As a punishment, we were immediately assailed by a set of imps who mistook us for easy victims on the altars of  speculation.  
    Men with cocoa-nuts and dates, and women with oranges surrounded us with their carts. One man recommended his dog-collars of all sizes, which he had formed in a chain round his neck; another person offered to mark our linen; a third produced his magic strops; others held out note-books, cutlery, prints, caricatures, exhibition-medals— all— all—all for one penny. It seemed as if the world were on sale at a penny a bit. And amidst all this turmoil, the men with advertising boards walked to and fro; and the boys distributed advertising bills by the hundred, with smiles of deep bliss, whenever they met a charitable soul who took them. 
    The coal-waggons are gone, and the street noise is as loud as ever.  
    Are we to remain here and pursue our studies of the natural history of advertising vans? It is not likely we shall see them all, for their numbers are incalculable. They generate according to abnormal laws. Each day and each event produces another form. The Advertisement is omnipresent. It is in the skies and on the ground; it swells as the flag in the breeze, and it sets its seal on the pavement; it is on the water, on the steam-boat wharf, and under the water in the Thames tunnel; it roosts on the highest chimneys; it sparkles in coloured letters on street lamps; it forms the prologue of all the newspapers, and the epilogue of all the books; it breaks in upon us with the sound of trumpets, and it awes us in the silent sorrow of the Hindoo. There is no escaping from the advertisement, for it travels with you in the omnibuses, in the railway carriages, and on the paddle-boxes of the steamers.  
    The arches of the great bridges over the Thames were at one time free from advertisements. The masonry was submerged by the periodical returns of the tide, and the bills would not stick. But at length the advertisement invaded even these, the  last asylums of non-publicity. Since bills could not be pasted on the walls, the advertisement was painted on them. At this hour there is not an arch in a London bridge but has its advertisements painted on it. But for whom? For the thousands who every day pass under the bridge in steamers. For the Thames, too, is one of the London streets, and by no means the least important one.  

Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853

see also Thomson and Smith in Street Life in London - click here