Victorian London - Advertising - Bill-posting


    The subject of our present sketch is a personage of no small importance, and of that, by the way, judging by his despotic management of a coterie of small boys usually to be found at his heels, no one is more fully conscious than himself. He may be said to live in the eye of the public as much, if not more, than any other man of his day; and is, whatever pretenders may choose to think, or cavillers to say to the contrary, essentially a public character. He is a literary man in a sense at once the most literal and extensive, and he caters for the major part of the population almost the only literature that they ever peruse. He is a publisher to boot, whose varied and voluminous works, unscathed by criticism, are read by all the world, and go through no end of editions. It is an axiom of somebody's - whose, we forget just now - that most men look at the world, and all things in it, through the medium of their own profession. If that be the case; how does the billsticker regard it? what tricks does his fancy play him? what are the myths ever revolving before his imagination? Is there a golden age looming in the distant future of his hopes? a good time coming, when every wall and hoarding, every house-front, window-shutter, and now interdicted inclosure - from the "palaces of crowned kings," down to the humblest "habitations of all things that dwell" - shall be patent to his paste-brush, open as charity to his broadsheet, and when he shall no longer be compelled to trudge beneath his heavy load in all weathers, through weary miles of mud and rain, in search of a sanctuary where the art and mystery of his calling is not forbidden? When he sleeps at peace, after the labours of the day, does he dream of vast timber - hoards in endless perspective, without a single broadside on their virgin surfaces, all waiting to receive, in a shower of double-royal posters, the contributions of the press? And if after supping upon apocryphal pork-sausages, he should happen to have the nightmare, does the vampire-visage of the fiend bestriding the paste-pot which sits so heavily on his chest, bear on its lurid forehead the dreadful inscription, or does it shriek in his horror-stricken ears the terrible accents "Billstickers, beware ?"
    We cannot respond to these interrogatories. Unfortunately, we have not the privilege of his bosom confidences, and have been obliged to derive what knowledge we possess with regard to him from careful observation, and some small application of that inductive system of philosophy recommended by Bacon, to which the world owes so much, and by means of which what must be is predicated from what is. We have seen the billsticker under all the mutations of his humanity: in busy times, when his services were well paid, and in slack times, when placards grew mouldy on their hoardings for want of decent burial; at election times, when Whig, Tory, and Radical competed for his patronage; and in times of general distress, when the auctioneer nearly alone monopolised his labours. We have seen him at early morn, papering the gable-end of a house forty feet aloft; and at dusty-not dewy- eve, with the stealthiness of an Italian pasquinader, planting quack-doctor puffs breast-high upon forbidden ground. We have seen him, armed with ladder and peel-which, be it known, is a pole with a cross-bar on the top of it-prepared to fasten his proclamations as high as the chimney-tops; or with paste-pot and hand-bills alone, making a less ambitious round of professional calls upon his patients - the dead-walls. There is one singularity in his profession which is a mystery to us; we allude to the fact, which we daresay the reader has himself observed, that the billsticker invariably pastes over his bills on both sides - that, having stuck them to the wall or the hoarding, he is never content with that, but incontinently gives them a coat of paste on the outer and printed side as well. This, which appears to us a sheer work of supererogation, is perhaps mysteriously connected with some important element in the process, without which it would be incomplete; but we confess we cannot fathom it, and must leave it to future investigators to explain.
    If the billsticker has puzzled us, we have had the satisfaction of seeing him puzzled in his turn, and that more than once. He is usually sagacious enough in his way, and, as much as most men, a dab at his trade, in the prosecution of which anything like hesitation on his part is the last thing to be observed. But we have seen him charged with announcements in Hebrew, addressed to our friends the sons of Israel, and seriously perplexed, while conning the square letters, as to which end of the poster had the most right to stand uppermost on the wall; and we have known him, when the spectators couldn't help him to a conclusion, to solve the problem in a practical way, by placing a couple of copies side by side, one on its head, the other on its feet, in accordance, it may be supposed, with the prudent maxim, that it is better to lose a part than to risk the whole. Some years ago, too, we beheld him struggling on a very windy day in the flapping folds of a monster-sheet, upon which were printed the two words, in letters a foot long each, "WHERE'S  ELIZA?" and nothing more. Who Eliza was he could not inform us, and he shook his shaggy head in a way sufficiently ominous when we asked for the information. It was evidently a poser, as well for him as for us; and it is a remarkable event in the annals of billsticking, that that pertinent inquiry and public interrogation has remained unanswered up to the present moment. We should like to know who Eliza was, in order that we might become more interested in her whereabouts; but after indulging in painful speculations on the subject, we can come to no other conclusion than one which may be nothing more than conjecture after all. It may be - we cannot vouch for it - but it may be that Eliza is the Christian name of some modern Thisbe unhappily lost in the wilderness of this great Babylon, for whose restoration her love-loin and bewildered Pyramus distractedly appeals to London Wall through the medium of the billsticker.
    Seen in a high wind, the London billsticker presents a picturesque appearance: his costume, though in accordance with no recognised fashion, from being rather frayed and fragmentary, exhibits those characteristic points which the artist loves to sketch; and being, when on his rounds, ponderously loaded around the loins with good stowage of damp paper and printers' ink, he may be compared, as he struggles sturdily forwards "in the eye of the blast," along the soaking street, to one of those heavy Dutch bottoms beating down Channel against a head-wind, which we see on a gusty day from the shore of Kent. Sometimes the weather is too much for him, and then, like the good Vrow Vanderdunk, he is obliged to run into the nearest port until the storm has blown over. For mere rain he cares nothing-perhaps rather likes it; it liquidates his paste, and clears the footpath of idlers, who are apt to discommode him in his operations, and who, in fine weather, follow him from hoard to hoard with the laudable desire of reaping the first-fruits which he disseminates from the free of knowledge. He is the centre of attraction to a peculiar do-nothing class, and sometimes is followed at a cautious distance by an eccentric satellite, who seems to derive no end of amusement by supplementing his labours in a singular way. This genius is one of the small boys before alluded to, who, like the sparrows in London streets, are here, there, and everywhere to be met with. He possesses two accomplishments which he is desirous that the whole world should witness and applaud, and he makes our friend of the paste-pot the medium of the glorification which he covets and enjoys. Dogging him to a hoarding or a wall, no sooner has the billsticker posted a broadside within his reach, and vanished round the corner, than up steps Master Tommy Toes, carefully pulls it down while the paste is wet, and sticks it up again wrong end upwards; then, pitching himself suddenly on his hands, and quivering his bare heels aloft in the air, he reads the whole proclamation through in a loud and sonorous voice, for the benefit of all and sundry who may choose to listen. If he gets a copper for the performance, so much the better; if you throw him one, he puts it in his mouth, as the most convenient pocket at hand; but copper or no copper, he jumps head upwards again when his feat is accomplished, and looks round him with an air of triumph, as much as to say: "Let me see you do that, if you can !" It has been suggested to us, that this performance of Master Tommy's is but one of the multitudinous modifications of the puff-system, resorted to by some speculative tradesman, whose agent the boy is, to draw attention to his announcements; but seeing that when the policeman appears, Toes incontinently takes to his heels - that he has no shoes, no hat, no shirt, and but a shred of a jacket, nothing, in short, to boast of but the faculties of standing upon his head and reading large print - we reject the suspicion as groundless, and unworthy of the respectabilities of trade.
    it is not uninteresting to glance at the educational effect of the billsticker' s labours upon the mass of the London population. It is well known that among the very lowest order of society, the number of adults who can read fluently is always much greater on the average of the population in large towns, and in the metropolis especially, than it is in rural hamlets and villages. This is not owing to the difference in early education, but to the difference of association in after-life. The child of the rustic labourer is as well taught- we are inclined to think better taught - than the children of the poor born in great cities. But of the numbers who learn to read, of the purely agricultural class, a very large proportion forget the acquirement before they grow up to be men - that is, they forget it so far as to make reading a difficulty and not a pleasure; and hence it is that the taste for and the habit of reading is so greatly less common with field-labourers than with the corresponding class in towns and cities. Now, it strikes us that the billsticker is in no small degree at the bottom of this difference. His handiwork stares the public in the face, let them turn which way they will; and it is a sheer impossibility for a lad who has once learned the art of reading, to lose it in London, unless he be both wilfully blind and destitute of human curiosity. To thousands and tens of thousands, the placarded walls and hoardings of the city are the only school of instruction open to them, whence they obtain all the knowledge they possess of that section of the world and society which does not lie patent to their personal observation. It is thence they derive their estimate of the different celebrities -in commerce, in literature, and in art, of the time in which they live, and are enabled to become in some measure acquainted with the progress of the age. Perhaps few men, even among the best educated, could be found who would willingly let drop the knowledge they have gained, although without intending it, from this gratuitous source.
    Thus, then, the billsticker is a public benefactor, and, like any man who honestly pursues an honest trade, profits others in profiting himself. But, like all responsible public functionaries, he is open to the shafts of slander - liable to the breath of detraction. There are not wanting men of no mark, fellows never elevated to the paste-pot and peel, who have been heard to demand sarcastically, what proportion the number of posters which he sticks against the wall bears to the number delivered to him from the printer - what is the precise per-centage which satisfies a billsticker's conscience - and what the exact amount of the overplus which be sells for waste paper. Let us hope that these dark and ugly insinuations are but the offspring of mere malevolence and envy, having no real foundation in the practices of the profession. It is true we have known parties so mistrustful on this score, as to turn their own billstickers upon occasion, especially at times when parish politics ran high, and paper - war was mercilessly waged upon the walls; but we cannot conscientiously recommend the system of "every man his own billsticker," inasmuch as we have noticed, times without number, that bills thus unprofessionally stuck are extremely liable to become prematurely overlaid when the legitimate operator comes upon his round. Further, it may chance that an amateur billsticker may get himself into trouble, through ignorance of details with which the regular professional is intimately acquainted. Though the majority of hoardings - if bill-stickable at all - are free to all paste-pots, that is by no means the case with them all. Many which are of long standing are private property, and are let in compartments to the members of the profession, who of course tolerate no trespassers upon their domains, and would inflict the penalties of invasion upon any one caught in the act of violating their privileges. To such irregular aspirants to this honourable profession we commend the admonition, familiar to us on brick-walls and park-enclosures- STICK NO BILLS.

Charles Manby Smith, Curiosities of London Life, 1853

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Bill-posting —The ordinary charge for hoardings is from a penny to twopence per sheet of “double crown” or “ double demy,” but very great judgment is required both in selecting stations and composing the bill itself. One chief point to bear in mind is to have as little in your bill as possible. Another is to have something novel and striking to the eye. All the best stations are in private hands, and must be treated for in detail. Be careful in all cases to have a written agreement. “Fly posting” – ie. Bills placed broadcast on unprotected stations – may be done very cheaply.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

see also George Sala in London Up to Date - click here