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The Functions of Inn Signs and their Place in Early Modern British History

Catherine Dent[1], Department of History, University of Warwick



Inn signs, a familiar sight in our towns and cities, have been surprisingly overlooked by historical inquiry. This paper argues that they form more than simple historical curiosities and that they can give us valuable insight into early modern mentalities, geographies and commercial spaces. The paper considers three main areas: firstly, the functions of inn signs and their role in forming the identity of the public house; secondly, how inn signs were moulded by and reflected the complex changes in society, culture and politics and can thus provide us with an insight into how early modern people interacted with the world around them; and finally, inn signs as a form of proto-advertising in the light of the changes in consumption and competition in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From identification and navigation to advertising and politics, inn signs deserve to be given the same prominence in early modern historical inquiry as they were in the early modern world.

Keywords: Inn signs, tavern, drinking culture, consumer revolution, advertising, early modern.



Where no Signe is, 'tis no ill Signe to mee,
Where no Signe is, 'tis no good Signe to see,
But though the Signes are neither good nor bad,
There's Wine, Good, Bad, Indifferent, to be had.
(Taylor, 1876 [1630]: 58)

The first inn signs were not signs at all. The Romans used the bush to denote the sale of wine, a symbol derived from the ivy and vine leaves of Bacchus, the god of Wine (Delderfield, 1965: 11). The proverb 'a good wine needs no bush' (Larwood and Hotten, 1985: 1) suggests that in the case of a particularly good wine its reputation would supersede the need for this primitive form of advertising. But evidently not all establishments were blessed with such memorable tipples, so the Romans brought us the first signs too. The most familiar of these is the Chequers signboard, several examples of which were found in the ruins of Pompeii (Delderfield, 1965: 11); this is generally perceived to be the origin of the signboard as a means to identify those premises where alcohol was available.

From the end of the Middle Ages through the early modern period and beyond, the signboard developed into more than simply a means of differentiation: it was both moulded by and reflected the complex and diverse changes in society, culture and politics. Consequently it can provide us with an insight into the ways early modern people understood and interpreted the world around them, how they navigated and discussed their environment and how they related to a changing society. Inn signs permeated society and became an integral part of language, art, politics and trade, associating with the developments of the early modern world.

This paper will first aim to give an introduction to inn signs, their functions and their origins, as well as their role in forming the identity of public houses themselves and their position in the topography of early modern Britain. Secondly, it will examine how an analysis of inn signs can provide a new insight into the popular trends, allegiances and heroic figures of early modern society. It will finish by suggesting that inn signs can also be seen as a form of proto-advertising in the light of the consumer revolution. The aim of this paper is to demonstrate the importance of this neglected topic and to suggest ways in which it could enrich historical enquiry if it were subject to further investigation.

With regard to sources, this paper has made use of the majority of the available secondary literature which deals specifically with the subject of inn signs, most of which consists of fairly similar and outdated accounts of inn signs and their origins. In addition, it has attempted to branch out into related areas such as shop signs and more general works on the period. Primary sources, which is to say the inn signs themselves, are rare, although some do still exist. Given the restrictions of time and resources, a detailed investigation of surviving inn signs has not been possible; however, the work featured here on the signs of Richard Hopkins Leach should demonstrate further possibilities. This paper focuses on analysis of contemporary accounts of signboards, such as those by John Taylor. Again, more time would allow further research into accounts such as these, and I would suggest travel literature as a potential area for further investigation. This paper is not meant to be a definitive account of the subject of inn signs; instead its aim is to demonstrate that this is an area of historical inquiry which requires more attention and which could provide new insights into early modern life.


'At the Sign of': the Formation of Identity

The original purpose of any type of sign placed outside a tavern, alehouse or inn was to distinguish it as an establishment which sold alcohol. The most primitive symbols, besides the bush, were the alestake, hop pole or simply foliage. A distinction can be made here between the shop sign and the inn sign: the former only needed to have meaning within the local community; the latter needed to be recognisable to outsiders. This was significant enough to have been recognised by law. By an Act of Parliament in 1430-1 it was decreed that 'Whoever shall brew ale in the town of Cambridge with intention of selling it, must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale' (Larwood and Hotten, 1985: 8). Identification was necessary for the public house to pursue its trade, and consequently the establishment and its sign were closely linked. This reliance allowed the removal of a sign to be used as a sanction by the state: if a publican's licence was revoked, it was accompanied by the pulling down of the sign (Larwood and Hotten, 1985: 8). As James Brown notes, 'they were a core constituent of commercial viability' (Brown, 2007: 48), without its sign, the public house would not be able to appeal to its customers, and would not be able to survive. This function of the sign as an early form of advertising will be considered in more detail later.

During the early modern period, widespread illiteracy gave prime importance to symbols and pictures as a means of conveying information; consequently, iconography was key to a successful inn sign. Before rising populations and consumption increased competition, displaying an object of the trade was enough to denote the services offered. An ale house or tavern would display a tankard or a bunch of grapes, a cutler would hang a knife above the door, a tailor, a pair of scissors (Larwood and Hotten, 1985: 3). As Louise and Raymond Ballinger suggest, 'the beholder translates the object into a message that has instant and direct appeal' (Ballinger and Ballinger, 1972: 25). This technique is still in use today, as can be seen in the modern examples shown in figures 1 and 2. As towns and villages grew, so did the numbers of inns and alehouses. The identification of such establishments then became about individuality; the sign no longer merely had to convey information but to set the establishment apart from its rivals and enable it to be discussed and recommended to others. Some began to use rebus to translate the owner's name into pictorial form; a hare and bottle stood for Harebottle, and two cocks for Cox (Larwood and Hotten, 1985: 3).

Figure 1: Sign of the Cambridge Chop House, Cambridge. Photograph by the author. Figure 2: Sign of Little Bettys Café, York. Photograph by the author.
Figure 1: Sign of the Cambridge Chop House, Cambridge. Photograph by the author. Figure 2: Sign of Little Bettys Café, York. Photograph by the author.

Heraldic symbols also evolved as a form of identification for public houses. This tradition originated in the display of coats of arms in noble houses, which were often used as hostelries for travellers (Larwood and Hotten, 1985: 3). Those passing through would pick the most conspicuous figure on the arms and use it to identify the establishment. Innkeepers seized on this custom, often choosing from the arms of their own patrons to boast their close association. Many of these still exist today, even if the symbolism has been lost: the owner of the 'Red Lion' would have been an adherent of John of Gaunt, while a 'Bear' denoted allegiance to the Earls of Warwick (Delderfield, 1965: 23). In this largely illiterate society the symbol or picture displayed created the name. Today many pub signs display an illustration of their name, but in the early modern era the picture dictated how the public house was identified. Hence the use of the phrase 'at the sign of': the inn referred to was not the 'Green Dragon', but 'at the sign of the Green Dragon'. The establishment was not proclaiming the 'Green Dragon' as its name; it was displaying a sign as a means of distinguishing itself, which, consequently, became a significant part of its identity and enabled it to play an extensive role in early modern urban geography.

However, the reliance on pictorial forms meant that the identity formed from the sign was not always what was intended. The Leg and Star, for example, was probably originally the insignia of the Order of the Garter, but passers-by, not recognising the symbols, simply called it as they saw it, a leg and a star (Larwood and Hotten, 1985: 11). Even when signs began to be inscribed, spelling mistakes or mispronunciation could be enough to change the identity of an establishment. After the capture of the town of Boulogne by Henry VIII in 1544 the Boulogne Mouth, referring to the harbour of the French city, became a popular sign. However the difficulties with the French pronunciation meant it was commonly known as the Bull and Mouth (Delderfield, 1965: 96). Some public houses became identified locally as something completely separate from what was shown on their signboards: one such example is the Royal Oak in Westbury-on-Trym, which was widely known as the Mouse because the original house was 'down a hole' (Larwood and Hotten, 1985: 30). In cases like this the signboard had less significance in the formation of the establishment's local identity; it would, however, still have dictated how it was recognised by outsiders. As David Garrioch writes, an understanding of local signboards 'marked off those who belonged from those who did not' (Garrioch, 1994: 96). Although the meaning formed by the signboard may not have always been what was intended, in most cases it formed the way in which the public house was understood by locals and strangers alike.

The identity derived from the signboard provided a crucial function in language and topography. It formed the way people understood the space of the early modern public house as well as the world around them. As Brown observes, the signboard helped to render 'public houses "legible" within street corner geographies and assumed a large role in the geographical imagination and languages of contemporaries' (Brown, 2008: 43). For people in the locality the signboard provided a way to refer to the public house in conversation. Brown uses the example of the interrogation of suspected vagrants: 'in 1584 an itinerant shoemaker lodged in Portsmouth with a tailor "who had at his door the sign of The Swan"' (Brown, 2008: 46). For outsiders it enabled the inn to be known more widely by word of mouth.

Signs did not simply function as identification for public houses, they also provided a way for the population to understand and describe their physical environment. In a place without street signs and numbers, signboards were crucial landmarks by which the early modern town or city could be navigated. They were part of what Gould and White refer to as 'mental maps' (Gould and White, 1986). Garrioch demonstrates this in the description given by witnesses of a fight between the Paris watch and some musketeers in 1752. 'Scuffling had broken out in front of "Le Tambour Royal" (the Royal Drum) and had moved along the street past "la Boule Blanche" (the White Ball)' (Garrioch, 1994: 36). Signboards were also used to identify addresses, as John Taylor's address on the cover page of his work 'The Certain Travailes' from 1653 demonstrates.

By John Taylor, at the Signe of the Poet's Head, in Phoenix Alley, near the Globe Tavern, in the middle of Long-Acre, nigh the Covent Garden (Taylor, 1999 [1653]: 279).

This navigational function was particularly important for those who did not know the area. Travellers were also highly likely to be aware of inn signs when looking for somewhere to stay, as John Gay described in his Trivia: Or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London in 1730.

If drawn by Bus'ness to a street unknown,
Let the sworn Porter point thee through the town;
Be sure observe the Signs, for Signs remain
Like faithful Landmarks to the walking Train.
(Gay, 1730: 22)

Signboards were a significant and useful presence in the early modern urban landscape. By forming the identification of the drinking establishments they also helped to identify the town's inhabitants within their own environment. This could be vital to our own understanding of how people in the early modern era interpreted their surroundings.


Signs of the Times

The identity of a public house was by no means static. The same sign could not be kept indefinitely because, exposed to the elements, it required regular replacement. Although some establishments kept a variation on the same signboard, and therefore the same identity, for hundreds of years, many progressed through different incarnations. Often these changes of sign were a reaction to changes and upheavals in society and politics; this can provide us with an insight into the reaction of early modern society to some of the major developments of the period. Fritz Endell felt that signboards could be seen as 'a little history of civilisation in pictures' (Endell, 1916: 190). More recently, Garrioch has noted that shop signs can 'provide rare access to the tastes, culture and mental world of early modern city dwellers' (Garrioch, 1994: 27). In the majority of cases publicans would choose a sign that would be familiar and recognisable to their patrons. It would be unwise to change a successful sign, unless they felt the replacement would be well recognised and understood, perhaps encouraging new custom.

In the Middle Ages religious signs, such as the Star, Angel or the Crossed Keys were popular; hostels made available by the religious Houses and Orders to accommodate pilgrims also functioned as primitive inns. When inns themselves developed, innkeepers chose to keep their religious associations to encourage pilgrims and to reflect the central role of religion in early modern life. As Endell writes, 'these religious signs had their origin in a time when the popular imagination was mainly filled with the happenings of the Bible and the lives of the saints' (Endell, 1916: 70). However, with the coming of the Reformation in the sixteenth century many of the signs disappeared, or were adapted to hide their religious connotations. The St Catherine and Wheel, for example, became the Cat and Wheel. Further mutations of this sign include the Cat and Fiddle, and probably the Cat i' th' Well, a modern example of which is shown in Figure 3 (Larwood and Hotten, 1985: 9). Sometimes these changes were made forcibly: during the English Civil War in 1643 the landlord of the Golden Cross in the Strand was made to take down his 'superstitious and idolatrous' sign (Endell, 1916: 205). However from the evidence available it seems that most changes of sign were made voluntarily. This demonstrates that landlords understood the importance of displaying a sign that would recognise the way the world around them was changing and that their patrons responded to this sense of being up-to-date. It was also probably wise not to display the wrong sign, witness the decline of monarchist symbols during the French Revolution. As Endell notes, 'those were bad days for kings, even painted ones' (Endell, 1916: 194).

Figure 3: Sign of the Cat i' th' Well, near Halifax. Photograph by the author.

Figure 3: Sign of the Cat i' th' Well, near Halifax. Photograph by the author.

Some publicans chose to use their signboards as a way of showing their support or their opposition to the politics of the day. The changing nature of such opinion can be seen in the popularity of the King's Head after Charles I's execution in 1649 and Cromwell's Head after the Restoration. It was most common for signs to reflect the prevailing public opinion of the time, because most publicans wanted to encourage new patrons, not to alienate them. Some, however, put their political principles first. John Taylor, the Water Poet, is an interesting figure because as a poet, publican, and royalist, his work can provide a vital insight into the link between politics and the signboard. His accounts of his many travels are full of references to the inns he visited and he pays an unusual degree of attention to the signs themselves. In 1636 he even wrote a pamphlet dedicated to them; in Taylor's Travels, through more than thirtie times twelve Signes of 1636, he provides a catalogue of all the signs he encountered.

So I, in imitation of the Sunne, have in one Moneth progress'd through London, Westminster, with the Suburbs, and the Burrough Southwarke; not as the Sunne doth through twelve, but neere thirtie times twelve Signes (Taylor, 1876 [1636]: 5-6).

Each different sign is provided with an epigram. Some are amusing, like his tribute to the sign of the Mermayd, which he encountered ten times, 'Shee's neither Fish, or Flesh, nor good Red-hearing' (Taylor, 1876 [1636]: 43). Some, however, had distinctly political undertones, such as his verse to the sign of the King's Head, which he found to be the most common sign.

These Painted Signes unto my view doth bring
The Royall figure of a Mighty King
The fight whereof, should men to Temp'ance win,
To come as sober out as they went in.
(Taylor, 1876 [1636]: 36-37)

This early indication of his feelings towards the Puritan movement was the forerunner of his later and increasingly propagandistic work for the Royalists during the Civil War. The outcome of this development can be witnessed in his reaction to a similar sign, the King's Arms in 1653, four years after the death of Charles I.

There at a sign, and no sign but a frame,
Twas the King's arms, but shattering shot and flame
Did beat them down, as useless, of small stead,
For arms are no use without a head.
(Taylor, 1999 [1653]: 286-287

What distinguishes Taylor is that he was a publican himself. He chose to associate the identity of his alehouse, the Crown, with his own political allegiances, renaming it the Mourning Crown after the King's death. When this was deemed subversive by the Parliamentarian authorities, he replaced the sign again with a picture of his own head, thus the alehouse became known as the Poet's Head (Capp, 1994: 34). Taylor is an extremely useful figure in the study of seventeenth-century English signs, not only because his works are a vital source of information on the numbers and types of signs in London in particular, but because he was aware of the significance of the signboard as a political tool. He used his own sign to profess his political opinion, and saw that others did too; he understood that the signboard could be a reflection of popular opinion in early modern society. It is possible that a study of the popularity of certain signs during such periods of upheaval could provide an indicator of the swings of allegiance over time.

It was not only kings and queens whose popularity could be gauged by the signboard; well known personalities were often given pride of place outside a public house. It might even be said that having your head on a signboard was the early modern equivalent of being on the cover of OK magazine. National heroes such as Sir Francis Drake, more local celebrities like George Steadman the Grasmere Wrestler, and even international figures such as William Tell all graced signboards (Delderfield, 1965: 88). However, popularity was a fickle thing, and someone's tenure on a signboard was not always a long one, as Horace Walpole noted:

I observed how the Duke's Head had succeeded almost universally to Admiral Vernon's , as his had left but few traces of the Duke of Ormond's. I pondered these things in my breast, and said to myself 'Surely all glory is but as a sign!' (Walpole, 1857, vol. 1: 1359).

The practice was particularly commonplace in England but also took place on the continent: Dutch sign-painters commemorated 'celebrities' such as Erasmus, Rembrandt and the Princes of Orange (Endell, 1916: 206). Such signs can provide an indication of how such well-known figures were perceived, and indeed how perceptions changed with time. We can gain a sense of how quickly the early modern people would move from one hero to the next if we consider that often it was not even necessary to change the figure on the sign. By merely altering the label or costume the identity of the public house would change to reflect public admiration of someone else. Early modern popular personalities could fall from their privileged position as quickly as they rose.


Competition and Advertising

The central function of the sign was to attract attention to the availability, and encourage the purchase, of alcohol at a public house. Signs moved away from simplistic means of identification and developed more elaborate symbolism because of a rise in commercial competition. Without this competition it would not have been necessary for signs to move beyond simplistic incarnations into an early form of advertising. The inn sign can be seen to have developed in response the commercial and technological changes of the early modern period and can provide an intriguing and new viewpoint on the consumer revolution.

Improvements in coach travel led to networks of coaching inns all over Europe, each catering for increasingly numerous and varied clienteles. Until the seventeenth century travel had been an uncomfortable and expensive experience, but by the beginning of the seventeenth century wheeled conveyances had begun to travel regularly between London and the principal cities, and public coaches were seen outside of the cities by the 1640s (Delderfield, 1965: 35). It was, however, the development of the stagecoach in the eighteenth century which brought the heyday of the inn and a massive increase in competition. Inns were a vital part of this system, providing food and accommodation for the travellers and stabling for horses at popular stopping points as well as in the larger cities. This dramatic increase in travel, particularly around England, but also across Europe, greatly increased the number of public houses, not just along the routes, but also in the main cities, which were attracting more and more visitors. For publicans and innkeepers their signs were now a way of setting them apart from the crowd and providing their establishment with a unique identity which would be recognisable, attractive and memorable.

It was not just for strangers that these large numbers of public houses were catering. The consumer revolution is a much-debated term, but it is almost certain that in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries there was a distinct expansion in consumption and trade by all levels of society. As Peter Musgrave observes, 'more and more families brought goods which were not purely the necessities of survival' (Musgrave, 1999: 61). More goods were produced and traded, new industries developed and old ones expanded. New forms of leisure grew to reflect this; people had more free time, and as they were producing for the market or being paid in cash rather than kind, they had more money to spend (Musgrave, 1999: 67). This form of consumption was not about necessity but fashion and innovation (Berg, 2004: 384), something that needed to be reflected by drinking establishments and their signs developing to meet this new demand. It was necessary for inns to stand out as attractive spaces to drink and socialise; the sign no longer denoted the availability of alcohol but advertised the establishment as bigger and better than those around it.

The idea of inn signs as an early form of advertising is a subject that has not been studied in depth by historians; however, it is possible to draw parallels with the work of Maxine Berg and Helen Clifford on trade cards. Trade cards were the earliest form of widely circulated advertising combining image and printed text: they were handed out to customers to reinforce business image and the reputation of individual shops (Berg and Clifford, 2007: 146-49). Berg notes the assumptions of some historians when dealing with this topic: 'they assume eighteenth-century advertising to be functional, about giving the customer information on the product; its banality, they argue, ultimately gave way to modern advertising with its use of images and entry into modern visual culture' (Berg and Clifford, 2007: 154). Berg argues that trade cards. demonstrated that this early commercial advertising was not about information, but entertainment: 'they create a favourable association between sexual allure and the products advertised' (Berg and Clifford, 2007: 155). I think it is possible to see similar concepts in the inn sign. It might provide evidence for the importance of advertising even earlier in the period, especially as it is clear that the inn sign and the shop sign were the forerunner of the trade card, as Berg acknowledges: 'the designs of the earliest cards were believed to have derived from the shop sign' (Berg and Clifford, 2007: 151). Berg is quick to dismiss the importance of shop signs, claiming they had largely disappeared by the 1760s (Berg and Clifford, 2007: 151). It is true that by that time there was legislation appearing all over Europe to replace signs with street numbers, but many survived well into the nineteenth century (Garrioch, 1994: 38). This is also an argument for the specificity of inn signs, because while shop signs went into decline, many inn signs survived, as Garrioch recognises: 'signs and names were an indispensable part of their commercial identity' (Garrioch, 1994: 46).

Studying signs in this context is difficult, particularly because they were a form of illiterate or semi-literate advertising and often lacked text. This lack of text means that, unlike trade cards, their advertisement functions cannot be established by historians by the analysis of language. This does, however, place more importance on their iconography, and its appeal to different levels of society. While trade cards, with their reliance on text, may have been aimed mostly at the higher levels of early modern society, inn signs were appealing equally to the popular classes. David Roche writes that 'to the elite a sign was a mutilator of language and colour, but to the popular classes it was a spectacular and simple stimulant with an inexhaustible potential for dreams and creativity' (Roche, 1987: 226). Inn signs as a form of advertising could in this sense demonstrate a rise in consumer culture throughout all levels of early modern society.

It is useful here to consider a surviving inn sign, both as an example of their advertising functions and to demonstrate that studying the original signs, although not easy, remains possible. Richard Hopkins Leach[2] (1794-1851) was an artist and prolific painter of inn signs in early nineteenth-century Cambridge. Although he was working later than the period considered here, he is important because the ideas he uses to attract attention to his signs were not new ones; he used advertising techniques whose origins can be traced right back through the early modern period. His success as a sign painter at this time also demonstrates that there was still a great demand for signboards in a period in which it has been claimed they were declining. Four of Leach's signs have been preserved in the Cambridge and County Folk Museum. The sign of the Old Castle shows a romantic turreted castle by the sea, with a British officer in the foreground approaching the castle gateway. This castle does not bear much resemblance to the castle that had stood on Castle Mound in Cambridge, or even its gatehouse gaol which was finally demolished in 1842; instead Leach chose to depict a romantic portside castle, but one which crucially features the familiarity of Cambridge college architecture (Hopkin, No date: 7) hereby creating an eye-catching, almost aspirational idea. This combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar creates a sign which is both artistic and attention grabbing: he has not just painted any old castle, but one which would appeal to the local people and entice them inside. Leach's obituary demonstrates how successful he had been at creating signs that effectively advertised the public house they stood above:

Evidence of the talent of Mr Leach in his profession may be seen outside almost every hostelrie in Cambridge and its vicinity; and the excellence displayed in the design and execution of many of these signs often attracted the attention of strangers (Anon, 1851: 4).

Leach was one of many sign artists of his time, and earlier, who knew that their task was not just to identify an establishment but to proclaim its presence to the locals and strangers alike.

Another common method of attracting custom was to use the signboard and its inscription to identify the public house with a certain group or profession, as is demonstrated in the humorous Roxburgh Ballads:

The Clergie will dine at the Miter,
The Vintners at the Three Tunnes,
The Usurers to the Devill will goe,
And the Fryers to the Nunnes.
(Anon, 1630)

A variation on this was to use the name of a town to attract guests from a particular area. For example, seventeenth-century Paris featured a Ville de Hambourg, catering for Germans, and John Taylor describes several establishments in London which were 'inhabited onely by Dutchmen' (Bates, 1987: 251; Taylor, 1876 [1636]: 61). Aiming your advertising at a target audience is obviously not a modern phenomenon. Publicans were also willing to spend large amounts of money on the signboard itself: Brown notes that the free-standing sign of The George was estimated at thirty shillings in an inventory of 1615 (Brown, 2008: 45). It was often the case that due to a shortage of talented artists landlords were forced to increase the size and extravagance of their sign rather than the quality. This regularly involved projecting signs further and further out into the street, some, known as 'gallows' signs, even spanned the road, like the sign of the Ye Olde Starre Inne which can still be seen in York today (figure 4). This became so popular as a way to outdo one's neighbour that the signs began to restrict passage through the streets and became dangerous. In 1718 a sign in Fleet Street was so heavy that it dragged down the front of a house and killed two people (Delderfield, 1965: 15). Various attempts were made to regulate such signboards throughout the period; Charles II decreed that all signboards should be fixed to houses rather than hanging across the street (Delderfield, 1965: 15). But the repeated lack of success of such regulation suggests that commercial competition came before the law. There were some establishments less keen to advertise their presence, particularly those without a license, but in the majority of cases advertising was a crucial and inescapable part of the early modern public house.

Figure 4: The sign of the Ye Olde Starre Inne, York, from 1792. Photograph by the author.

Figure 4: The sign of the Ye Olde Starre Inne, York, from 1792. Photograph by the author.



The study of the inn sign needs to be rescued from its current position as the preserve of amateurs; there is far more to its history than appealing stories. This is not to suggest that there are not extremely intriguing and sometimes baffling inspirations behind many signs, but the inn sign has far more historical significance than such interpretations allow. This subject could well provide a new way of understanding certain elements of early modern society: it can show us how the inhabitants of towns and villages interacted and identified with their local drinking establishments, and how the signboard was used in their language and indeed their geography. The sign was not just significant in terms of the public house to which it was attached, but was also crucial to the ways in which people understood and navigated their physical environment, allowing us a window into the mental universe of the early modern population. Similarly, the study of signs can provide an insight into how the populace interacted with wider political and social change. Changes of sign reflected a changing world; by looking at the signs of drinking establishments we can gain some perception of the viewpoints of their patrons, the majority of which would normally be lost to history. From a wider historical perspective we could see inn signs as a fresh angle on the role of advertising in the consumer revolution. After all, the purpose of a sign, above all its other functions, was to encourage people inside. Advertising is far from a modern phenomenon and inn signs are an important part of its early incarnations that should no longer be overlooked.

Inn signs never lost their place in European, and particularly British, consciousness. They need to be considered separately from shop signs because although they are similar, inn signs have more historical longevity. Public houses were the first buildings to have signs and when the introduction of street numbering all but wiped out the shop sign, they remained. A pamphlet from 1876 demonstrates that, well into the Victorian era, inn signs still held a place in the British consciousness. The author of 'The Blot on the Queen's Head' uses a change of inn sign to satirise the Royal Titles Act. The inn sign in this case becomes a metaphor for the queen herself:

It had been painted many a long year ago, and many able artists had had a hand in it. Storms had burst over it, winds had rattled and shaken it, fiery suns and freezing winters had worked their worst upon it. Yet its glorious and wondrous colours remained fresh (Jenkins, 1876: 14)

The inn sign is no longer a historical curiosity. Perhaps now it can help us navigate our way through the world of early modern European history as it helped so many find their way through the streets and the politics of the time.




With thanks to Professor Beat Kumin of the Department of History at the University of Warwick, the Cambridge University Library and the Cambridge and County Folk Museum.


List of Illustrations

Figure 1: Sign of the Cambridge Chop House, Cambridge. Photograph from the author's own collection.

Figure 2: Sign of Little Bettys Café, York. Photograph from the author's own collection.

Figure 3: Sign of the Cat i' th' Well, near Halifax. Photograph from the author's own collection.

Figure 4: The sign of the Ye Olde Starre Inne, York, from 1792. Photograph from the author's own collection.



[1] Catherine graduated from the University of Warwick in July 2010 with a degree in History. She is currently a Temporary Museum Assistant at the Imperial War Musuem in Duxford and is hoping to continue her studies in the near future.

[2] Very little has been written about Leach. The Cambridge and County Folk Museum offer a small pamphlet on his life and work, and he is also mentioned by T. D. Atikinson in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society in 1911 (both works referenced below). He is certainly a man worthy of further historical investigation.



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Anon (1851), 'Sudden Death', Cambridge Chronicle, 6 September 1851, p. 5

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