Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Streetwise Signage in Victorian England

Street Life in London, published in 1876-77, when photography was still in its infancy. This book of essays and photos is highly regarded as an important work in the history of documentary photography. It consists of a series of short individual articles by the "radical socialist journalist" (as he was often referred), Adolphe Smith and photography by the Scottish photojournalist John Thomson (1837-1921). Smith portrayed the lives of impoverished tradesmen and women, such as flower sellers, street doctors, fishmongers and chimney sweeps, who eked out a living on the streets of London in the second half of the 19th century. Their work was originally published as a monthly series and soon after reissued in book form as Street LifeTheir intention was never artistic, but it was to inform the middle class of the plight of the poor and homeless working class. Thomson's 21 brown-tone photos were reproduced photomechanically by the difficult and now obsolete Woodburytype process which resulted in a strikingly sharp, almost three-dimensional quality with a wide tonal range. When this book was published, it marked the first collection of social documentary photographs anywhere in the world. Moreover, it brought readers some empathy for the tradesmen and women and gave these poor people a small measure of dignity. View the full text of this book here 
"Tickets" as this gentleman was known, made the acquaintance of a Frenchman who possessed considerable skill as a signpainter, and soon they entered into a partnership. "Tickets" would wander about and take note of poor and tattered signage and sales promotions and then press the shop owners to purchase freshly painted versions from his signpainter friend. 

The advertising trade provided a great deal of employment to destitute individuals in London. The men who pasted advertisements or bills were called "bill-stickers" and considered to be less ambitious, but a more respectable lot than the boardmen who were walking billboards. The bill-stickers often worked 12 hour days, pasting advertisements on wall spaces around London. This became a very competitive business in mid-19th century London. As soon as one bill was pasted, a rival bill-sticker would come along and paste another in its place.  
The London Boardmen were regarded as some of the most unfortunate of street people who let themselves out for hire as walking advertisements. Young children and old men who performed this unskilled sandwich-board labor were frequently insulted and abused, which was considered fair play of the day. Their street-walking services were generally contracted out and they would often be paid just 2 shillings per day, and a 25% fee as compensation for the trouble they endured. 
::Gratitude to LSE Library for their Flickr set on the Street Life of London, as well as the actual LSE Digital Library.

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