Thursday 26 August 2010

How We Advertise Now

Advertsing was everywhere in Victorian London - from hoardings, to giant signs around the city, inside and outside buses, to covering the front of newspapers. Check out this giant lettering on Ludgate Hill:

It was a boom industry in the 1880s and some saw it as a pernicious influence. George Gissing's In the Year of Jubilee (1894) - a marvellous novel, by the way - tackles it in typically pessimistic fashion:-

"Sitting opposite to Samuel, she avoided his persistent glances by reading the rows of advertisements above his head. Somebody's 'Blue;' somebody's 'Soap;' somebody's 'High-class Jams;' and behold, inserted between the Soap and the Jam--'God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoso believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.' Nancy perused the passage without perception of incongruity, without emotion of any kind. Her religion had long since fallen to pieces, and universal defilement of Scriptural phrase by the associations of the market-place had in this respect blunted her sensibilities."

My favourite Victorian advert is this one from 1879 or thereabouts:
Apart from the fact that the Victorians had 'washing-machines', it's the endorsements - always a feature of serious Victorian adverts - that amaze and astonish.

'In a few hours yesterday, two boys worked off the washing of the whole institution, containing nearly two hundred inmates.'

In other words, Buy the Bradford Washing-Machine - as tested by orphans!


'My servants wash more clothes and much better in one day with your Machine than they used to do in three days without it.'

That one line tells you more about Victorian domestic life than many a book.

Newspaper adverts often filled columns with similar appeals to the casual reader. I was thinking about adverts today because I came across this in Punch from 1881, entitled 'How We Advertise Now' ... a parody of the form, but quite accurate:

Possibly it's not that funny today - how many people are familiar with Victorian small ads, after all? - but I like some of the sheer silliness here, a vein in English humour which still persists to the modern day ...

'ESSENCE OF JINGOE. - Is the remedy for Archbishops.
ESSENCE OF JINGOE. - Is a of great assistance to Amateur Actors.
ESSENCE OF JINGOE. - Is a necessity for Acrobats.'

"I have been a martyr to Nervous Irritability for upwards of seventeen years. The slightest contradiction at dinner caused me to throw a soup-plate at the head of anybody I could see. I have got through whole services, and was nearly ruining myself when I sent for a double-sized quantity of your ESSENCE, and gave the whole of it in a cup of coffee to my mother-in-law. The effect was marvellous. We buried her last Tuesday, and I am an altered man. I find myself singing without knowing why. You are at liberty to make what use you like of this, witholding my real name for fear of the Police. - X. The Swallows, Herts."
Les Dawson would have been proud.*

(*Younger viewers should refer to Wikipedia and Youtube for that - thoroughly Victorian - comedian of the 1970s and 80s. Sample joke, although not great without his delivery, "I can always tell when the mother in law's coming to stay; the mice throw themselves on the traps.")


  1. Lee. this is brilliant stuff!

    I have also noticed, in US papers of this time, a similar sort of weird "concrete poetry" in which lines or catchphrases are repeated over and over again for typographical effect -- a modest example is on my site here.

  2. Interesting example - perhaps they paid by the inch and had to fill the space? Interesting to note that the importation of 'native tribes' for the amusement/instruction of the public (viz. Chinese exhibitions, Zulu princesses, Japanese village et al. in London) was not limited to our great metropolis.