Booze, Boarding and Brothels: Signs of the Renaissance

by , April 22nd



Booze, Boarding and Brothels
The Renaissance brought the world da Vinci, Michelangelo, Machiavelli… and signage. In England and France, while cathedrals stretched toward the sky and great works of art were being created, kings began to regulate signage; not on behalf of the people, but on behalf of the royal coffers.

King Richard II’s Great Interest in Signage

Who would think that an English king would have any interest in signage? Most really couldn’t care less. And Richard II wouldn’t have bothered… except that he was broke.

Peasants Revolt

Peasants Revolt

The 1380s hadn’t been a great decade for poor Richard. It got off to a poor start with the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381; leaders killed the Archbishop of Canterbury, sacked a palace and eventually required execution. In 1382, a large earthquake struck Canterbury, knocking down churches which required expensive rebuilding. The Hundred Years’ War raged on and on, during which Richard invaded Scotland (which didn’t exactly go according to plan).  He ended up finding himself vulnerable to a coup by the nobility, his entire court was found guilty of treason and executed.

Finally, in 1389, things were starting to look up. Richard regained control of the throne and signed a truce with France, which put the Hundred Years’ War on hold for awhile. But Richard had a problem: he was out of money.

When you’re running low on cash, any monarch worth his salt can tell you that the thing to do is tax the people. The remaining citizens of London—those who hadn’t been executed during the Peasants’ Revolt, killed on a battlefield in France or Scotland or found guilty of treason— were spending a lot of time at the alehouses, drowning their sorrows in one of the only safe beverages to drink. So, ale seemed like a pretty good item to tax.

King Richard II

King Richard II

Richard hired himself a few new tax collectors and sent them out into the streets of London and the surrounding villages to bring in some cash. But the collectors couldn’t find the alehouses. They didn’t exactly have to advertise—locals were well aware of the locations of alehouses, and once the tax was put into effect, no one was eager to point out the establishments to the friendly neighborhood tax collector. So the collectors returned to Richard empty-handed, whereupon he got this brilliant idea—he legislated signage and proclaimed:

“Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale.”

He sent the tax collectors back out, and they started bringing in the revenue and reporting the lawbreakers. In 1493, a brewer in Chelsea was brought before Richard II and fined for, “not putting up the usual sign.”

Alehouse Signs

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks

In the 14th century, common folk weren’t literate. Since they couldn’t read, there was no real need for words on signage. Instead, an alehouse adopted a coat of arms, or spelled out its name using a picture. For instance, The Lion’s Head Alehouse might have a… lion’s head. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, the oldest pub in England, has a sign featuring… fighting cocks. Some alehouses skipped traditional signage all together and installed a pole on the tavern, wrapped with ivy leaves.

The signs and poles of the 1400s were pretty low-quality and everyone’s sign looked similar, so it became a competition amongst tavern owners to place the largest, longest pole over the street. This was dangerous to passersby, who might get hit in the head when a huge pole sign fell on them. In 1419, John Carpenter wrote the first comprehensive book of English Common Law, called the Liber Albus. Many restrictions were placed on alehouses, inns and other businesses, but the size of alehouse poles was legislated specifically:

John Carpenter, holding his Libus Albus

John Carpenter, holding his Libus Albus

“Whereas the ale-stakes projecting in front of taverns and elsewhere, extend too far over the King’s highways, to the impeding of riders and others, and by reason of their excessive weight, to the great deterioration of the houses in which they are fixed…upon summons of all the taverns of the said city, it was enjoined upon them, under pain of paying forty pence unto the Chamber of the Guildhall… that no one of them in future should have a stake, bearing either his sign, or leaves, extending or lying over the highway, of greater length than seven feet at most.”

Henry VIII and the Houses of Ill Repute

King Henry VIII

King Henry VIII

When he wasn’t busy fighting with the Pope or having his wives beheaded, Henry was occasionally concerned with driving prostitution out of London, depending on how religious he was feeling. In 1535, just two years after his marriage to Anne Boleyn, Henry decided that the brothels should all be closed. The closures lasted only a year, and when the brothels opened back up, Henry hardly noticed (he was busy beheading Anne by May of 1536).

Henry closed the brothels again in 1546, which spurred an epidemic of syphilis and general dissatisfaction amongst Londoners who patronized the businesses. Henry was notoriously fickle in regards to legislation and the prosecution of crime—it all depended on how he was feeling during any one particular year.

Savvy brothel owners quickly learned to hide their businesses by calling them “Inns” or “Taverns.” They found ways to identify their trade with their signage and by whitewashing their storefronts. In this way, they could avoid Henry’s erratic temper and still announce themselves to patrons.

Thriving Business Brings Signage… and Taxes

King Charles I

King Charles I

Over the next 100 years, commerce thrived in London. The city was large enough that consumers had lots of choices for their ale, sleeping accommodations… and female company. All three industries were targeted by kings (and the Church) for taxation, so requiring those businesses to advertise with signage was good practice. Charles I, in a brilliant PR move, “granted” citizens the “right” to have signage in 1625:

“It may and shall be lawful…to expose and hang in and over the streets, and ways, and alleys…signs, and posts of signs, affixed to their houses and shops, for the better finding out such citizens’ dwellings, shops arts, or occupations, without impediment, molestation, or interruption of his heirs or successors.”

Since word of mouth wasn’t as effective in thriving London, signage helped consumers identify businesses, while at the same time helping tax collectors identify those industries that were heavily taxed and regulated.

Signage in the Renaissance

Signage, much like philosophy, architecture and art, thrived and evolved during the Renaissance. Sign painting became a career, especially in larger cities, and businesses began branding their shops with logos and pictorials that announced their names.

Business owners benefitted by the new method of branding via signs (and were also able to hide some of their sketchier, often illegal “services”). Kings readily collected taxes and monitored regulations once signs were installed above shopkeepers’ doors.

The Renaissance was a time of rebirth, knowledge, art and science. And, signage.

 

 

signs

signs

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