- Street Signs
- This method of indicating houses is one that was adopted by the Romans and has come down to us from them.For many centuries in London and elsewhere it was the custom for houses of all kinds to be distinguished by signs erected over the door and projecting into the streets, so as to catch the eye of the passer-by. At a time when street names were only partially in use, and when many of the smaller lanes and passages were still unnamed, rendering modern methods of identification impossible, it was necessary that houses should have some distinguishing mark or sign by which they could be identified and which would serve to indicate them to intending visitors or friends. In the earliest grants of property in London the situation of the tenements to be demised or conveyed is indicated with reference to some neighbouring highway or by the names of the owners of adjoining properties, and when much of the land was still unoccupied no other method of identification could well be adopted. But in later times, when the number of buildings had materially increased and the adjoining properties were usually houses, these are generally referred to by the names of the signs attached to them, the name of the occupier being sometimes added as well to assist identification. This being so, the number and variety of the signs employed can excite no surprise, and the closer study given to them only serves to make them of more general interest. They would seem originally to have been adopted by the merchants and traders, at a time when shop fronts were less extensive than they are in the present day, to indicate the nature of the trade carried on, and were probably of the simplest description.Noblemen, ecclesiastics and others not engaged in trade, would naturally adopt as a sign their own arms or crest or perhaps some badge forming part of the arms.Thus in course of time the sign displayed might serve to indicate the ownership of property, and some of the houses belonging to the great Livery Companies were frequently distinguished by their respective arms.As the houses increased, the signs multiplied in number and in elaboration of design, and possibly the later ones would have a less definite origin and meaning than the earlier ones possessed. The method of indicating the signs lent itself to infinite variety of design and execution, but they were for the most part at least in later times painted on boards as at the present day, as shown in early views of London streets, as, for instance, in Cheapside on the occasion of the entrance of Mary of Medici into the City, temp. Chas. I. One favourite method in use was to carve the sign and hang it within a hoop, and this method gave rise to an infinite variety of signs described as"...on the Hoop."These street signs are responsible for a very large number of the street names of London, and are especially interesting in this connection.The signs continued in general use until the 18th century, but their increasing number and the practice of making them project further and further over the footway so as to render them the more conspicuous, made them a source of real danger to the pedestrians, in case of their being blown down by the wind or falling down from decay or other cause, and in temp. Chas. II. it was ordained that the signboards should no longer be hung over the streets but should be fixed on to the front of the houses.After the Great Fire of 1666 many of the signs were carved in stone and let into the houses in place of projecting and swinging signboards.The use of the street signs was eventually superseded by the adoption of the practice of numbering houses in the 18th century, and the signs are only used now by inn-keepers and for public-houses
A Dictionary of London. Henry A Harben. 1918.