Sunday 3 April 2011

Shopping Saturday - between boards

I came across an interesting little article while browsing through a magazine called 'The Leisure Hour', dated 1887. That's the kind of thing I do in my spare time.

It describes a largely forgotten aspect of the retail trade, the way that some shops promoted their wares. The writer describes a scene at 5:30 in the afternoon near Piccadilly Circus.

Two hundred [men] with boards and bills of various colours, are in front of me. They march down into a yard, fall into double lines like a regiment of soldiers, and take off their boards. Every man stands with his board in front of him. a man comes and inspects them when all are in, and soon the process of paying begins.

It is clear from the illustration that these men were a sorry lot. Many were former soldiers who did this work because it was better than not working at all. They were lucky to have been picked at all, since as many were rejected each morning as selected. The best dressed men had the best chance of being picked, and could earn the princely sum of 1s 2d for a day's work walking the streets. They could earn a little more, 1s 6d, if they were prepared to be 'dressed up and made into guys'. For the extra 4d a day they would endure the looks and remarks, and run the risk of being recognized by someone they knew. From 9 till 5, with and hour for lunch they were required to be on on display. If they were caught skulking, they might get no work for several days. These men were recruited and paid by agents, who seemed to make a tidy profit; the men were paid 1s 2d for a day's work, but the cost to the retailer was 2s.

This is a little-known aspect of retail history, and not a very happy one. For the men who did this often degrading work it was not just a low-paid job with a high embarrassment factor. If it was known that you had once 'carried the boards', it could harm your prospects of getting a respectable job in future. The sandwich-board men are often portrayed as figures of fun in cartoons, but I am not sure I will look at them in the same way again. So spare a thought the next time you see someone on a street corner holding one of those big 'Golf Sale' signs, or handing out leaflets in a shopping mall while dressed as a chicken. They are the the modern counterparts of the sandwich-board men, and it probably isn't their ideal career choice either.



  1. Audrey - I wondered where you got those fantastic images from - Leisure Hour. I should have realised, I have the 1860 book in my bookcase. I have not looked at it for years, I must check it out now. It was handed down to me from my grandfather, as he was born in 1889 he must have got it from his parents.

  2. Some of these old bound volumes of magazines can be hard to come by. The publishers of 'improving literature' like the Leisure Hour, Our Own Fireside and so on don't seem to have been very good at depositing them with the copyright libraries.
    I've picked up quite a few in second-hand bookshops, usually very cheaply. The ones with illustrations are best, but even the older ones without pictures often have some interesting little snippets.

  3. I always try to honk or wave to the Chicken on the side of the road...seems like they, or their counterparts, are everywhere now. I'm not sure what kind of marketing trend that indicates, but it surely does not make me go in to a store to buy something. I wonder if the "boards" were more effective in driving customers to stores?