Tobacconists' Signs

I would enjoin every shop to make use of a sign which

bears some affinity to the wares in which it deals.

ADDISON, _Spectator_, April 2, 1711.

Shop-signs were one of the most conspicuous features of the streets of

old London. In days when the numbering of houses was unknown, the use

of signs was indispensable for identification; and greatly must they

have contribu
ed to the quaint and picturesque appearance of the

streets. Some projected far over the narrow roadway--competition to

attract attention and custom is no modern novelty--some were fastened

to posts or pillars in front of the houses. By the time of Charles II

the overhanging signs had become a nuisance and a danger, and in the

seventh year of that King's reign an Act was passed providing that no

sign should hang across the street, but that all should be fixed to

the balconies or fronts or sides of houses. This Act was not strictly

obeyed; and large numbers of signs were hung over the doors, while

many others were affixed to the fronts of the houses. Eventually, in

the second half of the eighteenth century, signs gradually disappeared

and the streets were numbered. There were occasional survivals which

are to be found to this day, such as the barber's pole, accompanied

sometimes by the brass basin of the barber-surgeon, the glorified

canister of a grocer or the golden leg of a hosier; and inn signs have

never failed us; but by the close of the eighteenth century most of

the old trade signs which flaunted themselves in the streets had


The sellers of tobacco naturally hung out their signs like other

tradesfolk. Signs in their early days were, no doubt, chosen to

intimate the trades of those who used them, and in the easy-going

old-fashioned days when it was considered the right and natural thing

for a son to be brought up to his father's trade and to succeed him

therein, they long remained appropriate and intelligible. Later, as we

shall see, they became meaningless in many cases. But in the days when

tobacco-smoking first came into vogue, the signs chosen naturally had

some reference to the trade they indicated, and one of the earliest

used was the sign of the Black Boy, in allusion to the association

of the negro with tobacco cultivation. The Black Boy existed as a

shop-sign before tobacco's triumph, for Henry Machyn in his Diary,

so early as December 30, 1562, mentions a goldsmith dwellying at the

sene of the Blake Boy, in the Cheep; but the early sellers of tobacco

soon fastened on this appropriate sign. The earliest reference to such

use may be found in Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, 1614, where, in

the first scene, Humphrey Waspe says: I thought he would have run mad

o' the Black Boy in Bucklersbury, that takes the scurvy, roguy tobacco

there. Later, the Black Boy, like other once significant signs,

became meaningless and was used in connexion with various trades.

Early in the eighteenth century a bookseller at the sign of the

Black Boy on London Bridge was advertising Defoe's Robinson

Crusoe; another bookseller traded at the Black Boy in Paternoster

Row in 1712. Linendrapers, hatters, pawnbrokers and other tradesmen

all used the same sign at various dates in the eighteenth century. But

side by side with this indiscriminate and unnecessary use of the sign

there existed a continuous association of the Black Boy with the

tobacco trade. A tobacconist named Milward lived at the Black Boy in

Redcross Street, Barbican, in 1742; and many old tobacco papers show a

black boy, or sometimes two, smoking. Mr. Holden MacMichael, in his

papers on The London Signs says: Mrs. Skinner, of the

old-established tobacconist's opposite the Law Courts in the Strand,

possessed, about the year 1890, two signs of the 'Black Boy,'

appertaining, no doubt, to the old house of Messrs. Skinner's on

Holborn Hill, of the front of which there is an illustration in the

Archer Collection in the Print Department of the British Museum, where

the black boy and tobacco-rolls are depicted outside the premises.

The Black Boy, indeed, continued in use by tobacconists until the

nineteenth century was well advanced. A tobacconist had a shop uppon

Wapping Wall in 1667 at the sign of the Black Boy and Pelican.

Other significant early tobacconists' signs were Sir Walter Raleigh,

The Virginian and The Tobacco Roll. Sir Walter, as the reputed

introducer of tobacco, was naturally chosen as a sign, and his

portrait adorns several shop-bills in the Banks Collection. The

American Indians, represented under the figure of The Virginian, and

the negroes were hopelessly confused by the early tobacconists, with

results which were sometimes surprising from an ethnological point of

view. As the first tobacco imported into this country came from

Virginia, a supposed Virginian was naturally adopted as a

tobacco-seller's sign at an early date. An Indian or a Negro or a

figure which was a combination of both, was commonly represented

wearing a kilt or a girdle of tobacco leaves, a feathered head-dress,

and smoking a pipe. A tobacco-paper, dating from about the time of

Queen Anne, bears rudely engraved the figure of a negro smoking, and

holding a roll of tobacco in his hand. Above his head is a crown;

behind are two ships in full sail, with the sun just appearing from

the right-hand corner above. The foreground shows four little black

boys planting and packing tobacco, and below them is the name of the

ingenious tradesman--John Winkley, Tobacconist, near ye Bridge, in

the Burrough, Southwark. Sixty years or so ago a wooden figure,

representing a negro with a gilt loin-cloth and band with feathered

head, and sometimes with a tobacco roll, was still a frequent ornament

of tobacconists' shops.

The Tobacco Roll, either alone or in various combinations, was one

of the commonest of early tobacconists' signs, and was in constant use

for a couple of centuries. It may still be occasionally seen at the

present time in the form of the twist with alternate brown or black

and yellow coils, which up to quite a recent date was a tolerably

frequent adornment of tobacconists' shops, but is now rare. This roll

represented what was called spun or twist tobacco. Dekker, in James

I's time, speaks of roll tobacco. The youngster who mimics the

stage-gallants in Jonson's Cynthia's Revels as described in Chapter

II (_ante_; page 31), says that he has three sorts of tobacco in his

pocket, which probably means that it was customary to mix for smoking

purposes tobacco of the three usual kinds--roll (or pudding), leaf and

cane. One would have thought that a representation of the tobacco

plant itself would have been a more natural and comprehensive sign

than one particular preparation of the herb, yet representations of

the plant were rare, while those of the compressed tobacco known as

pudding or roll in the form of a Tobacco Roll, as described above,

were very frequently used as signs.

From the examples given in Burn's Descriptive Catalogue of London

Tokens of the seventeenth century, it is clear that the Tobacco

Roll was a warm favourite. Three Tobacco Rolls was also used as a

sign. In 1732 there was a Tobacco Roll in Finch Lane, on the north

side of Cornhill, over against the Swan and Rummer Tavern. In 1766,

Mrs. Flight, tobacconist, carried on her business at the Tobacco

Roll. Next door but one to St. Christopher's Church, Threadneedle


The shop-bill of Richard Lee, who sold tobacco about 1730 at Ye

Golden Tobacco Roll in Panton Street near Leicester Fields, is an

elaborate production. Hogarth in the earlier period of his career as

an engraver engraved many shop-bills, and this particular bill is

usually attributed to him, though the attribution has been disputed.

There is a copy of the bill in the British Museum, and in the

catalogue of the prints and drawings in the National Collection Mr.

Stephens thus describes it: It is an oblong enclosing an oval, the

spandrels being occupied by leaves of the tobacco plant tied in

bundles; the above title (Richard Lee at Ye Golden Tobacco Roll in

Panton Street near Leicester Fields) is on a frame which encloses the

oval. Within the latter the design represents the interior of a room,

with ten gentlemen gathered near a round table on which is a bowl of

punch; several of the gentlemen are smoking tobacco in long pipes; one

of them stands up on our right and vomits; another, who is

intoxicated, lies on the floor by the side of a chair; a fire of wood

burns in the grate; on the wall hangs two pictures ... three men's

hats hang on pegs on the wall. Altogether this is an interesting and

suggestive design, but hardly in the taste likely to commend itself to

present day tradesmen.

A roll of tobacco, it may be noted, was a common form of payment to

the Fleet parsons for their scoundrelly services. Pennant, writing in

1791, describes how these men hung out their frequent signs of a male

and female hand conjoined, with the legend written below: Marriages

performed within. Before his shop walked the parson--a squalid,

profligate figure, clad in a tattered plaid nightgown, with a fiery

face, and ready to couple you for a dram of gin, or roll of tobacco.

Combinations of the roll in tobacconists' signs occur occasionally. In

1660 there was a Tobacco Roll and Sugar Loaf at Gray's Inn Gate,

Holborn. In 1659 James Barnes issued a farthing token from the Sugar

Loaf and Three Tobacco Rolls in the Poultry, London. The Sugar Loaf

was the principal grocer's sign, and so when it is found in

combination with the tobacco roll at this time it may reasonably be

assumed that the proprietor of the business was a grocer who was also

a tobacconist.

Before the end of the seventeenth century, however, the signs were

ceasing to have any necessary association with the trade carried on

under them, and tobacconists are found with shop-signs which had no

reference in any way to tobacco. For instance, to take a few examples

from the late Mr. Hilton Price's lists of Signs of Old London from

Cheapside and adjacent streets, in 1695 John Arundell, tobacconist,

was at the White Horse, Wood Street; in the same year J. Mumford,

tobacconist, was at the Faulcon, Laurence Lane; in 1699 Mr. Brutton,

tobacconist, was to be found at the Three Crowns, under the Royal

Exchange; in 1702 Richard Bronas, tobacconist, was at the Horse

Shoe, Bread Street; and in 1766 Mr. Hoppie, of the Oil Jar: Old

Change, Watling Street End, advertised that he sold a newly invented

phosphorus powder for lighting pipes quickly in about half a minute.

Ask for a Bottle of Thunder Powder.

Again, in Fleet Street, Mr. Townsend, tobacconist, traded in 1672 at

the Three Golden Balls, near St. Dunstan's Church; while at the end

of Fetter Lane, a few years later, John Newland, tobacconist, was to

be found at the King's Head.

Addison, in the twenty-eighth _Spectator_, April 2, 1711, took note of

the severance which had taken place between sign and trade, and of the

absurdity that the sign no longer had any significance. After

satirizing first, the monstrous conjunctions in signs of Dog and

Gridiron, Cat and Fiddle and so forth; and next the absurd custom

by which young tradesmen, at their first starting in business, added

their own signs to those of the masters under whom they had served

their apprenticeship; the essayist goes on to say: In the third

place I would enjoin every shop to make use of a sign which bears some

affinity to the wares in which it deals. What can be more inconsistent

than to see ... a tailor at the Lion? A cook should not live at the

Boot, nor a Shoe-maker at the Roasted Pig; and yet for want of this

regulation, I have seen a Goat set up before the door of a perfumer,

and the French King's Head at a sword-cutler's.

Notwithstanding the few examples given above, tobacconists, more than

most tradesmen, seem to have continued to use signs that had at least

some relevance to their trade. Abel Drugger was a tobacco-man,

_i.e._ a tobacco-seller in Ben Jonson's play of The Alchemist, 1610,

so that it is not very surprising to find the name used occasionally

as a tobacconist's sign. Towards the end of the eighteenth century one

Peter Cockburn traded as a tobacconist at the sign of the Abel

Drugger in Fenchurch Street, and informed the public on the

advertising papers in which he wrapped up his tobacco for customers

that he had formerly been shopman at the Sir Roger de Coverley--a

notice which has preserved the name of another tobacconist's sign

borrowed from literature. Seventeenth--century London signs were the

Three Tobacco Pipes, Two Tobacco Pipes crossed, and Five Tobacco

Pipes. At Edinburgh in the eighteenth century there were tobacconists

who used two pipes crossed, a roll of tobacco and two leaves over two

crossed pipes, and a roll of tobacco and three leaves.

The older tobacconists were wont to assert, says Larwood, that the man

in the moon could enjoy his pipe, hence the 'Man in the Moon' is

represented on some of the tobacconists' papers in the Banks

Collection puffing like a steam engine, and underneath the words,

'Who'll smoake with ye Man in ye Moone?' The Dutch, as every one

knows, are great smokers, so a Dutchman has been a common figure on

tobacconists' signs. In the eighteenth century a common device was

three figures representing a Dutchman, a Scotchman and a sailor,

explained by the accompanying rhyme:

_We three are engaged in one cause,

I snuffs, I smokes, and I chaws!_

Larwood says that a tobacconist in the Kingsland Road had the three

men on his sign, but with a different legend:

_This Indian weed is good indeed,

Puff on, keep up the joke

'Tis the best, 'twill stand the test,

Either to chew or smoke._

The bill bearing this sign is in Banks's Collection, 1750. Another in

the same collection, with a similar meaning but of more elaborate

design, shows the three men, the central figure having his hands in

his pockets and in his mouth a pipe from which smoke is rolling. The

man on the left advances towards this central figure holding out a

pipe, above which is the legend Voule vous de Rape. Above the middle

man is No dis been better. The third man, on the right, holds out,

also towards the central figure, a tobacco-box, above which is the

legend Will you have a quid.

A frequent sign-device among dealers in snuff was the Crown and Rasp.

The oldest method of taking snuff, says Larwood, in the History of

Signboards, was to scrape it with a rasp from the dry root of the

tobacco plant; the powder was then placed on the back of the hand and

so snuffed up; hence the name of _rape_ (rasped) for a kind of snuff,

and the common tobacconist's sign of La Carotte d'or (the golden root)

in France. _Rape_ became in English rappee, familiar in

snuff-taking days as the name for a coarse kind of snuff made from the

darker and ranker tobacco leaves. The list of prices and names given

by Wimble, a snuff-seller, about 1740, and printed in Fairholt's

History of Tobacco, contains eighteen different kinds of

rappee--English, best English, fine English, high-flavoured coarse,

low, scented, composite, &c. The rasps for obtaining this _rape_,

continues Larwood, were carried in the waistcoat pocket, and soon

became articles of luxury, being carved in ivory and variously

enriched. Some of them, in ivory and inlaid wood, may be seen at the

Hotel Cluny in Paris, and an engraving of such an object occurs in

'Archaeologia,' vol. xiii. One of the first snuff-boxes was the

so-called _rape_ or _grivoise_ box, at the back of which was a little

space for a piece of the root, whilst a small iron rasp was contained

in the middle. When a pinch was wanted, the root was drawn a few times

over the iron rasp, and so the snuff was produced and could be offered

to a friend with much more grace than under the above-mentioned

process with the pocket-grater.

The tobacconists' sign that for very many years was in most general

use was the figure of a highlander, which may still perhaps be found

in one or two places, but which was not at all an unusual sight in the

streets of London and other towns some forty or fifty years ago. Most

men of middle age can remember when the snuff-taking highlander was

the usual ornament to the entrance of a tobacconist's shop; but all

have disappeared from London streets save two--I say two on the

authority of Mr. E.V. Lucas, who gives it (in his Wanderer in

London) as the number of the survivors; but only one is known to me.

This is the famous old wooden highlander which stood for more than a

hundred years on guard at a tobacconist's shop in Tottenham Court

Road. About the end of 1906 it was announced that the shop was to be

demolished, and that the time-worn figure was for sale. The

announcement created no small stir, and it was said that the offers

for the highlander ran up to a surprising figure. He was bought

ultimately by a neighbouring furnishing firm, and now stands on duty

not far from his ancient post, though no passer-by can help feeling

the incongruity between the time-honoured emblem of the snuff-taker

and his present surroundings of linoleum and sich.

Where Mr. Lucas's second survivor may be is unknown to me. Not so many

years ago a wooden highlander, as a tobacconist's sign, was a

conspicuous figure in Knightsbridge, and there was another in the

Westminster Bridge Road; but _tempus edax rerum_ has consumed them

with all their brethren. In a few provincial towns a wooden highlander

may still be found at the door of tobacco shops, but they are probably

destined to early disappearance. In 1907 one still stood guard--a tall

figure in full costume--outside a tobacconist's shop in Cheltenham,

and may still be there. There is a highlander of oak in the costume of

the Black Watch still standing, I believe, in the doorway of a tobacco

shop at St. Heliers, Jersey. It is traditionally said to have been

originally the figure-head of a war vessel which was wrecked on the

Alderney coast. Another survivor may be seen at the door of a shop

belonging to Messrs. Churchman, tobacco manufacturers, in Westgate

Street, Ipswich. A correspondent of Notes and Queries describes it

as a very fine specimen in excellent condition, and adds: Mr. W.

Churchman informs me that it belonged to his grandfather, who

established the business in Ipswich in 1790, and he believed it was

quite 'a hundred' year old at that time.

One of the earliest known examples of these highlanders as

tobacconists' signs is that which was placed at the door of a shop in

Coventry Street which was opened in 1720 under the sign of The

Highlander, Thistle and Crown. This is said to have been a favourite

place of resort of the Jacobites. In his Nicotine and its Rariora,

Mr. A.M. Broadley gives the card, dated 1765, of William Kebb, at ye

Highlander ye corner of Pall Mall, facing St. James's, Haymarket, and

says that the highlander was a favourite tobacconist's sign for 200

years. I have been unable, however, to find evidence of such a

prolonged period of favour. I know of no certain seventeenth-century

reference to the highlander as a tobacconist's sign.

The figure was usually made with a snuff mull in his hand--the

highlander being always credited with a great love and a great

capacity for snuff-taking. But one curious example was furnished, not

only with a mull but with a bat-like implement of unknown use. Mr.

Arthur Denman, F.S.A., writing in _Notes and Queries_, April 17, 1909,

said: I have a very neat little, genuine specimen of the old

tobacconist's sign of a 42nd Highlander with his 'mull.' It is 3 ft.

6 in. high, and it differs from those usually met with in that under

the left arm is an implement almost exactly like a cricket-bat. This

bat has a gilt knob to the handle, and on the shoulder of it are three

chevrons in gold, without doubt a sergeant's stripes. On the exposed

side of the bat is what would appear to represent a loose strip of

wood. This strip is nearly one-third of the width of the instrument,

and extends up the middle about two-fifths of the length of the body

of it. I can only guess that the bat was, at some time, primarily, an

emblem of a sergeant's office, and, secondarily, used for the

infliction of chastisement on clumsy or disorderly recruits; and

perhaps it was equivalent to the _Pruegel_ of German armies, with which

sergeants drove lagging warriors into the fray. But is there any

record of such an accoutrement as being that of a sergeant in the

British army? and what was the purpose of the loose strip, unless it

was to cause the blow administered to resound as much as to hurt, as

does the wand of Harlequin in a booth.

These questions received no answers from the learned correspondents of

the most useful and omniscient of weekly papers. Personally, I much

doubt Mr. Denman's suggested explanations of his highlander's curious

implement. There is no evidence that a sergeant in the British army

ever carried a cricket-bat-like implement either as a sign of office

or to be used for disciplinary or punitive purposes like the canes of

the German sergeants of long ago. It would seem to be more likely that

this particular figure was of unusual, perhaps unique, make, and had

some special local or individual significance, wherever or for whom

it was first made and used, which has now been forgotten.

After the suppression of the Jacobite uprising of 1745, the English

Government made war on Scottish nationality, and among other measures

the wearing of the highland dress was forbidden by Parliament. On this

occasion the following paragraph appeared in the newspapers of the

time: We hear that the dapper wooden Highlanders, who guard so

heroically the doors of snuff-shops, intend to petition the

Legislature, in order that they may be excused from complying with the

Act of Parliament with regard to their change of dress: alledging that

they have ever been faithful subjects to his Majesty, having

constantly supplied his Guards with a pinch out of their Mulls when

they marched by them, and so far from engaging in any Rebellion, that

they have never entertained a rebellious thought; whence they humbly

hope that they shall not be put to the expense of buying new cloaths.

This is not a very humorous production, but at least it bears witness

to the common occurrence in 1746 of the highlander's figure at the

shops of snuff and tobacco-sellers.

The highlander, as he existed within living memory at many shop doors,

and as he still exists at a few, was and is the survivor of many

similar wooden figures as trade signs. The wooden figure of a negro or

Indian with gilt loin-cloth and feathered head, has already been

mentioned as an old tobacconist's sign. In early Georgian days a

tobacconist named John Bowden, who dealt in all kinds of snuff, and

also in Aloe, Pigtail, and Wild Tobacco; with all sorts of

perfumer's goods, wholesale and retail, traded at the sign of The

Highlander and Black Boy in Threadneedle Street, London. At York, in

this present year, 1914, I came upon a brightly painted wooden figure

of Napoleon in full uniform and snuff-box in hand, standing at the

door of a small tobacco-shop. Another class of sign or emblem was

represented by the wooden midshipman, which many of us have seen in

Leadenhall Street, and which Dickens made famous in Dombey and Son.

Sometimes the wooden figure of a sailor stood outside public-houses

with such signs as The Jolly Sailor; and a black doll was long a

familiar token of the loathly shop kept by the tradesmen mysteriously

known as Marine Store Dealers. Images of this kind sometimes stood at

the door, or in many cases were placed on brackets or swung from the


Sir Walter Scott said that in London a Scotchman would walk half a

mile farther to purchase his ounce of snuff where the sign of the

Highlander announced a North Briton.

Dickens's little figure, which adorned old Sol Gills's shop, thrust

itself out above the pavement, right leg foremost, with shoe buckles

and flapped waistcoat very much unlike the real thing, and bore at

its right eye the most offensively disproportionate piece of

machinery. But this was only one of many little timber midshipmen in

obsolete naval uniforms, eternally employed outside the shop-doors of

nautical instrument-makers in taking observations of the

hackney-coaches. All have disappeared, together with the black dolls

of the rag shops and many other old-time figures. A stray highlander

or two, or other figure, may survive here and there; but with very few

exceptions indeed, the once abundant tobacconists' signs have

disappeared from our streets as completely as the emblems and tokens

of other trades.