Human Interest

The Walking ‘Jokes’ of Victorian London

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April Fool’s Day is traditionally an excuse for people to play practical, innocent jokes on one another. In this modern age of YouTube notoriety, and instant exposure on social media, our practical jokes have the potential to make us overnight celebrities. Yet, the act of playing a practical joke is almost as old as time. Even in the 1870s, when the internet didn’t exist, the people of London gained amusement at the expense of others. Namely, the walking advertisements referred to as “board” or “sandwich men”.

Named thus for the advertising boards they wore “front and back”, these men were paid meagre wages to walk the streets of London. According to J. Thomson and Adolphe Smith in their 1877 work, Street Life in London, the “work [was] so hopelessly simple, that any one who [could] put one foot before the other [could] undertake it.” Furthermore, many perceived the sight of an adult man carrying advertising boards as an absurd one. So absurd, in fact, that:

it is considered fair play to tease them in every conceivable manner. The old joke, the query as to the whereabouts of the mustard, has now died out, and it is considered better sport to bespatter the “sandwich men” with mud, or to tickle their faces with a straw when the paraphernalia on their backs prevents all attempt at self-defence. 

The torment of board men wasn’t restricted to such innocent teasing, however.  Omnibus conductors, or ‘Cads’ as they were also known, would kick at the boards with their hob-nailed boots as they passed by. Coachman would also whip at the poor board men, while policemen would “indignantly thrust them off into the gutter, where they [became] entangled in the wheels of carriages, and where cabs and omnibuses are ruthlessly driven against them.” 

Such cruelty may not be so widely accepted today. It wasn’t entirely accepted in Victorian London, either. At one point, a Co-operative Boardmen’s Society was formed in an effort to improve conditions and ensure additional wages from the fees of contractors—for which the men worked—were returned. Unfortunately, the Society eventually collapsed after half its committee was dismissed for drunkenness and a contractor overtook the Society’s remnants.

 

 

Board men weren’t the only “walking advertisements” to fall prey to the amused, and bemused, stares of Victorian Londoners. As the illustration from Punch in 1846 (above) shows, many individuals were subjected to being “”made up” in such a style as to represent the article it is intended to advertise.” In 1877, things were taken a step further when, according to J. Thomson and Adolphe Smith’s Street Life in London,

an enterprising trunk-maker conceived the ingenious idea of placing a number of men inside some of his trunks, so that their heads and feet only appeared. Huge portmanteaus and boxes were thus seen slowly progressing along the streets in single file. Of course every one looked to ascertain from whence this eccentric procession came, and did not fail to find the name of the trunk-maker on each of the trunks.

A quick search of “Victorian walking advertisements” on the internet sends back a plethora of images depicting women wearing pans, keys, and other goods sold by hardware stores etc. Though they may be as amusing to us today as they were to Londoners in the 1800s, such methods of advertising didn’t always grant their wearers a pleasant working experience (as described earlier). 

Financial hardship caused by the deterioration of physical and mental health was just one reason why many were obliged to humiliate—and risk—themselves in this manner. Some board men were also former craftsman forced out of their usual trade by changes in manufacturing. For example, one board man was “a smith, and engaged in the making of iron bedsteads. Now…[it] has been found more expedient and economical to make bedsteads with cast iron, and this change in the mode of manufacture threw many men out of employment.” 

So, the next time you find yourself out of work and trying to find fame as a YouTube practical joker, take a moment to consider the plight of Victorian London’s walking ‘jokes’. 

Sources:

Street Life in London by J.Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877, courtesy of Lee Jackson’s Victorian Dictionary website: http://www.victorianlondon.org/index-2012.htm 

FASHIONS FOR ADVERTISERS, from Punch, Jan-June, 1846, courtesy of Lee Jackson’s Victorian Dictionary website: http://www.victorianlondon.org/index-2012.htm 

T.G. Campbell is a British Crime Fiction Author living just outside of London, England. Her debut novel, The Case of The Curious Client, won the Fresh Lifestyle Magazine Book Award in April 2017. A month later she was honoured to accept the opportunity to become a monthly columnist. Her novels follow a fictional group of amateur detectives operating in 1896 London called the Bow Street Society. She undertakes extensive research and study of the British Victorian Era to ensure accuracy in her work; study/research which includes visits to museums, attending Victorian Era-themed events, and a whole lot of reading. It’s her passions for history, true crime, and British Victorian culture which she wants to share with Fresh Lifestyle Magazine readers. All her works may be found on Amazon and more can be found at www.bowstreetsociety.com  

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