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High Street History: Street furniture

Updated Tuesday 3rd July 2007

Take a second look at that post box...

Close-up of the top of a pillar box Creative commons image Icon crabchick under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license

Street furniture

The category of street furniture covers a huge number of different objects. Some, like pillar-boxes, are obvious – whilst others, like benches or drinking fountains, spring less swiftly to mind. Nonetheless, they all may be suggestive of town development, technological change, or road management.

We have to think about why street furniture was erected in the first place: this can help us to understand the motives of people in the past. Take horse troughs. These great relics of pre-motorised transport are often indicators of economic activity in the past since they were frequently placed in marketplaces. They also remind us that animals used to play a much greater part in city life than they do now. Or what about bollards? They were frequently introduced as a way of controlling the flow of increasing traffic on dangerous roads.

Street furniture may be easily overlooked, but it provides us with fascinating insights into the ways that local authorities, the central state, or sometimes charitable associations intervened in the environment to make it more pleasant or convenient for city residents.

Initials on pillar boxes  Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Pillar boxes

You can tell when a post-box was made because each has a symbol of the ruling sovereign embossed. The curly style of lettering gave way to plainer, more egalitarian font in the post-war period (we have presented both the pre- and post-war versions of George VI). Pillar boxes followed patterns of urbanisation, so they are a (very) rough index of urban growth.

Street lamp Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Street lamps

Beware fakes! These lamp-posts have been cast from old designs, but they are only replicas. Nonetheless, even imitations can tell us something: perhaps that the Victorian style of street lighting is nowadays back in vogue or valued for its elegance. To see the genuine article, you may have more luck in nineteenth century parks or seaside resorts like Penzance.

Telephone kiosks Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Telephone kiosks

Phone booths first appeared in the late 1800s. They are powerful signs of technological change. Here we have two of the widespread ‘K6’ design that dates from the 1930s. The curious thing is that these kiosks are from different periods: you can tell from the different embossed crowns. One is from Elizabeth II’s reign, the other from the reign of her father, George VI.

Taking it further

Cities and technology: from Babylon to Singapore (AT308) may interest you.

 

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