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High Street History: Advertisements

Updated Tuesday, 3rd July 2007

Even if the brands they trumpet have long since vanished, pay attention to old advertisements.

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There are quite a number of historical advertisements that can still be found around the country. The gable ends of older shops might have the remains of painted signs: the fainter, the older. Alternatively, you might see etched glass or wall-mounted metal plates featuring product names.

A vital source for social history, adverts can tell us about the types of things that people may have bought in the past – giving us a window not only into the rise and fall of industries, but also people’s tastes. They can be strong evidence of the former uses of buildings, especially if you spot one on the side of a shop that doesn’t seem to sell that type of product any more!

Faded shop advertisement Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Shop advertisement

This is a typical advertisement, which tells us what used to be sold in this shop. It seems that the shop hasn’t changed what it sells all that much! Many of these adverts are quite faded, but it is worth persevering to see what you can make out.

Adverts on metal plates Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell

Adverts on metal plates

These metal plates date from the post-war period, though it’s possible to find earlier examples. They were considered to better withstand bad weather than painted signs on brickwork – though they might rust, of course! Since they all advertise drinks, it would be reasonable to guess that the building was once a bar or café.

Hovis advertisement Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Hovis advertisment

Although this old advert has been restored and re-painted, it is a characteristic example of the way in which goods were promoted. The logo itself dates from 1898. The sign may have been used to attract custom to a tea shop or café.

An advert for Veritas Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell

The truth about Veritas

Probably dating from the inter-war years, this well preserved tin-plate advertisement is on a shop in Scotland that, amazingly, still sells oil lamps. For mantles were, in case you didn’t know, the impregnated wire mesh fitted over a lamp’s wick to make its flame brighter. Astonishingly, on 16 November 1916, the Veritas brand – probably the leading one in Britain – was mentioned in Hansard: presumably because the company possessed the contract to supply them to the armed forces in the First World War. There was some dispute over handling the firm, since it was partly German-owned. Regardless of that, the advert is a reminder of some social realities before widespread use of electric lighting. It’s often a good idea when investigating such things to make your first port of call an internet search engine.

Taking it further

The use of adverts as a historical source is covered in the OU’s Exploring history: medieval to modern 1400-1900 (A200).





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