A pub sign is a sign of the times
"Sign as advertisement, for Georgian coaching inns the bigger the better"
The purpose of the pub sign is obvious, but its origins less so. The Romans brought wine to Britain and with it their taverns (Tabernae). A Roman tavern was signified by a bunch of vine leaves hung outside which indicated it had wine to sell. However vine leaves were not readily available in the cold British climate, so an evergreen bush was hung out instead.
As the Roman invaders became settled over the next few centuries it’s probable that the tavern would have stocked the local ale too, particularly when wine was in short supply. The Romans were instrumental in creating the first inns, which served travellers who plied the new network of Roman roads.
"Grapes read wine"
When the Romans left these shores, ale was the tipple of the Britons and subsequent invasions by northern European tribes did nothing to diminish ale’s popularity. The vast majority of ale brewed was homebrew, made for consumption by those who brewed it. This task was, therefore, a domestic affair and usually carried out by the woman of the household.
"Carved sign of highwayman"
There were occasions when a surplus of ale was produced and, as it did not keep well, it was offered for sale. Some women, usually widows or the impoverished, brewed for profit; a woman brewer became known as an alewife
. Brewing was a sporadic affair, so to signify that a brew was ready the alewife would display a pole or ‘ale-stake’ outside her home. The alestake became the accepted indicator of an alehouse and soon became a compulsory item.
If an alestake had an evergreen bush attached to it, this was a sign that the alehouse had wine to sell too; which must have been a direct hangover from the Roman period. In 1375 alehouses in London were in such proliferation that their alestakes were causing a hazard in the narrow streets, so an order restricted their projection to a maximum of seven feet (2.1m).
In 1393 King Richard II decreed that alehouses must show a sign or have its brew confiscated. The alestake by this time was not only a sign that the alehouse had ale to sell, but it was a signal for the Ale-Conner or Ale-Taster to visit the premises to evaluate the quality of the ale. No ale was to be sold without being first tested. Incidentally Shakespeare’s father, John, was Ale-Taster for Stratford upon Avon. Nice work if you could get it!
Changes in legislation meant the alestake was no longer required. Alehouses, taverns (which sold wine) and inns adopted the practice of other trades and displayed a pictorial sign. Oddly they opted for objects totally unrelated to their trade; instead of a tool or product, such as a shoe in the case of the cobbler or a horseshoe by the blacksmith, they chose obscure objects such as the sun or moon, or a swan or eagle. The hostelry did not assume the name of the sign, but was known as 'the inn at the sign of the sun'. There was little point writing on the signs as few people could read.
Hostelries set up by the church would have a Christian symbol, the Lamb (Lamb of God), the Cross Keys (St.Peter, keeper of the keys to heaven) or the Bull (connected with Rome and the Pope’s seal). After the Reformation all catholic references were changed or hidden, the Pope’s Head a definite no-no, more likely to be renamed the King’s Head.
"Wool trade connection"
The name and therefore the sign would also depict an object or person important in the locality. The local squire may own the inn itself, so it would show his family coat of arms; local crafts would have an influence too, the Blacksmith’s Arms or The Potter or local trade, the Fleece or Woolsack. A country pub the Barley Mow or the Jolly Farmer. Many pub landlords were retired from the church, army or local estate and would chose a sign which honoured their previous connections.
By the 17th century 'public houses' were quite numerous and needed to distinguish themselves from one another. As a consequence their signs were becoming more important and sophisticated. The purpose of the sign became more than just an indication of the building and its function, it was also a status symbol, the more flamboyant the sign the more impressive the establishment. During the coaching era of the mid 17th century to the late 18th century, the coaching inns vied for trade, a street on a coaching route might have fifteen or twenty other inns in close proximity, therefore the sign was designed to attract the drivers attention.
"Big sign, big structure"
Some signs straddled the entire street, weighed tons and cost hundreds of pounds. Many were carved and depicted mythical creatures. One in Fleet Street was so heavy that it collapsed taking part of the building with it, killing four pedestrians as it fell, one of them the king’s jeweller. In 1667 an Act of Parliament restricted the size of hanging pub signs to 4 feet by 3 feet.
Some pub signs were attributed to great painters. One of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Millais is supposed to have painted pub signs.
Pubs signs are a reflection on the long history of the pub and it is a shame that so many are being replaced with silly cartoon like images or simple written signs. However this does reflect the influences on today’s society and the high literacy rate.