No. 028 [from The Spectator] by Joseph Addison

Story type: Essay

No. 28
Monday, April 2, 1711. Addison.

‘… Neque semper arcum
Tendit Apollo.’


I shall here present my Reader with a Letter from a Projector, concerning a new Office which he thinks may very much contribute to the Embellishment of the City, and to the driving Barbarity out of our Streets. [I consider it as a Satyr upon Projectors in general, and a lively Picture of the whole Art of Modern Criticism. [1]]


‘Observing that you have Thoughts of creating certain Officers under you for the Inspection of several petty Enormities which you your self cannot attend to; and finding daily Absurdities hung out upon the Sign-Posts of this City, [2] to the great Scandal of Foreigners, as well as those of our own Country, who are curious Spectators of the same: I do humbly propose, that you would be pleased to make me your Superintendant of all such Figures and Devices, as are or shall be made use of on this Occasion; with full Powers to rectify or expunge whatever I shall find irregular or defective. For want of such an Officer, there is nothing like sound Literature and good Sense to be met with in those Objects, that are everywhere thrusting themselves out to the Eye, and endeavouring to become visible. Our streets are filled with blue Boars, black Swans, and red Lions; not to mention flying Pigs, and Hogs in Armour, with many other Creatures more extraordinary than any in the desarts of Africk. Strange! that one who has all the Birds and Beasts in Nature to chuse out of, should live at the Sign of an Ens Rationis!

My first Task, therefore, should be, like that of Hercules, to clear the City from Monsters. In the second Place, I would forbid, that Creatures of jarring and incongruous Natures should be joined together in the same Sign; such as the Bell and the Neats-tongue, the Dog and Gridiron. The Fox and Goose may be supposed to have met, but what has the Fox and the Seven Stars to do together? and when did the Lamb [3] and Dolphin ever meet, except upon a Sign-Post? As for the Cat and Fiddle, there is a Conceit in it, and therefore, I do not intend that anything I have here said should affect it. I must however observe to you upon this Subject, that it is usual for a young Tradesman, at his first setting up, to add to his own Sign that of the Master whom he serv’d; as the Husband, after Marriage, gives a Place to his Mistress’s Arms in his own Coat. This I take to have given Rise to many of those Absurdities which are committed over our Heads, and, as I am inform’d, first occasioned the three Nuns and a Hare, which we see so frequently joined together. I would, therefore, establish certain Rules, for the determining how far one Tradesman may give the Sign of another, and in what Cases he may be allowed to quarter it with his own.

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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 Bawd at the Sign of the Angel, or a Taylor at the Lion? A Cook should not live at the Boot, nor a Shoemaker 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.

An ingenious Foreigner observes, that several of those Gentlemen who value themselves upon their Families, and overlook such as are bred to Trade, bear the Tools of their Fore-fathers in their Coats of Arms. I will not examine how true this is in Fact: But though it may not be necessary for Posterity thus to set up the Sign of their Fore-fathers; I think it highly proper for those who actually profess the Trade, to shew some such Marks of it before their Doors.

When the Name gives an Occasion for an ingenious Sign-post, I would likewise advise the Owner to take that Opportunity of letting the World know who he is. It would have been ridiculous for the ingenious Mrs. Salmon [4] to have lived at the Sign of the Trout; for which Reason she has erected before her House the Figure of the Fish that is her Namesake. Mr. Bell has likewise distinguished himself by a Device of the same Nature: And here, Sir, I must beg Leave to observe to you, that this particular Figure of a Bell has given Occasion to several Pieces of Wit in this Kind. A Man of your Reading must know, that Abel Drugger gained great Applause by it in the Time of Ben Johnson [5]. Our Apocryphal Heathen God [6] is also represented by this Figure; which, in conjunction with the Dragon, make a very handsome picture in several of our Streets. As for the Bell-Savage, which is the Sign of a savage Man standing by a Bell, I was formerly very much puzzled upon the Conceit of it, till I accidentally fell into the reading of an old Romance translated out of the French; which gives an Account of a very beautiful Woman who was found in a Wilderness, and is called in the French la belle Sauvage; and is everywhere translated by our Countrymen the Bell-Savage. This Piece of Philology will, I hope, convince you that I have made Sign posts my Study, and consequently qualified my self for the Employment which I sollicit at your Hands. But before I conclude my Letter, I must communicate to you another Remark, which I have made upon the Subject with which I am now entertaining you, namely, that I can give a shrewd Guess at the Humour of the Inhabitant by the Sign that hangs before his Door. A surly cholerick Fellow generally makes Choice of a Bear; as Men of milder Dispositions, frequently live at the Lamb. Seeing a Punch-Bowl painted upon a Sign near Charing Cross, and very curiously garnished, with a couple of Angels hovering over it and squeezing a Lemmon into it, I had the Curiosity to ask after the Master of the House, and found upon Inquiry, as I had guessed by the little Agreemens upon his Sign, that he was a Frenchman. I know, Sir, it is not requisite for me to enlarge upon these Hints to a Gentleman of your great Abilities; so humbly recommending my self to your Favour and Patronage,

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I remain, etc.

I shall add to the foregoing Letter, another which came to me by the same Penny-Post.

From my own Apartment near Charing-Cross.

Honoured Sir,

‘Having heard that this Nation is a great Encourager of Ingenuity, I have brought with me a Rope-dancer that was caught in one of the Woods belonging to the Great Mogul. He is by Birth a Monkey; but swings upon a Rope, takes a pipe of Tobacco, and drinks a Glass of Ale, like any reasonable Creature. He gives great Satisfaction to the Quality; and if they will make a Subscription for him, I will send for a Brother of his out of Holland, that is a very good Tumbler, and also for another of the same Family, whom I design for my Merry-Andrew, as being an excellent mimick, and the greatest Drole in the Country where he now is. I hope to have this Entertainment in a Readiness for the next Winter; and doubt not but it will please more than the Opera or Puppet-Show. I will not say that a Monkey is a better Man than some of the Opera Heroes; but certainly he is a better Representative of a Man, than the most artificial Composition of Wood and Wire. If you will be pleased to give me a good Word in your paper, you shall be every Night a Spectator at my Show for nothing.

I am, etc.


[Footnote 1: It is as follows.]

[Footnote 2: In the ‘Spectator’s’ time numbering of houses was so rare that in Hatton’s ‘New View of London’, published in 1708, special mention is made of the fact that

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‘in Prescott Street, Goodman’s Fields, instead of signs the houses are distinguished by numbers, as the staircases in the Inns of Court and Chancery.’ ]

[Footnote 3: sheep]

[Footnote 4: The sign before her Waxwork Exhibition, in Fleet Street, near Temple Bar, was ‘the Golden Salmon.’ She had very recently removed to this house from her old establishment in St. Martin’s le Grand.]

[Footnote 5: Ben Jonson’s Alchemist having taken gold from Abel Drugger, the Tobacco Man, for the device of a sign–‘a good lucky one, a thriving sign’–will give him nothing so commonplace as a sign copied from the constellation he was born under, but says:

He shall have ‘a bel’, that’s ‘Abel’;
And by it standing one whose name is ‘Dee’
In a ‘rug’ grown, there’s ‘D’ and ‘rug’, that’s ‘Drug’:
And right anenst him a dog snarling ‘er’,
There’s ‘Drugger’, Abel Drugger. That’s his sign.
And here’s now mystery and hieroglyphic.

Abel, thou art made.

Sir, I do thank his worship.]

[Footnote 6: Bel, in the apocryphal addition to the Book of Daniel, called ‘the ‘History of the Destruction of Bel and the Dragon.’]

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