Grocer’s sign—late Georgian style

Sent in by a loyal jotwatcher, writer and collector of ephemera. Look out for Shillibeer bus tickets!

Rarer than a copy of Oscar Wilde’s Ravenna or W. B. Yeats’ Mosada ? It’s a Shillibeer bus ticket or a Georgian price sticker.

You are unlikely to find either of them - unless you’re incredibly lucky when you go through the papers of your great great grandfather who had lived in London in 1829, or discover them down the back of a chest of drawers that belonged  to your great great uncle, who was a grocer in Bristol. I haven’t found a Regency bus ticket, but I do have this early 19th century grocer’s sign. I found it doing service as a protective card wrapper around a book of heraldry from the 1770s. A third of it is missing, which poses some intriguing questions. Is the grocer inviting his customers to enter his ‘Cheap Sh(op)’ and buy White Wine Vinegar, Common (Vinegar) and G(inger ) ? Or could the second word be ‘Shelf’ and G(inger) Grains of Paradise ? Another question relates to the card itself. Was it removed from the book for use in a shop, or did the shopkeeper use the placard as a book protector after the grocery promotion ?

These are two puzzles that perhaps only a social and economic historian could solve. So I found one. Jon Stobart of Northampton University, an acknowledged authority on domestic consumption trends in Europe, recently published Sugar and Spice, an excellent analysis of the English grocery trade in the long eighteenth century. I had actually reviewed this book, so I knew I had the right man for the job.

It turned out to be a pretty useful e mail exchange. Stobart was initially overjoyed that such a piece of ephemera had survived over two centuries. In fact he confessed that he had never seen such an item before. He agreed that the probable date was late Georgian, though he rejected my suggestion that the second word might be ‘shelf’ on the grounds that in the early nineteenth century condiments were sold loose rather than in bottles or jars. He too thought that the G word was ginger.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this is an extraordinary find, and Stobart had every right to be excited. It is probably even rarer than Shillibeer bus tickets, since these may have been retained as souvenirs by keen Regency travellers. There is no reason whatsoever why a grocer operating c 1808 should keep a piece of card that he once used to advertise a cheap line in condiments----unless, of course, he could use it as a temporary book cover. [RMR]

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