Thursday 25 September 2008

Secrets in plain sight

However often you walk down the same bit of road, and however observant you think you're being, sometimes something can just pass you by. That happened to me on New Cross Road, where this little treasure lurks among the satellite dishes and illuminated signs. It's above the post office at number 405, and it's a tobacco roll.

Back in the days when most people were illiterate, how best to let them know what your shop was selling? With no house numbers, how to make your premises distinctive? The answer was a shop-sign, and we're still familiar with some of these: the striped barber's pole, the pawnbroker's three balls. However, all sorts of shops had them in the past, and many tobacconists would display the tobacco roll. Usually it would be painted brown or black and yellow, which would make it stand out further; the one in New Cross Road has since been repainted in neutral tones.

Today, the sign seems rather mysterious. However, in the past such rolls were common, made of twist tobacco. Leaves were braided into a rope, cured, and sold by weight; you could still buy twist readily 50 years ago. My father remembers it being sold in half-ounce and one-ounce quantities, for chewing or smoking. Miners would chew it and spit it out since smoking wasn't possible in the mines for obvious reasons! It also helped saliva to flow and kept their mouths relatively clear of dust. For smoking, it had to be rubbed between the hands until it broke up into strands. As well as twist, rubbing tobacco was also sold in half- or one-ounce quantities - it came in half-pound sticks about a foot long, marked into half ounces, and could be either chewed or, after rubbing until it came apart, smoked in a pipe.

However, tobacco roll signs vanished from our streets long before twist tobacco. By the late eighteenth century, the growth in literacy and appearance of street numbers saw a decline in the use of shop-signs. They have now all but disappeared, so this inconspicuous feature above a sub-post office is rather special, a rare survivor worth looking up for.

Many thanks to The Industrial Archaeology of South East London, a small book crammed with information, for mentioning this gem! I got my copy from the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society.

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