Luke Holder – Advertising in the Slum and Victorian Visual Culture

“It seemed as if the world were on sale at a penny a bit.” – Max Schlesinger, Saunterings In and About London (1853)[1]

In the first century of industrialization, the illustrated advertisement altered British popular culture at its very core, and was hugely influential on the ideas and attitudes of the middle and working classes. By looking at the history of advertisements, one is able to chart a path through the transformation of British society from a collective of workers to a collective of consumers. Advertising as a spectacle changed the appearance of the urban slum landscape, and became a permanent visual fixture of the modern metropole.

Until the 1890s, the range of visual media available to advertisers and consumers was strictly limited by technology. Before the advent of the moving picture, advertisers were tightly limited in scope. Without modern day cinema and TV screens, Victorian advertisers made greater use of the poster than their twenty-first-century counterparts. Not only did technology limit them, but legislation did too. Newspapers were vital as a space for advertisers, and newspaper taxes were high in the early parts of the nineteenth century. Advertisers found ways around this, such as advertising in journals and periodicals, which were exempt from the newspaper tax. Also, advertisement taxes were high. Until 1833, when it was cut by 2s, a flat levy of 3s 6d was charged per advertisement, no matter how big or small.[2] The history of Victorian advertising in the nineteenth century can be evenly split into two halves, firstly, from 1800 to 1855, during the earlier phases of industrialization, when advertising came into its own as a “commercial weapon”. The second period is from 1855 to 1914, when the complete removal of the tax on newspaper advertisements created an industry that was increasingly larger and more professionalized.[3] From 1833 onward, pictorial advertisements for entertainment, household goods, or medicines, became increasingly abundant. It saw a move away from the religious experience and a move towards commercialism as its own cultural category.[4] The visual advertisement had become a staple of everyday life during the boom of the print and publication industry.

“Bubbles” by Sir John Millais, the most distributed image around the British Empire, and an advertisement for Pear’s soap.

Popular visual culture exploded in the mid-nineteenth century. Although literacy rates in Victorian society were on the rise, the use of the picture to deliver a message was a more accessible method to reach as large an audience as possible. The Illustrated London News was launched in 1842 and had a circulation of 25,000 within two years.[5] The visual advertisement was a fundamental component of this wave of popularity among the city dwellers. Advertisers regarded their posters and hoardings as a “poor man’s art gallery”, and responded to criticisms that they were ruining the city scenery othat they functioned as a public service because of this. “Bubbles”, by Sir John Millais, pictured left, is perhaps the single most iconic and enduring example of the synthesis of art and advertising from the nineteenth century.[8] Posters were so different because of how contemporaneous they were, and how they focused on depicting every-day life. Not only were they used for popular advertisement, but originals were highly prized items and sought after by collectors. However, the artistic progression of poster design was hampered by how advertisers would routinely reject designs not similar to those they had already seen or used before.

The burgeoning industry created by advertising also offered new vocational opportunities for the dwellers of the cities of Victorian Britain. Advertising posters and boards needed to be put on display, and so two separate jobs came about to make this happen. The “ladder-men” (pictured below, right) were employed by advertising agencies to spread out and paste large posters on boards. They were required to position these posters high up, as so they could be seen from a long distance, thus the nickname “ladder-men” came to describe them as they ascended, with poster, brush and past-can in hand, to mount the posters.[6] They earned good money, as this was a taxing job, requiring a steady hand and the ability to be swift, bringing them generally at least £1 a week, and worked from seven in the morning to seven in the evening. On the other hand, the “board men” (below, left) were tasked with walking around the busier areas of their city, adorned with a large placard hanging over the front of their body, and a smaller one above their head. Also known as “sandwich board men”, they were employed by businesses and shops to spread their word through the metropole. A role for unskilled and generally older men, they earned around one shilling and twopence a day.[7] The only requirement was that they were fit enough to walk the streets. Advertising presented opportunities for those with the aptitude to find regular and profitable work, as well as a fall-back for those with nothing else that they could take to, lest they enter the workhouse.



In sum, advertising presented a new frontier for commercialism and visual art in the Victorian social landscape. It brought high-quality fine art to the masses of the slums, in addition to well-paying jobs for those with the aptitude and good fortune to get them. The spread of advertising functioned as a component of a society of people reading more than ever before, with the boom of the printing industry. It permeated every aspect of culture and society, and inserted itself into the visual fabric of day-to-day existence in the Victorian slum.

Luke Holder


[1] Schlesinger, Max, Saunterings in and about London (London: N. Cooke, 1853).

[2] Hindley, Diana & Geoffrey, Advertising in Victorian England 1837-1901 (Wayland Ltd), p. 10.

[3] Church, Roy, ‘Advertising Consumer Goods in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Reinterpretations’, The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 53, No. 4 (2000), pp. 626-627.

[4] Anderson, Patricia, The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture, 1790-1860 (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 160.

[5] Hindley, Advertising in Victorian England, p. 11.

[6] ‘Street Life in London’, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith: retrieved from

[7] Besant, Walter. East London. New York: Century, 1901. Retrieved from

[8] Sir John Everett Millais, ‘Bubbles‘, retrieved from