Bill stickers involved a person who posted bills or advertisements for passersby to see. It was one of many unusual jobs for Englishmen in the 1700 and 1800s and started during the reign of Charles II. According to one source, the job prevented people from becoming “parish paupers” and eliminated “idleness … the root of all evil.” One eighteenth century author also claimed that bill-sticking “has been a great source of wealth to many thousands of industrious persons, in every part of this busy empire.”
Bill sticking first began in the 1600s and had to do with contortionists, known as posture-makers. One poster read:
“At the Duke of Marlborough’s Head in Fleet-Street, … is to be seen the famous Posture-master of all Europe, who far exceeds the deceased Posture-masters Clarke and Higgins; he extends his body into all deformed shapes, makes his hips and shoulder bones meet together; lays his head upon the ground, and turns his body round twice or thrice without stirring his face from the place; stands upon one leg, and extends the other in a perpendicular line, half a yard above his head; and extends his body from a table, with his head a foot below his heels, having nothing to balance his body but his feet; with several other postures too tedious to mention.”
When bill-sticking originated it served as an effective means to spread the word of an event “by virtue of … typographic art.” Shop owners found that bill-sticking was better at advertising than a friend informing friends about a new purchase. It was also better than having a bell-man cry out about the arrival of the latest or newest wares. Merchants liked to hang bills or placards because a “merchant’s imports [were soon] telegraphed all over the kingdom, in less time than a carrier’s waggon.” Moreover, placarding thrived, as did the businesses that used them.
There were essentially three types or divisions of bills, posters, or placards: “Auctioneers’ bill-sticking, theatrical bill-sticking, [and] general bill-sticking.” Furthermore, bill-sticking advertisements not only advertised the ordinary but also gave glimpses into the extraordinary. Marvelous exhibitions were regularly advertised. For instance, in the 1700s, there were advertisements for a “tiger who [in 1701] had been taught to pick a fowl’s feathers from his body,” competitions between grinners in 1711, and bear baiting events plastered on walls and fences. Madame Tussaud, Buffalo Bill, and G. Van Hare also took advantage of this type of advertising in the 1800s.
When bill-sticking began, there were also plenty of spots to paste a new placard or poster. However, as time passed, the vacant spots available became scarcer and sometimes there were miles and miles of walls completely “chalked in colossal capitals, BLACKING and BONASSUS.” The size of type also became larger over time, until one person declared
“A lottery bill may be read through a good eight feet reflector, by some astronomer in the moon.”
In fact, as shown in the illustration of in the 1840s there were placards and posters “eight feet long … [with] some … hoisted by the bill-stickers eighteen or twenty feet high.”
Because bill-sticking proved so profitable to shop owners and business men, it also became a popular job with one reason being that a person was self-employed. Another reason was that a bill sticker didn’t need any particular expertise (although it helped if you could read so that the placard wasn’t hung upside down). The job also required few tools: Nothing more than a “tin vessel, fastened … by a belt, to contain paste, his brush, and a long light instrument somewhat of the form of [a] T; which [the bill sticker used] … for sticking the placards on the wall.”
Bill stickers could also earn good money. Wages were usually based on “a certain sum per thousand, or per hundred, according to the size of the placards [or posters] delivered … by … employer[s].” Charles Dickens claimed that in the 1840s and 50s “during a lottery week, [bill stickers] have been known to [each] earn, … eight or nine pounds per week, till the day of the drawing.” However, before lotteries reached their peak in the 1830s and 40s, State Lottery Commissioners began to send bill stickers throughout England to post bills advertising the lotteries. At the time, London bill stickers called these traveling bill stickers “trampers,” and they were stationed in towns for five or six months at a time and received ten shillings per day, besides expenses.
By the early 1800s, bill stickers formed “a society amongst themselves, and very frequently dined together at some public-house where they used to go … to have their work delivered.” Certain bill stickers within the society also inherited titles or nicknames. For instance, according to Dickens, there was a good-looking man about the age of fifty crowned “King of the Bill-Stickers.” Dickens maintained the “King” earned the title because he was the “oldest and most respected member of ‘the old school of bill-sticking.'” There was also “a Lord Mayor of the Bill-Stickers, whose genius was chiefly exercised within the limits of the city [of London].” “Turkey-legs” was another name given to a fellow, who apparently had no real power but acquired the honorary title because he displayed “some peculiarity of gait.”
By the mid-1800s bill stickers tended to work in a specific district or area. According to the King of the Bill Stickers:
“[O]ne man would strike over Whitechapel: another would take … Houndsditch, Shoreditch, and the City Road; one … would stick to the Surrey side; another would make a beat of the West-end.”
Within their assigned area, bill stickers tried to be creative and place their placards or posters in new unused spots. In one play that was performed in the 1800s about bill stickers, had one bill sticker claiming:
“I am convinced that I can make a princely fortune if I can only devise a place for posters which has never been tried before. So I had several thousand different kinds of posters sent me, and had one hundred and fifty gallons of paste made. But I can’t find an absolutely new place.”
The King of the Bill Stickers was more fortunate. He asserted that he was the first to paste his posters under the arches of the bridges, although his novel idea was soon copied by others and his advantage lost.
At one point there were so many advertisers wanting bills, placards, and posters affixed that bill stickers could not keep up and “imposters … took jobs at almost any price, to the detriment of the old school, and the confusion of their own misguided employers.” At this same time, the art of bill sticking and the bill stickers became popular enough that numerous stories, poems, and ballads were written about them. One particular catchy ballad, titled Sammy Slap the Bill Sticker, offers a comedic take on the art of bill sticking:
“I’m Sammy Slap the bill-sticker,
And you must all agree…
I stick to business like a trump,
And Business sticks to me…
I think I’ve kiver’d all the walls,
Round London though I preach it,
If they’d let me cover old St. Pauls,
So help my bob I’d reach it…
Vhenever you may have a job,
To show how I deserve you,
About the town, though thick
I’ll brush along to serve you.”
-  Pyne, W.H. ed., The World in Miniature; England, Scotland, and Ireland, Vol. 1, 1827, p. 226.
-  Ibid., p. 227.
-  Ibid., p. 240.
-  Ibid., p. 236.
-  Ibid., p. 235-236.
-  Dickens, Charles, Household Words, Vol. 2, 1851, p. 604.
-  Pyne, W.H. ed., p. 232.
-  Ibid., p. 229.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 230.
-  Ibid., p. 228.
-  Ibid., p. 227-228.
-  Dickens, Charles, 1851, p. 604.
-  Dickens, Charles, The Old Curiosity Shop and Reprinted Pieces, 1867 p. 352.
-  Ibid., p. 350.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Dickens, Charles, 1851, p. 605.
-  Sanford, Amelia, The Advertising Girls, 1889, p. 10.
-  Dickens, Charles, 1867 p. 354.
-  Sammy Slap the Bill Sticker, on Broadside Ballads Online