A Brief History of British Pub Signs

The colorful signs boast more than good looks—they’re like miniature history books

Pub Sign
Pub signs illustrat the creative names of local watering holes, like the Dog & Sausage in St. Helier, Jersey. Wikimedia Commons

There’s arguably nothing more British than the islands' local pubs, which are often accompanied by colorful, hand-painted signs. But why do they exist in the first place? It’s complicated, writes James Hunt for Mental Flossand the truth spans over 1,000 years of history.

Hunt follows the history of the British pub sign from its 12th-century inception to its modern-day popularity. The signs' clear illustrations were originally created to draw in pre-literate drinkers, writes Hunt. As such, a tavern’s sign became the perfect meeting place, he writes:

…The earliest uses of pub, inn and tavern names would reference the sign directly. People would arrange to meet "at the sign of the Eagle and Child" rather than "at the Eagle and Child." Patrons may not have been able to distinguish the phrase "Hart and Stag" from "Bear and Staff," but they could recognize a picture of these things whether they were a local or a passing traveler.

Eventually, the signs also took on other, more official roles. For example, a 1393 law required signs at every pub so a figure called the Ale Taster could identify a building as a pub and inspect the alcohol being sold there. (The Ale Taster was apparently paid in beer, and the position has recently been revived in a ceremonial fashion in Leicester.)

Nowadays, pub signs are like living tributes to heraldic traditions, folklore and British history. Elaine Saunders writes that the reason so many British pubs have similar names is because of the fact that pubs were often named after monarchs or commemorated important battles. For example, pubs named The Crown likely adopted the name in relief after King Charles resumed the throne (and pub activities) after it was seized by Oliver Cromwell. There are even dictionaries of pub names to help you decipher the meanings behind those ornate and strange-seeming monikers, and savvy historians study pub signs for clues about early consumer culture and social customs.

But the signs’ primary purpose remains: Let thirsty people know that relief is in sight. Check out these great image collections (part 1, part 2) for a shot of nostalgia and a greater appreciation of some of Great Britain’s best pub advertisements. Fair warning: After drinking in enough images of colorful, creative signs, you may end up with an overwhelming desire for a pint.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.