Tuesday, September 13, 2022

The Parrot, the Unicorn and the Golden Dragon: Some 17th Century Booksellers' Signs

In a previous post on the Ancient Origins of Inn Signs, I wrote about some of the theories as to what the signs mean that had been advanced by speculative antiquarians. An important point in studying the signs, however, is that they were not only used by inns. All sorts of tradesmen deployed them too. Sometimes, of course, these merely exhibited a sign that suggested their calling (a boot or a last for a cobbler, an anvil or a horseshoe for a smith, etc).

But others used the same array of mythic and heraldic symbols as are found at inns. This means that we must usually look for the meaning of the signs in a context not simply connected to the pub. Merchants and artisans also used this gallery of symbols in a way that is now obscure to us.

Among the most assiduous in their use were booksellers, printers and publishers, often all part of the same set-up. Most booksellers had signs, depicted on painted boards at their premises, and in their catalogues and on their title pages, and regarded as a hereditable property, a sort of trade-mark, but rather more than that: almost a personal device. As far as I know, these have not been much studied, and, like inn signs, their significance remains enigmatic and elusive.

Here is a selection of titles taken from the British Library catalogue, interesting in themselves and as a guide to the preoccupations of the times, but also because each one of them is printed or sold “at the sign of . . .  "

And they certainly knew how to write titles in those days.

. . .

A sermon of repentance A very godly and profitable sermon, preached at Lee in Essex. By Arthur Dent, minister of Gods word: published at the request of sundry godly, and well-disposed persons. Dent, Arthur. Printed by J. Raworth, for J. Harison, and are to be sold at his shop in Pater-noster Row, at the sign of the golden Unicorn 1622

A fresh discovery of some prodigious new wandring-blasing-stars, & firebrands, stiling themselves nevv-lights, firing our church and state into new combustions. Divided into ten sections, comprising severall most libellous, scandalous, seditious, insolen [etc] Prynne, William.  Printed by John Macock, for Michael Spark senior, at the sign of the blue Bible in Green Arbour. 1645

An examination of the chief points of Antinomianism, collected out of some lectures lately preached in the church of Antholines parish, London: and now drawn together into a body, and published for the benefit of all that love the holy truth of God, | by Bedford, Thomas. Printed by John Field for Philemon Stephens, and are to be sold at his shop at the sign of the gilded Lyon in Pauls Church-yard. 1647

Christs birth misse-timed. Or, A resolution to a question about the time of Christs nativity; evidencing by Scripture, that Jesus Christ was not born in December. By R.S [Skinner, Robert]. Printed for John Bartlet, at the sign of the Gilt Cup at Austins Gate, neer the Stump. 1648

Pseuchographia anthropomagica or, a magicall description of the soul: wherein is set forth the nature, genesis and exodus of it. By Agricola Carpenter. Printed for John Browne, at the sign of the guilded Acorn in Pauls Church-yard 1652

Correction, instruction: or, A treatise of afflictions first conceived by way of private meditations afterward digested into certain sermons, preach'd at Aldermanbury. And now published for the help and comfort of humble suffering Christians. | By Tho. Ca [Case, Thomas]. Printed by J.M. for Luke Favvn, and are to be sold at his shop at the sign of the Parrat in Pauls Church yard 1653

The power and glory of the Lord shining out of the north, or The day of the Lord dawning: wherein the true light is holden forth to all who desire to walk in the day. With a warning to the people of England of all sorts, not to oppose Christ in his kingdom. Naylor, James. Printed for Giles Calvert at the sign of the Black-spred-Eagle at the West end of Pauls 1653

Dooms-day. Or, The great day of the Lord drawing nigh; by certain signs and tokens thereof, foretold by our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherein is declared, that there shall be an end of this wurld, and that all men shall appear before the judgement-seat of Christ, there to be made partakers either of everlasting life in the kingdom of heaven, or of everlasting woe and miserable torments in hell to all eternity. Very useful for all those that desire to be saved. By Andrew Jones M.A Licensed and entred according to order. Andrew Jones, active 17th century. London : printed for John Andrews, at the White Lion near Pye-Corner, 1659. Great Britain England London.

Elegy on the death of Her Highness Mary Princess Dowager of Aurange, daughter to Charles the First, King of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, &co. Bold, Henry. Printed for Edward Husbands, and are to be sold at the sign of the Golden Dragon in Fleet-street 1660

Treatise of the episcopacy, liturgies, and ecclesiastical ceremonies of the primitive times, : and of the mutations which happened to them in the succeeding ages: gathered out of the works of the ancient fathers and doctors of the church. By John Lloyd. Printed by William. Godbid. for John Sherley at the sign of the Pelican, and Robert Littlebury at the sign of the Unicorn in Little Britain 1660

Time and the end of time, or, Two discourses, the first about redemption of time, the second about consideration of our latter end by John Fox.  Printed for Tho. Passinger, and Tho. Sawbridge, at the sign of the 3 Bibles on London-Bridge, and in St. Martins-Le-grand 167

At the sign of the elephant within a door or two of Golden-Posts Tavern at Charing-Cross dwelleth a person that writes all the usual hands of England and teacheth to write a good hand in a months time. Anon,  n.d., circa 1680

A diurnal speculum, for the year of our Lord God, 1684. Being the bissextile, or leap-year, with annual and Mon[thly] predictions & progn[o]stications astrologically handled. (Written and design'd for the press in Aug, 1683. but its publication prevented). Kirby, Richard. Printed by John Bringhurst, at the sign of the Book and Three Black-Birds, in Leaden-Hall Mutton-Market, who formerly lived at the Book in Grace-Church-Street 1684

Cardines cœli: or, An appeal to the learned and experienced observers of sublunars and their vicissitudes, whether the cardinal signs of heaven are most influential upon men and things proved by X. remarkable genitures, &c. In a reply to the learned aut[hor]. Gadbury, John. Printed for M.G. and sold by Daniel Brown, at the Black-Swan without Temple-Bar, Sam. Sprint, at the Bell in Little-Britain, John Guillim, within Bishops-Gate, booksellers 1685

At the sign of the moon and stars in Leopard's Court in Baldwins-Gardens near Holborn, lives a gentleman, who by the benefit of a learned education in the University of Louvain, daily study and 30 years practice and travels, has arrived to a greater perfe[ction] [rest of title omitted in BL Catalogue] Anon. England s.n 1690

Hocus pocus junior. The anatomy of legerdemain; or, The art of jugling set forth in its proper colours, fully, plainly, and exactly; so that an ignorant person may thereby learn the full perfection of the same, after a little practice, [etc]. Anon.. Printed by J.M. and are to be sold by J. Deacon, at the sign of the Angel in Giltspur-Street, without Newgate 1691

A guide to eternity extracted out of the writings of the Holy Fathers and ancient philosophers. Written originally in Latine, by John Bona: and now done into English, by Sir Roger L'Estrange. Bona, Giovanni. Printed for R.B. J.H. J.T. and sold by Tho. Bennet, at the Half-Moon in St. Paul's Church-Yard 1694

Thoographia, or A new art of short-hand being a more natural, grammatical, and easie method than any yet extant / originally invented by Abraham Nicholas, M.A. ; enlarged and published by Thomas Slater and approved of by the ablest pen-men in London. Nicholas, Abraham. Printed and sold by Henry Mortlock at the Sign of the Phoenix in St. Paul's Church-yard, and W. Freeman at the Bible over against the Middle Temple-Gate in Fleetstreet 1697

(Mark Valentine)

Image: British Library


  1. Fascinating reading. I wish someone would write a book about these and other trade signs; illustrated of course, to the extent possible.


  2. Sign Boards of Old London Shops (1957 reprinted 1988 Portman Books) by Sir Ambrose Heal F.S.A. isbn 0-7134-5983-2
    Really charming and informative.

  3. "Pseuchographia anthropomagica" that should be a title for one of those CD's you talk about sometines, Mark.