Why Do British Pubs Have Illustrated Signs Outside?

The traditional British pub is part of the landscape of British life. At a recent count, there are around 50,000 of them in the UK, some of which claim to trace their lineage back as far as the 5th and 6th centuries, through the oldest verified by Guinness—Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St. Albans—claims to have been established in 795 CE.

Because of their abundance, the names pubs take were designed to be memorable—but more than that, they were designed to be visual. Outside any traditional pub worthy of its title, you'll find a hanging signboard with a unique illustration that represents the name of the business. The practice is so entrenched that even new pubs copy it. But why do they exist at all?

The first British pub signs were created in the 12th century and were simple representations of tankards, hops and other brewing-related paraphernalia used to inform passersby that the establishments sold ale. This was Britain in the dark ages, when education—and in particular, literacy—was in short supply. Since most of the population were unable to read, pub signs were used to inform would-be customers that they could find a drink inside.

In 1393, King Richard II passed an act making it compulsory for pubs and inns to display his emblem, a White Hart, to identify them to the official ale taster, who would inspect the quality of the booze on sale. (Shakespeare's father, John Shakespeare, was one such inspector.) From that point on, pub signs diversified to reflect the names of their establishments, partly so people could distinguish them from similar drinking outfits in growing towns.

It's for this reason that 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.

Or at least, they could most of the time. There are historical instances where signs were probably misinterpreted, resulting in an official change of name. An 18th century London pub known as "The Leg and Star" was probably supposed to be named for the prestigious Order of the Garter (whose emblem is a eight-pointed star) but was renamed by customers who looked at the sign and saw simply a leg (though it was clearly gartered) and a star.

As well as being a unique identifier of an establishment, a pub's sign was also an indicator of its license to operate. A law passed in 1431 said that if a pub owner didn't display a sign, their ale could be seized. Records also show that if a pub owner's license to sell ale was revoked, the pub's sign was removed as a form of sanction.

King Richard II wasn't the only monarch to put his stamp on the public house, either. When King Henry VIII split the UK away from the Catholic Church in the early 1500s to establish the monarch as head of the Church of England, pub names stopped favoring religious symbols and began featuring images of royal figures and iconography.

When King James I took the throne of both England and Scotland in 1603, he ordered that the heraldic red lion (one of Scotland's emblems) be added to all important buildings, including pubs. As a result of these actions, the two most common pub names in the UK are still "The Crown" and "The Red Lion".

Today the tradition remains intact largely out of respect for the past, but many pub signs do retain some functionality. Remote country pubs often use signboards to point the way to their doors from more trafficked paths. It's a part of British culture that's rapidly disappearing—more than 20,000 pubs have closed since 1980—but for now there are still more than enough around that you can take a moment to appreciate the history and symbolism behind a pub's sign the next time you see one.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Bibo Barmaid
Bibo Barmaid Is Like a Keurig for Cocktails—and You Can Buy It Now
Bibo Barmaid
Bibo Barmaid

To make great-tasting cocktails at home, you could take a bartending class, or you could just buy a fancy gadget that does all the work for you. Imbibers interested in the hands-off approach should check out Bibo Barmaid, a cocktail maker that works like a Keurig machine for booze.

According to Supercall, all you need to turn the Bibo Barmaid system into your personal mixologist is a pouch of liquor and a pouch of cocktail flavoring. Bibo's liquor options include vodka, whiskey, rum, and agave spirit (think tequila), which can be paired with flavors like cucumber melon, rum punch, appletini, margarita, tangerine paloma, and mai tai.

After choosing your liquor and flavor packets, insert them into the machine, press the button, and watch as it dilutes the mixture and pours a perfect single portion of your favorite drink into your glass—no muddlers or bar spoons required.

Making cocktails at home usually means investing in a lot of equipment and ingredients, which isn't always worth it if you're preparing a drink for just yourself or you and a friend. With Bibo, whipping up a cocktail isn't much harder than pouring yourself a glass of wine.

Bibo Barmaid is now available on Amazon for $240, and cocktail mixes are available on Bibo's website starting at $35 for 18 pouches. The company is working on rolling out its liquor pouches in liquor stores and other alcohol retailers across the U.S.

[h/t Supercall]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
Is There Any Point in Letting Red Wine Breathe?
iStock
iStock

by Aliya Whiteley

At the end of a long day, few things beat simple pleasures like watching a good film, eating a bar of chocolate the size of your head, or drinking a big glass of red wine.

By this point in the evening, most people don’t want to be told that they need to uncork the bottle and let the wine sit for at least 30 minutes before it becomes pleasantly drinkable. Yet that's (by the letter of the unwritten law) what you're supposed to do.

But why? Well, let's start with the assorted historical reasons.

Red wine has been around since the Stone Age. In fact, in 2011 a cave was uncovered in Armenia where the remains of a wine press, drinking and fermentation vessels, and withered grape vines were uncovered; the remains were dated at 5500 years old. Early winemaking often had a ritualistic aspect: Wine jars were found in Ancient Egyptian tombs, and wine appears in both the Hebrew and Christian bibles.

The concept of letting wine "breathe" is, historically speaking, relatively new and probably has its roots in the way wine was once bottled and stored.

Traditionally, sulfur is added to wine in order to preserve it for longer, and if too much is added the wine might well have an ... interesting aroma when first opened—the kind of "interesting aroma" that bears more than a passing resemblance to rotten eggs. Contact with the air may have helped to remove the smell, so decanting wine may once have been a way of removing unwelcome odors, as well as getting rid of the sediment that built up in the bottom of bottles.

It’s also possible that the concept springs from the early 1860s, when Emperor Napoleon III asked Louis Pasteur to investigate why so much French wine was spoiling in transit. Pasteur published his results, which concluded that wine coming into contact with air led to the growth of bacteria, thus ruining the vino. However, small amounts of air improved the flavor of the wine by "aging" it. In bottles, with a cork stopper, the wine still came into contact with a small amount of oxygen, and by storing it for years the wine was thought to develop a deeper flavor.

However, how much of that actually matters today?

Many experts agree that there is no point in simply pulling out the cork and letting the wine sit in an open bottle for any period of time; the wine won’t come into enough contact with oxygen to make any difference to the taste.

However, decanting wine might still be a useful activity. The truth is this: It entirely depends on the wine.

Nowadays we don’t really age wine anymore; we make it with the aim of drinking it quickly, within a year or so. But some types of wine that are rich in tannins (compounds that come from the grape skins and seeds) can benefit from a period of time in a decanter, to soften the astringent taste. These include wines from Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, for instance.

If you really want to know if a particular wine would benefit from being given time to breathe, try your own experiment at home. Buy two bottles, decant one, and let it breathe for an hour. Do you notice a difference in the taste? Even if you don’t, it's an experiment that justifies opening two bottles of wine.

One word of warning: No matter where a wine comes from, it is possible to overexpose it to oxygen. So remember Pasteur’s experiments and don’t leave your wine out of the bottle for days. That, friends, would be one hell of a waste.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios