A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 88: a tale of two signs

Cast-iron street sign for Harborne Road, Birmingham
Cast-iron street sign with an enthusiastic piece of typography for the “Rd.” abbreviation. (Image by the author.)

We moved from London to Birmingham a couple of years ago now, and one of the first things I noticed when we arrived were the street signs: extravagant, cast-iron behemoths far removed from London’s restrained licence plates for buildings. Above is a typical street sign in Edgbaston, our then-new neighbourhood; below is an old-style enamelled sign from Wandsworth, our previous one.

Street sign for Caithness Terrace, Tooting Bec
Street sign for Caithness Terrace, Tooting Bec. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by R~P~M on Flickr.)

Granted, Birmingham’s modern street signs, as used in much of the rest of the city, are significantly less interesting than the black-and-white battleship above, but then the same is also true of London. Birmingham once had standards to maintain; London didn’t.

Anyway, back to the two signs above: useful, legible both. But only the Brummie sign packs in an abbreviation, a tilde and two commas, all while bellowing “God save Queen Victoria!!1!!111” with foam-flecked lips, and for that it is my pick for the coveted Best Street Sign I Have Seen in the Past Two Years award.

Visual impact aside, I did stop to wonder: why the commas? Why the tilde? Most of the sources I could find on the subject (which is to say, very few of them1,2) suggested that the signs hailed from the Victorian era, which, as Robert Bringhurst writes in The Elements of Typographic Style, “was a dark and inflationary age in typography and type design”.3 Perhaps whichever nineteenth-century Black Country ironmonger made this sign had decided, in the fashion of the day, to throw in as many typographical flourishes as he could.

For its part, the tilde is no stranger to abbreviation. Back in 2015, we saw how the tilde was used in the medieval period to replace certain omitted letters:

In the Lat­in­ate lan­guages that pre­ceded mod­ern Span­ish and Por­tuguese, a dash or ‘~’ placed above a vowel in­dic­ated the omis­sion of a fol­low­ing n or m — a so-called nasal con­son­ant — so that, for ex­ample, aurum, or gold, could be ab­bre­vi­ated to aurũ.4

By the nineteenth century, this had morphed into a general tendency to underline the remainder of abbreviated words — the ‘r’ in “Dr.”, the ‘o’ in “№”, and so on.5 Even today, many typefaces indulge themselves when it comes to the numero symbol, whose superscript ‘o’ is often perched on another character. As Jonathan Hoefler demonstrates in his article “The Loveliest Living Fossil”, published at H&Co’s blog, the dash, bullet or equals sign are all suitable scaffolds for the numero’s elevated ‘o’ — and although Jonathan doesn’t explicitly mention it, the tilde is happy to oblige, too.

But wait: this stentorian street sign isn’t Victorian, not by a long shot. The clue is the red-painted number “15”, which refers to the B15 postal district. Postcodes in Britain were a twentieth century innovation, and Birmingham itself was not divided into postal districts until the 1930s at the earliest.6 Thus, the sign for Harborne Road shown above is definitely not Victorian.

I went hunting for an older sign with which to compare, and found one just a few streets away from where we now live in Bournville, a leafy suburb in the south of Birmingham. Here it is:

Cast-iron street sign for Thorn Road, Birmingham
Cast-iron street sign for Thorn Road, Birmingham. (Image by the author.)

Its lack of postal district means that it pre-dates the Harborne Road sign, and this Ordnance Survey map suggests that Thorn Road itself was built sometime between 1888 and 1913. This sign may be Victorian, or it may not be, but it is definitely closer to being Victorian than our Harborne Road sign.

Which leads me to ask: what has happened to the tilde? The commas are still in their place in the older sign, but what is this jaunty dash in the tilde’s place? It looks very much as though the later sign, with its tilde, is doing a creditable imitation of the earlier one, with its dash, but that its maker decided to go with (forgive me) a more dashing character. As such, although the tilde can signal an abbreviation in some contexts, Birmingham’s public signage is clearly not one of them. It seems very much as though a tilde was used in the Harborne Road sign, and in others from the 1930s, for no reason other than it looks the part.

The commas? Your guess is as good as mine.

1.
Neil Elkes, “Call for Return of Historic Street Signs”, Birmingham Mail, 2006. 
2.
Neil Elkes, “Victorian Street Signs in Birmingham Replaced With Aluminium Versions”, Business Live, August–2011. 
3.
Robert Bringhurst, “2.1 Horizontal Motion”, in, 2008, 25-36. 
4.
Rodney Sampson, Nasal Vowel Evolution in Romance, 1999. 
5.
Charles Sanders Peirce and Christian Kloesel J W, “Essay on the Editorial Method”, in Writings of Charles S. Peirce : A Chronological Edition. Vol. 4, 1989, 629. 
6.
“Postcodes”, The British Postal Museum and Archive

26 comments on “Miscellany № 88: a tale of two signs

  1. Comment posted by Rich Greenhill on

    Intriguing. Despite the stretch in time, for want of a better explanation I’m tempted to see the peculiar punctuation as derived from Irish manuscripts, where a horizontal stroke could denote an omission and where something like a pair of commas could denote the letter a. Hence “Road” as “R~,,d”. For discussion and loosely related examples of double commas for ª, see pages 355ff and 498 of W. M. Lindsay’s 1915 Notae Latinae.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Rich — that’s an interesting idea! That would have been a well-educated sign maker indeed. Was there ever a fashion for reviving medieval marks of abbreviation, I wonder?

    2. Comment posted by Rich Greenhill on

      I now see similar combinations of dash over double commas under the letter T in Birmingham street sign abbreviations for Saint and Street – the latter, at least, rather stretching my scribal-subscript-letter-a theory to breaking point. So it remains puzzling why the sign-maker favoured such unconventional use of commas. Perhaps the inspiration was the formerly widespread quasi-decorative use of paired commas or apostrophes in lists to represent the word ditto (supposedly from their vague resemblance to the outline of the word’s traditional abbreviation “do”), whereby commas shed their ordinary meaning and gained a role as fillers of space.

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Rich — there have been a couple of interesting replies on Twitter (here and here) that use commas in conjunction with abbreviations for “Crescent”, “Captain”, and “Junior”. Like you, I think the commas are being used as a generic decoration or filler of space.

    4. Comment posted by Rich Greenhill on

      What lovely examples, not least the quadruplet from Nantucket – which puts me in mind of the transformation of the attention-seeking diple into the altogether more urbane oft-paired inverted commas of opening quotation marks, a history which you know well.

  2. Comment posted by Korhomme on

    Curiously, the letters of Harborne are uneven. The first R looks to be leaning forwards, the second is leaning backwards. The R of road is vertical. It all looks a bit amateurish.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      It’s a bit chaotic, isn’t it? An endearing mess, at least.

  3. Comment posted by Athel Cornish-Bowden on

    Thanks for this post. I lived in Birmingham for 16 years (1970-1986), and was always very impressed by the street signs, especially the style of abbreviations. In France (where I live now) they all, with rare exceptions, have exactly the same style, from one end of the country to the other. I imagine they all come from the same factory.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Athel — the Birmingham signs are quite something, aren’t they? And, unlike France, they are anything but homogeneous. This afternoon I noticed that the town hall has two different styles on the same corner of the building. It takes a certain amount of effort to be quite so contrary.

  4. Comment posted by Pieter Smagge on

    Korhomme, I agree. The Thorn Road sign is much better balanced. The Harborne “D” is a bit of a kludge (“D” too high, tilde too close to the “D”), and the number “15” is not well aligned. But it definitely is a fun street sign. And those commas are fascinating!

  5. Comment posted by Korhomme on

    Apopros some of the comments about street signs:

    When Napoleon overran Switzerland at the start of the 19th century, his troops were literally quartered in the old town of Bern. The town was divided into four, and as the soldiers were illiterate, the quarters were colour coded, blue, yellow, green, and a reddish-brown or burgundy. A fifth quarter in the lower-lying districts was black.

    The street name signs in the old town are still colour-coded in the old town to reflect this.
    More here:

    https://www.dicconbewes.com/2011/01/14/seeing-bern-in-colour/

    The Junkerngasse in Bern has an old painted sign in French, with a tilde over the ‘m’ of hommes:

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Fascinating stuff! And a real, live abbreviating tilde, too. Much appreciated.

    2. Comment posted by Korhomme on

      Correction; the quarters are burgundy, green, yellow and white; the lower-lying workers’ area has black signs. The usual street names have a blue background.

      It took me a while to find these, and I could not find any in two colours at a street corner. The two colours of the Kornhausplatz and the Theatreplatz are on opposite sides of the square.

      https://www.flickr.com/photos/kor38/albums/72157714688659492

  6. Comment posted by Bernd Kappenberg on

    Is it only 15 or 15 ff.? Then the ~,, could be an obscured π …

  7. Comment posted by Florian Hardwig on

    My guess is that the tilde and commas have no inherent meaning, but rather are visually motivated, and used as a means to somehow fill the pesky void underneath the superscript letter.

    Superscript letters are commonly used for abbreviations like street names and ordinals, but also for house number suffixes, genitive endings, etc. There are many examples for how sign makers aimed to fill, or at least reduce, the white space and achieve a solid line of text (in capital letters). Leaving a gap apparently was considered unsatisfying.

    It doesn’t matter so much which marks are used as long as there is something to support the levitating letter(s). It can be a dash, a dot, a dash and a dota double dash; with calligraphic finishing or without; two dashes and a dot, a double wavy line, or even a rose.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Lovely photos, Florian. Thank you for sharing them! And yup, I’d tend to agree. Horror vacui is universal.

  8. Comment posted by H James Lucas on

    Would it be reasonable to weave Florian’s inference that this arrangement stems from pure form rather than orthography and Rich’s musings about quotation marks and propose that the ,, is not two commas but an inverted double inverted comma, selected for its ability to generate two almost-dots with the placement of a single sort without any effort being expended on internal horizontal spacing? It would have started as a labor-saving shortcut for typesetters but eventually caught on to the point that it was even adopted by sign-painters who, not wanting to appear naïve, were required to spend extra time painting purposeless tails on their dots?

  9. Comment posted by Brian Inglis on

    Could it perhaps be solely a commercial motivation to charge extra for a couple of punctuation marks?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Brian — that’s an interesting idea. Along the lines of Linotype operators, perhaps?

  10. Comment posted by Paul Curran on

    Perhaps the tilde on the Har­borne Rd. was an attempt to emulate the dash of the earlier signs, which, in the Thorn Rd. sign, has a slightly wavy or swooping quality.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Paul — that’s quite possible. The later signs do have a bit of a cargo cult feel to them, if the originals are as early as they appear to be.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Larry — from a grammatical point of view, I think the comma is understandable. The postal area here (NE, for North East) is a larger geographical area within which Tower Street is located, so separating the two with a comma feels quite natural. It’s similar to writing “Brooklyn, NYC” or “London, England”. Does that make sense?

      Also, thanks for the comment! I’ll have to check out Alastair Hall’s book.

  11. Comment posted by Ian Blackham on

    The comment regarding pesky void makes me wonder if there was a manufacturing reason for wanting to fill the space.

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