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Thursday, 29 March 2012

“The Produce and Refuse of Civilization Announced in Staring Letters, in Daubed Effigies, Base, Paltry, Grotesque…” Or: Victorian Advertising:

Unlike us, the Victorians did not have a TV or radio to bombard them with constant advertising at peak time. They had magazines, but nowhere near as many as assault our senses when we walk into a supermarket or newsagents. But advertising in the latter part nineteenth century was still big, brash and almost everywhere. Victorian companies that wanted to persuade the public to buy their products had, really, only one method of advertising, and that was through printed words and pictures. Adverts in the form of posters, handbills and newspaper advertisements were hugely prevalent from the 1860’s onwards, and the business of advertising grew larger and larger as the century went on. The entrepreneurial businessman Mr. Luckworth Crewe in George Gissing’s 1894 novel of London society ‘In the Year of the Jubilee’ summed up the mood of his fellow businessmen:

"Look here," said I, "my dear sir, you're impeding the progress of civilisation. How could we have become what we are without the modern science and art of advertising? Till advertising sprang up, the world was barbarous. Do you suppose people kept themselves clean before they were reminded at every corner of the benefits of soap? Do you suppose they were healthy before every wall and hoarding told them what medicine to take for their ailments? Not they indeed! Why, a man like you—an enlightened man, I see it in your face (he was as ugly as Ben's bull-dog), ought to be proud of helping on the age."

Later on in the book, the wealth of advertising on show in the 1890’s is described wonderfully by Gissing:

…They descended and stood together upon the platform, among hurrying crowds, in black fumes that poisoned the palate with sulphur. This way and that sped the demon engines, whirling lighted waggons full of people. Shrill whistles, the hiss and roar of steam, the bang, clap, bang of carriage doors, the clatter of feet on wood and stone – all echoed and reverberated from a huge cloudy vault above them. High and low, on every available yard of wall, advertisements clamoured to the eye: theatres, journals, soaps, medicines, concerts, furniture, wines, prayer-meetings – all the produce and refuse of civilization announced in staring letters, in daubed effigies, base, paltry, grotesque. A battle ground of advertisements, fitly chosen amid subterranean din and reek; a symbol to the gaze of that relentless warfare which ceases not, night and day, in the world above...

I’ve found it difficult to pinpoint when advertising really boomed in the nineteenth century, but one of the more handy pointers has been the press of the time, most notably old newspapers. Here, on the left, is the front cover of the Illustrated London News from December 1852. 

As you can see, the front bears nothing but news. Generally, these newspapers would have pages of advertisements inside and on the back cover.
On the right is a picture of the same publication from 1896:

The latter version has dedicated its entire front page to adverts, and even ten years prior to this particular issue, research suggests that newspapers began to dramatically increase the amount of space within their pages dedicated to advertising. In 1886 that cornerstone of news for upper class England, The Times, devoted almost 60% of its space to advertising. The Illustrated London News was well behind with 20%, but seemed to make up for it by placing the adverts in prominent places, such as the covers, as seen above. Everything seems to suggest that the mass shift in advertising was gearing up toward one special event that businesses and entrepreneurs could use to market their goods, and I and have narrowed it down to Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887.

That year a handbook was published entitled ‘An Advertiser’s guide to publicity’ which encouraged advertisers to focus their efforts upon one main theme that may catch the attention of the public and help sell their products. (We see the self-same tactic these days – how much junk have you seen lately with the Olympics emblazoned across it, and does everyone remember the commemorative tea towels, mugs, coins, plates &c from the Royal Wedding last year?)
In 1887 advertisers clung to the coat-tails of the Queen’s popularity and used her image to sell their wares – anything from perfume to pills, jewelry to drinks. In fact, Gissing’s Luckworth Crewe reproaches himself in the novel for not having jumped on the bandwagon and developed a ‘Jubilee drinkthat would have sold itself.

Luckworth Crewe – or rather, Gissing – recognized that the public will buy anything if it is associated with a popular figure or event, and the public’s celebratory mood in the year of Victoria’s jubilee created a huge demand for commemorative products and items bearing the image of the Queen.

In that same jubilee year a massive fire raged through London department store Whiteleys. Why is this relevant? Well, the fire isn’t, but the building it destroyed is. Whiteleys opened in 1863, but by 1867 it had swallowed up a whole row of shops, and within its walls were various ‘departments’ in which customers could buy a vast range of goods. By 1890, the shop was employing six thousand people. Whiteleys had started a trend for so called ‘department stores’, and by the 1880’s London was full of them. In an age when your social standing was expressed by the clothes you wore and the décor of your home, these stores did a roaring trade, and competed with each other for the public’s attention and cash with ever larger advertisements, and ever more ingenious marketing schemes, such as elaborate window displays. (Another form of advertising that survives to this day, and can be seen on Oxford Street at Christmas)

Adverts had begun to appear everywhere, and after the Queen’s jubilee, showed no signs of going anywhere. As is still the case, something which is so successful at making money is very difficult to stop once it has started. Trains, omnibuses, walls and, as we have seen, newspapers were plastered with advertisements for every kind of item you could imagine. There was even a court case in 1895 in which a man (who sounds like a bit of a busy-body) took an omnibus firm to court because their advertisements in the carriage covered part of the window:

Yesterday, at Bow Street, Mr. Vaughan had another point to decide with respect to omnibus advertising. The complainant was the Rev. William James Jenkins, and he summoned the London General Omnibus Company for unlawfully suffering a certain advertisement to appear on the inside of a stage carriage so as to cause annoyance to passengers.
Mr. Hicks (of the firm of Hicks, Davis, and Hunt) appeared for the Company.
Mr. Jenkins conducted his case in person, and he stated that on the morning of the 26th ult. he was riding in the Strand in an omnibus belonging to the defendant Company, and noticed that, contrary to the statute, advertisements were affixed to the windows. Mr. Vaughan — On every window in the omnibus?
Mr. Jenkins —I won't say that there were advertisements on every window, but they certainly appeared on at least six of the windows in this particular omnibus.
Mr. Vaughan — Did they cover any part of the window.
Witness — Yes, they covered the top of the window to a depth of five or six inches.
Mr. Vaughan — Did you notice what the advertisements were?
Witness — l noticed there was a soap advertisement.
Mr. Vaughan — Did the advertisements cause any obstruction to you?
Witness — Yes, they did; I had to bend my head to see whether I was Hearing my destination.
Mr. Vaughan— You mean to say that, when looking straight, you could not see? Witness —Not what I wanted to see.
Mr. Vaughan — Did you feel yourself aggrieved by that ?
Witness — I felt so much aggrieved that I came here to complain to you. I have here a copy of the regulations I have obtained from the Secretary of State.
Mr. Hicks contended that no evidence had been given in support of the summons. The complaint the Company had to answer was one for suffering an advertisement to appear so as to cause annoyance.
Mr. Vaughan — There are statutory enactments as well as the regulations of the Secretary of State with regard to omnibuses. Advertisements affixed to the window of an omnibus are clearly prohibited.
Mr. Hicks — But this summons is for causing an annoyance, and l am here to meet that. Advertisements have been allowed on these omnibuses for years by the Commissioner of Police, who is the servant of the Secretary of State.
Mr. Vaughan — I know nothing about them. I do not allow them. I have had cases of this sort before, and I have convicted.
Mr. Hicks We are summoned for annoyance, and I want to know how the complainant is annoyed. (To Witness) Why do you devote yourself to worrying omnibus companies in this way?
Witness — I will answer that in the words of the Judges.
Mr. Hicks — At no great length, I hope.
Witness Oh, no; there are only six lines on this occasion, they were most merciful. Witness proceeded to read the expressed opinion of a learned Judge, that a traveller who felt himself aggrieved by the conduct of a railway, tram, or omnibus company was justified in prosecuting on behalf of the general public.
Mr. Hicks — And various magistrates have told you that what you are doing is nonsense.
Witness — On the contrary.
Mr. Hicks — Did Mr. Newton, in dismissing a summons taken out by you, and awarding the other side two guineas costs, say that your proceedings were vexatious?
Mr. Vaughan — l cannot go into that, because I know nothing about the circumstances. Mr. Hicks — I want to know, Mr. Jenkins, what advertisement caused you annoyance. Witness — Advertisements not according to the statute.
Mr. Vaughan — What is the personal annoyance.
Witness — It is, as I said the other day, if I were a tee-totaller, which I am not, I should object to a gin and bitters advertisement.
Mr. Vaughan — That is a hypothetical case.
Mr. Hicks — ln the same way, I suppose, if you were a moral person you would object to anything immoral.
Mr. Vaughan pointed out that these advertisements were prohibited by the regulations of the Secretary of State.
Mr. Hicks — We are not summoned here under the regulations of the Secretary of State. The statute says that before it can be illegal the advertisement must be an annoyance.
Mr. Vaughan — This summons was taken out for an infraction of the statute, and not for an infraction of the Secretary of State's regulations.
Mr. Hicks — I am prepared with independent evidence to show that the advertisements do not cause annoyance.
Mr. Vaughan — The proper course is to withdraw this summons, and then, if you think proper, you can take out a summons for the infringement of the regulations of the Secretary of State. If the Company is wisely advised it will withdraw these advertisements. The regulations are most precise. It is ordered that advertisements shall not be affixed to the windows. It is not a case of the exclusion of light or air. Witness — If the Company follows your advice and withdraws these advertisements, I will take no further proceedings.
Mr. Hicks — That is very good of you.
Mr. Vaughan — lf the complainant chooses he can take proceedings in the way indicated.
This summons is withdrawn.
            - Morning Post - Friday 4th October 1895

An old soldier’ wrote the following letter to The Morning Post ten years later, for the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 1897 in which he complained that the articles on show were of a very poor quality:

SIR, — The Jubilee has been the means of flooding the shop windows with wares of every sort and kind bearing the National emblems: Jubilee mugs, walking-sticks, charms, photograph frames, links, watches, pins, clocks — nothing is lacking; but it is too lamentable to see the terrible errors which have been made in carrying out the heraldic part of the designs. It has, alas! too long been evident that heraldry is almost forgotten by this generation, for it almost seems that the chief necessity in colouring the national emblems is to do that which is the reverse of right. To represent the historic Union Rose of York and Lancaster, so long the badge of England (and now taking its part in the Union badge), as a garden variety of red or white, or to omit the double treasure within which the Scotch lion should perform his gymnastic feats, are merely minor errors. Again, we frequently see the Irish harp on a green ground instead of the Royal blue; also the colours of the lions and of the ground on which they disport themselves reversed. I noticed at a certain store in the vicinity of Albert-gate the red St. George's Cross in the Union flag shown blue, St. Patrick white on red, and St. Andrew blue on white. Surely, when one sees these flagrant mistakes, it is time that some steps should be taken to prevent unscrupulous tradesmen from foisting on a credulous public these despicable parodies of the National insignia. Has not the Earl Marshal of England the power to forbid or punish such desecration? or, if not, cannot Parliament confer such power on him? Now that her Majesty's uniforms have ceased to clothe the sandwichmen, could not some little attention be paid to this misuse of the Royal Arms and badges? Truly there are a few bright exceptions, amongst them a well known Bond Street firm, who are making the most laudable efforts to ensure the strictest accuracy in design, and their Jubilee souvenirs are most instructive, being quite an education to those not well versed in the intricacies of heraldry. — Yours, &c,
            - Morning Post, 4th June, 1897

In 1897 you could get yourself anything from a jubilee bible, or a jubilee prayer book, to a jubilee handkerchief or a jubilee ash tray. I have even seen mentions of a jubilee comb and a jubilee toothpick. Another big national event and nothing changes. (Do you still have your Charles and Diana commemorative wall-plate?)

But what did the Victorian public make of all these invasive and ever-present advertisements that were spreading over the city like technicolour ivy?
Victorian Bill-Posters

I discovered many, many letters similar to the one above, in which concerned members of the public wrote complaints to editors of various newspapers concerning advertising:
“If you once give the pushing advertiser scope you never know where he will finish. He not only disfigures our walls and hedgerows, but he desecrates and spoils the landscape, and if he were allowed he would call in even the clouds to his aid.“ (From a letter to the editor of Reynolds's Newspaper, October 1895)

I managed to find a particularly humerous opinion piece on the subject of advertising, and it came, interestingly, from the London Society magazine all the way back in 1863, suggesting that the onslaught of advertising was perhaps a slow-burner, that exploded in the late 1880’s:

The Modern Art of Advertising.
There is a worldly wisdom continually crying aloud at the corners of the streets and arresting a considerable amount of popular attention – a wisdom which, utterly discarding the theory of happiness which would teach mankind to make their wants few, is never tired of reminding us how long we have been satisfied without obtaining possession of those things which properly constituted minds have recognized as necessities.

Of the thousand conveniences that ‘nobody should be without’, a large percentage becomes so notorious that we dare not acknowledge our ignorance of the comforts they profess to bestow. Of the thousand worthless inventions which are published into public notice by loud reiteration of their supposed qualities, a still larger proportion finds purchasers who cannot doubt the testimony of big placards and favourable certificates.

'Nothing is done now without advertising' has become an indisputable statement in relation to almost every trade where there is any possibility of competition; and even the quietest, sternest representatives of the quiet old steady men of business, who rejoiced in their scorn of a puff, and long held fast to the proverb that ‘Good wine needs no bush’ – have latterly been compelled to adopt the new method which has been introduced by the revolution effected through advertisements.

There is, doubtless, much to be said in favour of our present system, and to people really ‘in want’ of an article intended to serve a desired purpose, there can be no excuse on the score of ignorance, and much unnecessary trouble is saved: at the same time industry and invention are stimulated, and many actual wants are created which indirectly improve the condition of mankind.

Having frankly, and with considerable difficulty, admitted this much, it is surely excusable to point out the lamentable results which our present system of advertising have brought upon a number of individuals who have a right to be considered, and of whom the present writer is one.

In the first outburst of the advertising mania – the most startling symptoms of which were enormous placards announcing ‘monstre concerts’ and ‘cheap clothing’ – the government wisely interfered to prevent huge and sometimes revolving structures of timber, pasteboard and papier mache, from being drawn through the streets  by horses, to the obstruction of roadways and the danger of Her Majesty’s subjects. The class of which the present writer is one – the nervous, the hypochondriac, the irritable portion of the London public – may I add that portion of the public possessing a refined organization and a high sense of moral responsibility? – these, I say, were very grateful for this;  but what the better are we off at this moment, when the entire street architecture of this great metropolis is emblazoned with garish posters – when every blank wall smells of printers’ ink, and all London seems to have entered into a conspiracy to shout emphatic falsehoods in letters two feet long?

If anything could add to the horror occasioned by this state of things, it would be the miserable want of appropriateness which characterizes the mode of advertizing. There was once the chance of an obnoxious ‘bill’ exhibited on a builders hoarding, being overlaid by another less repulsive; but now that the ‘bill posters’ have themselves become capitalists, and buy up acres of dead wall and temporary fence for their exclusive use, the public is entirely at their mercy; and while the palings enclosing the site for a new chapel flame with dramatic sensations, - the exterior walls of harmonic retreats contain parochial announcements or appeals to the working classes.

Why should an individual with the physical and moral organization above alluded to be physically startled by the impertinent questions, and the still more impertinent assertions that stare upon him from every side? There is at least some redress for us if we are suddenly assaulted, or if we are knocked down and run over by a careless driver in the public streets; and it may be well maintained that these verbal assaults are even more brutal, - the shameless insults to our sensibilities more flagrant than any more physical violence. It is true that I have known of very severe personal accidents resulting from a strong north-east wind, and its effects upon the itinerant advertisers who carry great placards upon wooden frames; but these are nothing to the injuries of which I complain.

For what reason, let me ask, am I to be haunted, even in the seclusion of my own house, with enquiries from the opposite wall, - why I pay more than I do pay for all sorts of articles of domestic use? – why I do not double up my bedsteads? – whether I know where to go for the commonest necessaries of life? Why does some persistent child (I have no family) continually address me as papa and ask me to take it to some terrible bazaar or toy shop? Why, above all, am I (not advised) but absolutely commanded to eat and drink all sorts of things which would disagree with me; - to read half a dozen newspapers and periodicals (lying publications), each of which has a considerably larger circulation than any other? Why, above all, am I insulted by being made to speak for myself: and after having seen quite enough of sensation dramas to last a lifetime, to declare that I want to see any of them again?

Some of the questions are, on the face of them, grossly immoral. I remember having seen quite an eruption of little black bills on a fence near my house, enquiring if I wanted a cheap funeral; while in some others, addressed to the working classes, the question was artfully insinuated, ‘Why pay rent?’ there was an attempt to explain this shameful question away by some allusion to a building society I admit, but that is very little to the purpose.

The suburbs of London are distinguished, either by a more glaring display of colour in the bills which adorn the walls, or by a mere reliance upon size as regards the letters. The inhabitants must, many of them, be reduced to the last stage of indignation at the impudent meddling with their affairs which many of these remarks display; or at all events at the assumption of confidential smartness with which they appeal to vulgar readers. I referred the origin of the advertising mania to the monstre concerts and the cheap clothiers, but, in reality, the actual parents of the funny and confidential, and therefore inexpressibly vulgar announcements were the itinerant vendor of ginger beer and the marine store dealer.

Who cannot remember that painted board which adorned the red and blue ginger beer truck, once seen in the streets, but now seldom to  be found, except at fairs  and  on the road side, by commons and open pleasure-grounds?  The design was singularly infelicitous, inasmuch as on a broiling July day it depended for effect solely on recollections of the Christmas pantomime. There was clown, who, speaking from a long inflated bladder protruding from his mouth, was supposed to say, 'Here we are, try our ginger pop;' while to add force to his illustration of its merit, he had just discharged the cork from a bottle into the eye of pantaloon. Meanwhile, a short-waisted lady, with a large parasol, and a gentleman in a light blue body coat, recorded their conviction ‘that that was the shop for ginger-pop.'

The present style of theatrical advertisement is so obviously borrowed from the marine store dealer, that there can be no other proof required of the decay of the British drama.

That there may be many unenlightened, shall I say miserably misguided people, over the border of London, to whom slangy appeals are not offensive, I am afraid must be conceded, else why did I have thrust  into my hand the other day a bill  which, emanating from a tailor's shop in Whitechapel, spoke of the proprietor as 'a kicksies builder,' and made known the fact that as he had 'just made his escape from America, not forgetting to put his mauleys on some of the right sort  of stuff,' he was in a position, having 'some ready in his kick, to grab the chance' of buying some material for his business? After reading this, I was scarcely surprised to learn that 'Upper Benjamins' were 'built on a downy plan,'  that 'Moleskins built hanky panky,' and 'with artful buttons at bottom,' were quoted at  'half a monarch,' or that some other articles of wearing apparel were generally disposed of as 'mud pipes,' 'knee caps,' and 'trotter cases.'  Beyond the suburbs themselves the advertisements extend as they decrease in size; but still on park walls, railway arches, and canal bridges the weary public are enjoined to 'try' everything, from gin to soothing syrup, and are furthermore conjured to 'COUGH NO MORE.'

Our public conveyances are but traps in which the tired wayfarer is forced to seek some distraction from the wretched accommodation afforded him by perpetually repeating to himself the form of words from which he fancies he has found a temporary refuge. Almost in despair, and at the suggestion of a friend, I was recently induced to engage that description of cab known as ‘a Hansom’ to take me to ‘The West End. There, at least, I believed I should be free from torment. But with a refinement of ingenuity little less than diabolical, an oval announcement of cheap cutlery had been placed on the splash-board, there to stare me mercilessly in the face.

'The West End' itself is of course a saturnalia of advertisements. Announcements that 'He is coming' vie in intensity of colour with blatant injunctions to eat, buy, and see everything; till in a wild jumble of The Duke's Motto, elastic garters, Revalenta Arabica,  food for cattle, Morison's pills, the Cure, anti-garotters, and the Original Nerves, the afflicted observer seeks a refuge in the nearest tavern, where he is fortunate if he doesn't find the very pipe-lights to be mere cardboard slips printed with some sensational recommendation; and will, perhaps, afterwards discover that a circular playbill has been pasted inside his hat by some unseen agent of an enterprising manager.

Of those poor decrepit and suffering creatures, the wretched heralds of every novelty in turn, the wearers of those ghastly tabards which sometimes shock humanity by the strange want of harmony between their inscriptions and the appearance of those who are clothed by them, much might be said. To have seen a procession of old, greasy, and napless men, each of whom was labeled 'The Angel of Midnight,' was startling. To see a poor fainting creature sink from starvation under the burden of announcing 'good and cheap dinners,' was painful; but it was left to one of the representative men of Mr. George Cruikshank to achieve the sublime in this sort of illustration. It was no fault of Mr. Cruickshank, of course; the moral of is great picture was and is obvious – was and is striking: that too convivial herald, faithfully represented by the artist, had never had an opportunity of taking the lesson to his soul.

Wasn't the thing almost a public scandal? Imagine the inveterate toper – the humble worshipper of Bacchus, proposing the health of Mr. Cruikshank with the usual sentiment, 'May he ne'er want a friend nor a bottle to give him!'

I have scarcely been able to walk the West End streets since this last occurrence. Not altogether in consequence of that, however, but because of a very extraordinary accident which befel me recently on my return to town after a short excursion. I was coming home by an evening train on the Blank Dashton Railway, and as we stayed three minutes and a quarter for refreshments, contrived to swallow a cup of hot coffee, and to scramble in a very inflated condition into a carriage just as the train was starting. I had entered a second or third class carriage by mistake, and after a hurried glance round imagined it to be empty; until I was seized with a violent and disagreeable hiccough, the result, I believe, of the coffee. It was at that moment that, looking up over the newspaper over which I had been glancing by the uncertain light, I saw a large burly man who held in his hand a great pill-box. This he extended towards my face, until I read, printed on the lid, 'If this should meet the eye of anyone troubled with --.' I was about to thank him, when I was conscious of a dark solemn gentleman at my elbow who whispered in a sepulchral tone, 'Look to your legs.' To hear was to obey. I glanced, not without misgiving, at those limbs. 'Do your trousers fit you?' said a third dapper-looking traveller, who at that moment appeared on the opposite seat and spoke reproachfully. 'To those who have tender feet,' murmured a voice in the corner. 'Let those who are troubled with gout or rheumatism take these pills,' interrupted a sonorous passenger who held in his hand a box similar to the last. ‘No more pills, nor any other kind of medicine,' retorted an unseen voice. 'It was observed by Dr. Johnson,' resumed the former speaker, persistently. 'Thirty-seven port and matchless sherry,' murmured somebody in the corner. 'Pure and invigorating  essence, – bloom of roses and  indelible hair dye; – waterproof leggings – invisible wigs – self-fastening stays –repressible crinolines – surely the prettiest dress worn by boys this hundred years,' said all the passengers, at once plunging into general remarks, but evidently referring to me as the object of conversation. Suddenly I felt some ligature bound tightly round my body. I knew it in an instant; it was a strangely­ formed metal band for the cure of goodness knows what; I'd seen its portrait as adjusted to the human figure hundreds of times. Sharp throbs shot through my chest and penetrated every limb 'Compose yourself,' said a calmly cruel voice at my elbow; 'no pain will be felt in removing either decayed teeth or stumps.' I saw the glitter of the dental instruments, and as they flashed before my eyes, made a desperate effort to throw off my assailant.

'Hallo, guv'nor! wake up, and don't go knockin' your head agin the lantern that way:- we’re a goin to shunt off the carriages: lucky I happened to look in; an' you all by yourself too. Where are we! Why, London.'
There were no other passengers in the carriage, but the hideous tokens of their presence were blankly staring at me from the wooden panels in the shape of numerous advertisements.
-          London Society, August 1863

You need only look at certain examples of street photography to see what the above observer meant. Here are a few examples of Victorian advertising:

The Alhambra, 1899
The Aldgate Pump
Saturday Bridge, Birmingham, 1901
Agent provocateur advert on Marble Arch

By the 1880’s there were very few empty walls in major cities, especially London, and whilst the problem is probably not quite as ugly today – insamuch as you wont find many buildings covered in handbills – advertising has encroached upon almost every aspect of our lives. TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, carrier bags, trains, taxi’s, busses, football kits, websites, billboards and even beamed by light onto famous landmarks (remember the agent provocateur advert on Marble Arch a few years ago? Or Nokia beaming an advert onto Millbank tower?) But, it seems like it is simply a part of our culture now, and has been pervading it for the last one hundred and fifty years.

Now, I’ll take one Wenlock and Mandeville tea-towel please…

Monday, 5 March 2012

“Give Life and Animation to Those Noble Games!” Or: The 1896 Olympics – Part Two:

Last week we looked at the origins of the modern Olympics, and learned that we owe their return to the sporting calendar in 1896 after a 1,500 year hiatus to Pierre de Coubertin. This week, we shall explore the actual games. What happened? Who won what? And what were the Olympics like then, as opposed to now?

First of all, we all know that the Olympics begin with an opening ceremony. Who can forget the archer in the wheelchair at Barcelona in 1992, or the drummers at Beijing in 2008? So, what did Athens in 1896 do to herald this new era of international sport?

Well, an estimated eighty thousand people made their way into the Panathinaiko Stadium, (to put that in a little context, that’s five thousand more people than it takes to fill Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium) including the Greek Royal Family, one member of which, Prince Constantine, had been instrumental in drumming up enthusiasm and funds for the games. As president of the IOC, he made a speech, after which his father, King George I declared the games officially open. The ceremony itself consisted mostly of music. There was no Olympic Flame here, that didn’t appear until 1928 (Neither were the famous Olympic rings present, they were not designed until 1912). So instead, there were nine bands and a hundred and fifty choir singers, who performed Spyridon Samaras and Kostis Palamas’s Olympic Hymn;

Immortal spirit of antiquity,
Father of the true, beautiful and good,
Descend, appear, shed over us thy light
Upon this ground and under this sky
Which has first witnessed thy unperishable fame.
Give life and animation to those noble games!
Throw wreaths of fadeless flowers to the victors
In the race and in strife!
Create in our breasts, hearts of steel!
Shine in a roseate hue and form a vast temple
To which all nations throng to adore thee.
Opening Ceremony in the Panathinaiko Stadium

In 1957, the IOC declared this hymn the official Olympic anthem. The Pall Mall Gazette covered the Olympics quite extensively, and printed results of the events. They also did a short write-up about on opening ceremony:

The spectators of yesterday's events were calculated to number eighty thousand. The Royal party arrived at three o'clock. They were met in the centre of the arena by the Crown Prince, surrounded by the members of the organizing committee. His Highness in a short speech then formally begged the King to take over the Stadion, the restoration of which had been rendered possible by the generosity of a wealthy Greek. His Majesty, in reply, expressed his admiration for the incomparable beauty of the structure. He also cordially welcomed the athletic youth who had come from all parts of the world to lend additional brilliance to the festival. His Majesty finally took formal possession of the Stadion in the name of Greece. The King and the other members of the Royal party then proceeded to their allotted seats. The united bands then performed the special Olympic anthem, composed by M. Samara, which was conducted by the composer himself. The games commenced immediately afterwards.
            - Pall Mall Gazette, April 7th 1896

So what exactly were the events in which the athletes took part? There were nine sports at the Olympics back then (in contrast with the 28 at the 2008 games in Beijing) They were:


The first event to take place was the hundred metres, which was won by Francis Lane of USA, and his victory, and the subsequent impressive medal-haul of the USA team would become a stalwart of all future Olympics.

The greatest joy for the home support was to see one of their athletes, Spyridion Louis, win the marathon by a huge seven minutes. The marathon is an event of great historical importance to Greece, as – so the legend goes – the first marathon ever to take place was in 490 BC, when Pheidippides, a soldier from Athens, ran 26 miles from battle in Marathon, in which the Greeks defeated their Persian invaders, in order to tell his fellow Athenians that they had been victorious. After relaying his message, he died from exhaustion.
Spyridion Louis (Left) being cheered as he nears the marathon finish line in the stadium

The Greeks then, were overjoyed when messengers outside the Panathinaiko stadium (where the marathon finishing line was situated) relayed the chant of ‘Hellene! Hellene!’ (A Greek! A Greek!) as Louis approached well-clear of his rivals to become a national hero and emulate the success of Pheidippides over two thousand years before him on Athenian soil. Even more satisfying was that Louis was not a professional athlete, and turned down riches and fame to go back to his simple as a shepherd in a small village after his success at the games.

The swimming sounds like a rather more dangerous event than we know today. Hungarian swimmer Alfred Hajos won both the 100 metre and 1,200 metre races, the second of which involved the athletes being ferried out 1,200 metres to sea on a boat before jumping into the water and swimming back to land. Hajos went on to say that his; “…will to live completely overcame the desire to win”. Which is not a surprise.
Alfred Hajos

My favourite story of the Olympics, though, concerns Tennis and the MP John Boland. Boland was in Athens during the Olympics to visit his friend, Thrasyvoulos Manos. Manos was a member of the Athens Lawn Tennis sub-committee of the IOC, and had struggled to attract athletes to compete in the tennis. With the numbers a little short, Manos entered Boland, and the MP went on to win the singles tournament, defeating the Egyptian Dionysios Kasdaglis in the final. Even more impressive, Boland was also entered into the doubles competition, pairing up with Friedrich Traun (whom Boland had defeated in the first round of the singles competition) and the pair went on to win the event, giving Boland his second gold medal and making him the most successful Brit at the games, despite travelling to Athens with no intention of even competing in them. After the Olympics, the Pall Mall Gazette gave a rather waspish account of the inadequacy of the Greeks, and poked a bit of fun at their famous historical figures:

John Boland
The Olympic Games are over. It is to be hoped that the resurgent glory of Greece is not overshadowed by the victory of Mr. Boland (Dublin) over Mr. Themistocles (Athens) at the gentle game lawn tennis, and by the swimming performance of Mr. Hajos (Hungary), who easily defeated Mr. Nicias, Mr. Eschylus, Mr. AlcIbiades, and other members of the best-known Greek families…
               - Pall Mall Gazette 16th April 1896

The closing ceremony took place on 15th April, with, once again, the Royal Family present. The Greek national anthem opened the ceremony before the King distributed the prizes to the winners. In 1896, first placed athletes received a silver medal, an olive branch and a diploma, and second placed athletes received a copper medal, olive branch and diploma, whilst third placed athletes received nothing.

After this, marathon winner and new Greek hero Spyridion Louis lead the athletes on a lap of honour around the stadium whilst the Olympic hymn was played, before King George pronounced the games officially at an end
Awarding the Prizes

So what was the final result of the 1896 games? Medal-wise, host nation Greece fittingly won the most medals overall, with a total of 46, but the USA were not far behind.

When the Olympics came to an end, the officials were full of praise for Athens, and suggested the games should be held there every four years. The American team even sent a letter to King George I to suggest as much, but Coubertin preferred the idea of the Olympics being an international event, and that the host city could be changed every year in order to bring the joy of sport to as many different parts of the world as possible. Athens would have to wait another 108 years until the Olympics returned in 2004.

The Olympics that followed the Athenian games were held in Paris in 1900, but were a bit of an anti-climax since the Parisians decided to incorporate the games in the World’s Fair they were hosting, meaning that the sporting events took a back seat to the technological exhibits, such as the first escalators, Rudolf Diesel’s engine, and the star attraction, the Great Exposition refractor – the largest refracting telescope ever seen. The shame about the lack of interest in the Paris Olympics is that Paris was Coubertin’s home town, and I imagine that he would have been overjoyed had the Olympics been a success there. He would go on to see eight more Olympic games take place before his death in 1937, however – and happily – the 1924 Olympics returned to Paris, beating competition from Los Angeles, Rio and Rome. This time around the city got it right, and Coubertin, at the age of 61, got to see his Olympic dream take place in his home town.

The London Olympics has had its naysayers and doom-mongers, and some of their objections I agree with, but there can be little doubt that the Olympics is an event of global and historical significance, as well as, of course, a great showcase for the world’s greatest athletes, and London should be proud to be hosting for the third time.

I just hope the swimmers a grateful they’re not being ferried out to the English Channel and dropped overboard for their event...