All cities have their symbols: Paris has its Eiffel Tower, Amsterdam its canals, Sydney its opera house. Think of London and what springs to mind? Double-decker buses, black cabs or Beefeaters guarding the Tower? Nowadays Britain’s capital city has a more ephemeral but equally pervasive symbol: vice cards.
Vice cards are the means by which London prostitutes advertise their services. They have become as ubiquitous a symbol of this city as the red telephone boxes in which they are found. Step in to any central London call box and you will see up to 80 cards inviting you to be tied, teased, spanked or massaged in luxury apartments, fully-equipped chambers or the privacy of your own hotel room.
All this and more is just ‘one minute away’ from the box in which you are standing. Read the cards in the boxes and you get more than just a hint of an alternative London. Some people find the cards offensive, others amusing. For the girls and their customers they are a commercial necessity.
To anyone interested in printing and graphic design, the cards form a microcosm of evolving typographic tastes and techniques. For those printers prepared to take the risk, they represent regular and lucrative business. But love them or loath them, vice cards are undoubtedly an intriguing slice of English social history.
For most of their history, London’s prostitutes have had to rely on body language and word of mouth to attract business: Victorian courtesans sought out rich men by riding in Hyde Park dressed in ravishing riding habits and beaver skin hats, whilst the street girls were compelled to walk the pavements ‘decked with the gaudy trappings of their shame’. But as early as then, some London prostitutes were distributing business cards to theatres and musical halls. The cards were placed in sealed envelopes that were printed with delicately suggestive rhymes.
In 1956 soliciting on the streets of Britain became illegal, and prostitutes had to find alternative methods of publicising their services. A new market-place was established when, for a few pennies a week, the girls began placing postcards in friendly newsagents’ and tobacconists’ windows. Amongst the advertisements for bed-sits, second-hand pianos and hedge trimming, there appeared hand-written cards containing announcements for models and masseuses.
It was not possible in 1956 to advertise in telephone boxes because the Post Office Act had made it an offence to affix any placard, advertisement, notice, list, document, board or thing in or on, property belonging to the Postmaster-General. This offence was created at a time when the Post Office was a Government department, and telecommunications were a monopoly. It continued to be a crime until it was repealed upon the privatisation of British Telecom in 1984.
At this point a gap opened up in the law. Some of the girls saw their chance and moved their advertising out of the shop windows and into the telephone boxes: a new genre of street literature was born. The practice of placing prostitutes cards in phone boxes is known as ‘carding’ and it is a particularly English phenomenon specific to London and the seaside resorts of Brighton and Hove where they serve a flourishing tourist trade. (Interestingly, there have also been small outcrops of cards on the coast of North Lincolnshire that cater for a transient maritime population.)
Carding started as a kitchen table industry with a handful of prostitutes and their maids cutting-out images, drawing their own illustrations, rubbing-down lettering and then passing it all over to a trusted printer. It developed in to an extensive, professional, well-organised and highly technical production process that utilised the latest manufacturing systems. Behind the cards there is a vibrant and well-organised industry that comprises prostitutes, punters, pimps and printers. It is an illicit business, but one that is thriving and persistent and where money changes hands swiftly and inconspicuously.
The first advantage to carding was that, telephone boxes provided the means for a client to respond immediately to the advertisement. Even more important was free media space. Telephone boxes make it physically possible for the girls to place an advert without the knowledge or consent of the owner and without paying. This is not feasible with more traditional media such as newspapers, magazines or shop windows.
There are hundreds of telephone boxes in Central London; this gives the girls a huge number of sites to display an unlimited number of cards, for as long as they need and as frequently as they want. From 1984, telephone boxes covered in cards advertising sexual services became a common sight in London, and the boxes began to take on the appearance of miniature pop-art galleries festooned with as many as 80 brightly coloured cards. The cards carried images of women, sometimes transsexuals, and occasionally men. A phone number, but no address, is included, and cards carry either a suggestion of, or an explicit listing for, the available sexual services.
The range of provisions that are on offer are limitless: BDSM, corporal punishment, domination, fetish, massage, oral, role-pay, transvestites, transsexuals, gays and lesbians all rank high among London’s favourite predilections. The vices offered by today’s prostitutes have not altered over the centuries, nor have the locations from which they work, but the means by which they are advertised have certainly progressed.
The tone and appearance of the vice cards has changed considerably since they first appeared. The early ones were quaint and merely hinted at the services offered. Few of them used sex to sell the sex that was on offer. Small in format - they were not much larger than a business card - and brief on text, they were predominantly typographic and always simple. They were generally printed in black on plain, multifariously toned, uncoated material of whatever substrate the printer had left on his shelf. Occasionally line illustrations were used, but they were more suggestive of a lady’s hairdressing salon than a brothel.
Although produced in the 1980s, the early cards were distinctly Fifties both in tone and design. Many still used foundry display types such as ATF’s Brush, or Stephenson Blake’s Chisel and Open Titling. Alternatively, they used Baskerville or Garamond, two of the most pervasive text typefaces of the 1950s; as a result they retained an old-world charm. The techniques behind their production were rudimentary: illustrations were hand-drawn, traced, or photocopied. Type was seldom set: it was either rubbed-down, cut out from magazines, or sometimes hand produced. Images and type were pasted together and handed to the printer.
As more girls advertised their services the cards became larger - A7 or less frequently one third of A5 - and more distinctive. Girls developed their own recognisable style. Specialised services were offered and a visual and written vocabulary began to evolve to reflect each specialism. Cards offering schoolgirl services or Le Vice Anglais had a Victorian feel and accordingly used nineteenth-century typefaces; domination cards used stern words set in Gothic letters; cards proffering massage needed a luxurious and whimsical script.
These mid-period cards were predominantly typographic and were supported by roughly drawn, but often delightful, line illustrations. They managed to maintain both a sense of mystery and a sense of humour. Eventually the ISO standards made themselves felt even in the vice industry, and by January 1994 nearly all the cards had been enlarged to A6 postcard size. Four-colour started to be seen on the cards during the summer of 1997, and by the summer of 1998, four-colour, and ‘proper’ typesetting was the norm.
Today’s cards depend upon full-page, sometimes explicit, glossy, photographic images to put across their sales pitch. The images are downloaded from the Internet and are never of the person offering the services, although they are often advertised as ‘genuine’! The charm and allure apparent in the early cards has gone from the modern cards, individuality and originality has been lost.
The business of manufacturing and posting cards is intense and the volumes involved are enormous. It has been estimated over 13 million cards are deposited in Central London phone boxes each year, equating to 250,000 a week, or 35,600 cards a-day. Telecommunications operators calculated that in 1997 there were around 650 women operating in this way in London, touting for business at the end of 400 different phone lines. Now it is estimated that there are only 250 prostitutes working from cards, and if this is the case, each girl requires a staggering 52,000 cards a year and will put out over 1000 cards a week, or 150 cards a day.
The cards are placed in the boxes on behalf of the girls by people known as ‘carders’ who are frequently students or unemployed. It is a highly lucrative trade and the carders can earn an average of £30 for 100 or £200 per day for between 600 and 700 cards placed. The girls pay for the carders out of their own wages, and with thirteen million of them placed annually, the wages of sin are in the region of £4 million.
In London, the cards only appear in certain areas: generally in the anonymous centre of the city where the girls hope to attract tourists and businessmen and where, because of the transient population, there are fewer community shops displaying cards for local services. In other, more residential parts of the capital, the girls still maintain the older methods of advertising in shop windows.
For as long as people have been putting up cards, there have been other people - official and unofficial - taking them down. The objections to the cards are numerous, and corporate organisations and private individuals alike have branded vice cards as ‘excessive and objectionable’. When attached to telephone boxes, the cards sometimes hide important emergency and public service information; and when they become unattached they are thought to cause litter problems. The cards may give foreign visitors a bad impression of the UK, and they might be an inappropriate influence on young people. Teachers and parents at one London school complained that pupils as young as five had invented their own version of the Pokémon card using prostitute cards that they collected, then swapped. There has been more than one model that has been alarmed to find her photograph used without permission on the cards.
Over the years, local councils have taken the problem in to their hands and attempted to control the cards by various pieces of legislation, but with limited success. Until recently the fines imposed were minimal. Carders, if they were caught, were fined a mere £200, which they viewed as an occupational hazard and an acceptable expense to the business. The prostitutes and their carders managed to beat the law at every turn.
The telecommunications operators also attempted to crack down on carding. To the phone operators the cards represented a problem on a number of fronts including the cost of removing them. British Telecom conservatively estimated that unauthorised advertising in its call boxes cost it £250,000 per annum. The telephone operators were also concerned at the potential lost revenue as the very presence of the cards was felt to deter potential customers from using particular phone boxes. They also considered that the nature and volume of the cards might affect the image they wished to promote - an important issue in the UK’s increasingly competitive telecommunications market. Frequent daily cleaning programmes by councils and telecommunications companies to remove cards proved ineffective and expensive. No sooner were the cards removed than teams of watchful carders would replace them. BT made further attempts to combat the cards by amending its customer contract to stop any advertising in a public call box that carried a BT number. Where a customer advertised this way, BT had the right to bar all incoming calls to the advertised number. The girls responded by changing their telephone suppliers or switching to mobile phones.
Despite the efforts of local councils and telecommunications operators to minimise or eradicate the cards, the ‘girls-in-the-box’ continued to proliferate. The Home Office eventually intervened. A new law under the Criminal Justice and Police Act was brought in on 1 September 2001 that made displaying vice cards an arrestable and recordable offence. Police were given the authority to take direct action against carders, and those arrested can have their cards seized and destroyed and may face up to £5,000 fine or six months imprisonment.
What have been the reactions of the carders and the girls to the newly introduced legislation? Some of the carders have changed their working times to between midnight and five in the morning to avoid the interest of the police and public. Others have taken to removing their own cards at dawn to avoid their being confiscated, and replacing them at night. Some of the cards have reverted to purely typographic advertising in an attempt to escape prosecution. Certainly the local newspapers have seen an increase in the number of small ads for massage parlours, saunas and escort services. But despite all, the cards are still in the boxes.
As an alternative to cards in call boxes, the International Union of Sex Workers has suggested that a directory of London sexual services be published, an old solution to a new problem that finds its roots in the eighteenth century: we are back with Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. Nothing is ever really new in the commercial world of London sex.
Vice cards have become fascinating cultural icons. For some, the cards are interesting because they are trackers of technology: they show when specialised production equipment became available, quite literally, at street level. To others the cards are artistic or typographic curios with a unique linguistic and visual vocabulary. The cards are also sociological and cultural records of the late twentieth century, mirroring the changing sexual attitudes and practices of the past 20 years.
Many British universities, libraries and museums have extensive collections of these ephemeral items, including the Wellcome Institute Library, the Guildhall Library, the Opie Collection and Reading University. Many individuals have accumulated either selective or near comprehensive collections. Recently, enterprising second-hand book dealers have started selling the cards for good prices to collectors: Delectus Books on the Charing Cross Road sell 25 of the current cards for £15.
They have also become something of a cult: the BBC uses a montage of the cards in its late night comedy series So Graham Norton; and fans of BBC2’s League of Gentlemen may have noticed spoof cards in the call boxes on that programme. There are Internet web sites devoted to the phenomenon where you can play games such as Prostitute Poker with the cards. And there are businesses wholly unrelated to prostitution that have adopted the vice card genre in their own publicity. This peculiar manifestation of ephemeral street literature has gained both market value and street credibility.
Prostitution, like the poor, will always be with us and the girls are starting to look for other ways to advertise their services. Many cards already carry web addresses and the oldest profession is now using the newest of technologies. Like most other European countries it is not a criminal offence to work as a prostitute in the UK, but the allied trades of the business - soliciting, advertising, handling money from clients, brothel-keeping, and living off the earnings of prostitution - are all forbidden by law.
Despite the law and its hindrances, many thousands of men and women in London still engage in the age-old business of commercial sex. They publicise their services in newsagents windows, local papers, contact magazines, the Internet, but mainly they advertise on cards stuck to the inside of telephone boxes.
After several years working as a freelance typographer, Caroline Archer is now a journalist and writer on the graphic arts. Caroline’s book ‘Tart Cards’ is published by Mark Batty Publisher, ISBN 0-9724240-40.