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By Stewart Emmens on

Signs Of The Times

On the 1st July they’ll have been in England for three years. The other home countries got theirs some months earlier. On a typical day we might pass hundreds of them, but they’re such a part of the landscape now that we barely notice them at all.

Smoking sign
Statutory no smoking sign at the main entrance to the Science Museum (Stewart Emmens)

On that day in 2007, England followed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by making it illegal to smoke in most enclosed public spaces and work premises. As part of this major public health legislation, shops, pubs and other businesses – including museums – were obliged to display a sign, like the one above, at each entrance.
At a stroke, ambiguity about smoking was removed. And with it went the wide variety of signage that existed before the ban. There were no longer restaurant tables “reserved for non-smokers” or designated “smoking areas” within pubs.

Smoking signs
Smoking signage collected from various London pubs in 2007 (Stewart Emmens)

Luckily, before they went, I managed to collect a few such examples for our collections. A quest that required trawling around numerous pubs, cafés and restaurants – a tough job, I know, but it had to be done.

Smoking carriage
A train's first class smoking compartment, 1936 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The bans were a big expansion of earlier legislation which had banned smoking in many workplaces, but also in buses, cinemas and even on the London Underground. All signs of our changing relationship with smoking. And there is an earlier generation of smoking signs that hint at levels of acceptance which seem almost inconceivable now.

Smoking sign
No smoking sign from a hospital ward, c1960-1975 (Science Museum)

For example, while the sign may have reminded the smoker that the ward was out of bounds, it does give the impression that if you just nipped out to the corridor – you’d be free to puff away with impunity.