Where’s Eliza? Victorian guerilla advertising


Advert from the Post Office Directory, London and the Home Counties, 1872

In 1872, Samuel Butler wrote to Darwin about his book Erewhon, which had just been published, to explain that his chapter on the rise of machines was not anti-Darwinian as many critics thought but a pro-Darwinian satire. Excusing his failure to make his intention clear, he remarked, ‘the more enigmatic a thing of this sort is the more people think for themselves about it, on the principle that advertisers ask “Where is Eliza?” and “Who is Griffiths?”‘ Familiar references to Darwin and Butler, apparently, but where was Eliza? And who was Griffiths? A quick trawl through some Victorian literature seemed called for …


The Victorian age was a great time for advertising. Vast numbers of things were on sale thanks to the industrial revolution, and there was little regulation of what could be claimed or where adverts could be stuck (although you could be prosecuted for sticking things on other people’s walls this does not seem to have acted as much of a deterrent). The wordy, earnest, clunkily illustrated adverts in the popular press are reliably entertaining. But it seems the Victorians could be as sophisticated at creating a buzz as any modern media agency.


“Who’s Griffiths?” was a question posted on walls in the 1860s. The answer was not hard to find: he was “a safe man”, that is, he made safes, and he advertised in The Times as well, to make all clear. “Where’s Eliza?” appeared on walls in the 1840s, but it seems that no one ever found out who she was or where: or if they did, the information has been lost. Many subsequent writers put the slogan in the same class as “Who’s Griffiths?”, although they generally speculate that Eliza was a missing person (or as Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal of 1853 puts it, ‘some modern Thisbe unhappily lost in the wilderness of this great Babylon, for whose restoration her love-lorn and bewildered Pyramus distractedly appeals to London Wall through the medium of the billsticker’.) Evidently the answer, ‘Ask Strange, of Paternoster-row’, had appeared in some instances: Strange was a publisher. Was he selling a book about Eliza? If so, her name seems not to have been in the title. And was this evocative phrase, remembered with puzzlement decades later, an example of successful or unsuccessful advertising: or was it advertising at all?


[The letter will be published in volume 20 of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin]

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