Libraries and whores are not natural bedfellows. Yet in the Wellcome Library on Euston Road you can work your way though more loose women than Genghis Khan on his gap year. The centre holds the world's foremost collection of tart cards — those colourful adverts that decorate London's phone boxes.
Stephen Lowther is in charge of the smutty stash, which forms part of the library's medical ephemera collection. The holdings comprise single sheet publications that, in some way, relate to health, medicine or social welfare. This includes cigarette cards, magazine inserts, health leaflets and, yes, adverts for whores.
In the line of duty, he periodically checks the local phone boxes — centering on the unholy trinity of King's Cross, Warren Street and Baker Street — for new varieties of filth. (Vice work if you can get it.) Over 20 years, the collection has built up to 17 boxes.
Needless to say, it is a treasure trove for the social historian, revealing patterns of immigration, sexual preference and local development. "If nothing else," says Stephen, "it's a history of self-publishing."
The earliest cards in the collection, from the late 1980s, show only an amateur grasp of reprographics — simple ill-aligned photocopies onto cardboard. There are no photos, only the occasional sketch of a female form or face. Claims are merely suggestive — this was a new phenomenon, not yet sure of its boundaries. There are no sex vixens here, rather attractive models and escorts for discrete services.
The first colour image in the collection dates from 23 January 1992, and shows a curvaceous QC promising 'Judgement Day'. Around the same time, a fad for day-glo cardboard crept into the mix. A saucy humour is evident, with names like Naughty Sammy Nipples and Madam Stern advertising their diverting wares. But the cards remained modest — an unspoken rule that nipples and lower bits should be concealed was usually observed, and still is to a surprising extent.
With time, a greater ethnic diversity can be seen. Until the mid-90s, the typical tart was of apparently English stock. From around 1994 onwards, we see Oriental beauties, busty Amazons and Jamaican Dominatrices. Raunchy photographs become common at this point, but are often cribbed from magazines and bear/bare little resemblance to the goods on offer. The production values improve as well. One lady poses next to an inset that shows her recent endorsement by the News of the World. Another has a map, pointing to a bedsit on Warren Street. XXX marks the spot.
The cards are placed by young men, who follow a predetermined route among the neighbourhood's phone boxes, Blu-tacking up adverts and often removing those of rivals. They also compete with the phone companies and local authorities, who try to trash the cards as quickly as they appear. According to Fergus Linnane in London The Wicked City, "In one eight-week period more than a million cards were removed. These would have cost the whores involved £150,000 to have printed."
Stephen notes that there are very few adverts for male services. 'West End Luke' and 'Darren' are two rare exceptions. In the examples he shows me, the head is unseen, while a muscular torso fills the sheet. "People aren't interested in Darren's face," muses Stephen.
What of more recent times? Have the Noughties got more naughty?
They've certainly got more inventive, as increasingly sophisticated designs compete for attention. Stephen points out a noticeable rise in Sapphic services, including 'Lesbian Babes Nikki and Vikki'. The first card in the collection to offer three prostitutes appeared in February this year, showing a trio of 'top class sexy ladies' posing in bikinis on a bed.
The cards sometimes carry a seasonal theme, laden with Sid James-isms. "Why wait for Christmas, pull this stunning cracker now," boasts one. And there's similar nonsense each Valentine's Day.
Transexuals seem to be on the wane, while bondage and S&M are increasingly common, as attested by a 'London Dungeon' you won't find on Tooley Street. And bringing bangs up-to-date, one card features an anime lady with a strap-on dildo.
As a work of (t)art, the call card is dieing out. The rise of the mobile phone means the decline of the phone box, and the collection is not growing as it once did. But virtual Viagra is at hand. Many cards now contain a web address at the bottom, as the industry's shop window moves to the Internet.
Stephen still checks the booths regularly. "I've only been confronted once," he says, when we ask if selecting smutty cards from a phone booth ever draws attention. "A couple of old dears straight out of Monty Python told me how wicked it is. How this sort of thing shouldn't be allowed."
Few people would argue that decorating public spaces with obscene propositions is a good thing. But as this phenomenon declines, it's good to know that somebody is keeping a chronicle. Those 17 boxes of smut from the Euston Road contain a unique snapshot of the world's oldest trade as it adapts to the lusts of a new millennium.
Find out more
The collection of Tart Cards is available for study on request to the Wellcome Library. Sadly, no images of the cards can be reproduced owing to uncertain copyright status.
The phenomenon was studied in the 2003 book Tart Cards: London's Illicit Advertising Art by Caroline Archer.
London The Wicked City by Fergus Linnane is a good source on the history of prostitution in London, from the first reference to a whore in 1058 to the modern day.