The oldest profession

“Dreams cum true in W2”. This is literally poetry in motion. But in the louche red light district of Paddington? The wording on prostitutes’ cards is explicit in 2002. 

Not so when I first began collecting these gaudy cards back in 1990.   I only knew of one other person Maurice Rickard, the late erudite founder of The Ephemera Society who collected these ephemeral pieces of social documentation. He was a graphic designer. author and a scholar of the printed word and design. 

I collected them because they made an interesting contrast to my 1920’s sepia photographic postcard collection of  the 'French ladies of the night'. These crude monochrome sketches showed “a big chest for sale” or “a chair for caning” plus the phone number. Nothing more, nothing less. Your imagination did the rest with the exception of black and red dominatrix cards screaming your Mistress awaited you or you could be spanked by an angry Miss or Mistress commanded all subs, slaves & beginners daring the punter to call.    The cards were half postcard size on crude paper and cost the prostitute about 30p each to have printed. An 18 year old brunette was described as sexy & wild. Others were expounding the virtues of big breasts and not much else.  No names nor indication of nationality or race – just the most important thing – the phone number and the district. Kings Cross, Baker Street, Lancaster Gate, Paddington, W1, W2 or Tottenham Court Road. By 1993, more tempting sexcapades had been added. The cards were still crude but some were postcard size in lurid lime green, scarlet (an obvious red light colour) and shocking pink. Not to be missed in a BT phone box but not yet a sophisticated art form.  By now Madame Scarlet had to be obeyed in competition with another strict Madame, Mistress Cane (no pain… no gain…) was just off Baker Street and the merciless mature  Madame Samantha was back in town. Where had she been? In prison? Another young Miss loved old fashioned discipline and all kinky services were catered for. A sexy 19 year blonde could excite you any and every way, spank to relief, offer water sports and oral pleasure. A no-name card stated “There’s a fine line between pain and pleasure” while Pamela had been “bad and needed punishment” and a 42 inch busty Israeli beauty of 18 was in town. New tall leggy black beauty Tina was local (which local?) and you could get a massage with 18 year old Mandy only 2 minutes away from the phone box – if you could remember where the phone box was. The youngest at 17, liked a cane and loved the pain performing in Lancaster Gate and Paddington.  Two different cards with the same phone number. Did that mean two premises? Did that mean several ladies of the night shared the same phone? If so, that would constitute a brothel and therefore be illegal. Or the same face and two different phone numbers. Were you really going to meet the girl in the photograph?  So much choice. So much pain. So much pleasure.

Back in 1994 the University of Westminster carried out research on what had become a huge litter problem, an embarrassment to local residents who found these cards on the pavements, as well as an enormous aggressive advertising campaign. Over 100,000 cards were cleared out of BT phone boxes a week. Teams of cleaners had to be employed to clear the boxes which would be filled up again hours later by watchful carders – men employed by prostitutes to distribute the cards at £30-£50 a day. The printing in those days was about £100 a week so the girls had to invest in their own business and marketing campaigns.

For the next five years I forgot about cards in phone boxes but by the end of 1999 I noticed a distinct change due to digital printing and scanning. A semi-naked blonde in front of a scanned butterfly suggested that you “Flutter your Fantasies and open your sensations”. The marketing had changed beyond belief. Supply and demand. Presumably punters were demanding such explicit services that the ladies replied  publicly, in print, offering exciting sexual menus and personal services. However, you had to be in the know to be able to decode the seemingly innocent services. So many nationalities were on lurid display. The phone boxes had been transformed into a sexual United Nations. Italian and Spanish models, Anglo-Asian beauties, South American latin babes, Cuban, Southern Thai (not Northern), Welsh no less, Black beauties, Australian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese students (who are not legally allowed to work in the UK) , Singaporian, Russian (hopefully not working for the Albanians) and sweet oriental flowers from X-otic Mauritius and the Seychelles. A noticeable absence of the French but where had the British working girls gone to? Do we assume if they don’t say where they come from that they must be English? The male Latinos, especially Brazilians, ruled the roost for pre-op transsexual services offering their own menus of delights. There was only one exception to the slender babes, an obese young woman stating the obvious – Big and beautiful. You have to cater for all tastes.

The cards had become large postcard size and could now be dated by the 0171 numbers which were abandoned on 22 April 2000. The new cards with the new 0207 numbers, could cost each prostitute at least £1 plus depending on the print run. Some of them didn’t employ proof readers especially for relevant words like stress relief, erotic and personal services. The 2002 cards give mobile phone numbers and a few have websites. The wording is in mobile phone shorthand such as “hard 4 you”. In years to come these faces will become dated like the 1920’s postcards. The make up, hair styles and underwear and we will be able to say that those prostitutes had the 90s look or the Millennium look. Last year displaying these cards was made a criminal offence punishable by a £5,000 fine or six months in prison. This year Westminster removes 150,000 cards a week from boxes. That’s 50,000 more per week than in 1994 meaning that sex with prostitutes is still a basic need for international punters.

Jilliana Ranicar-Breese 2002. City Lit. London  Journalism class.