Friday, May 9, 2008


Tallinn was one of the northern outposts of the Hanseatic League, an alliance of trading guilds that held a monopoly in the Baltic region during the 13th to the 17th century. Not unlike the modern European Union, cities could join the League and then put their commercial activities under the League control. Tallinn joined the League in 1285 and became a prosperous trade center. Much of the architecture in the Old Town dates from the Hansa years.

One of the problems with Hansa, as with today’s Europe, was that not all of the people spoke the same language. In addition, the vast majority of people could not read or write. Wealthy merchants employed professional “writers” who would not only look after the books but would also correspond with their counterparts in other cities.

Shop owners within a Hansa city had a problem with how to advertise their wares. If people spoke diverse languages and if most of them could not even read, how would the shopkeepers tell them what was for sale? The solution was to establish a series of icons, or clever wrought iron signs, that would have universal meaning. In Tallinn, some of these (or at least their modern replicas) remain. For example, a coffee house might be advertised with a metal pot.

Or an optometrist shop might have a picture of spectacles.

Or the baker might have a kringel dangling from the building.

Sometimes other symbols, like flags, might be used as a part of the sign, such as a metal Danish flag advertising the Danish Cultural Association.

Modern adaptations have included a sign for a puppet theater:

and (this is great!) for lingerie,

or for a stip club.

Sometimes the modern signs are intentionally mysterious, such as the one advertising a shop run by artisans.

The most obnoxious Hansa sign, however, is right inside the Old Town, and most Estonians are not loving it.

-- Aarne

1 comment:

Triin said...

LOL! I love this entry. I think you should put a link to this to all major web sites introducing Tallinn as the Tourist destination.

The lingerie and the (obnoxious) McD are the best!