What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Now open’d for Sale, at the Sign of the LION and MORTER.”
Little and Jackson sold “A large and fresh Assortment of genuine Medicines” at their apothecary shop near the Crown Coffee House in Portsmouth. The sign the druggists displayed made it easier for residents and visitors to the port to locate their shop. Its device, the “LION and MORTER,” testified to the type of merchandise they carried, including popular patent medicines imported from England as well as ingredients for compounding remedies on the spot.
The mortar alone, a symbol widely recognized among potential customers, would have sufficiently described Little and Jackson’s business. Adding the lion, a regal symbol, imbued their business with more prestige, but that was not all it accomplished. It also replicated a shop sign already in use by one of their counterparts in Salem, Massachusetts. As early as January 1764, Philip Godfrid Kast advertised in the Boston Post-Boy that he imported and sold “a very large Assortment of DRUGS and MEDICINES” at his shop “at the Sign of the Lyon and Mortar.” In 1774, Kast even distributed a trade card that featured his sign, a rare visual image of what would have been a ubiquitous sight in colonial cities.
In choosing to pair a lion with a mortar, had Little and Jackson infringed on Kast’s efforts to brand his business? Not by the standards of the eighteenth century. The devices depicted on many shop signs had long been in use in England, first appearing in an earlier period with lower literacy rates. Just as the mortar and pestle were associated with druggists, other symbols denoted specific occupations. For instance, a sign showing a dog with its head in a bucket indicated that a smith practiced his trade at that location. Leather dressers who made all sorts of clothing, including James and Matthew Haslett, did so at the “Sign of the BUCK and GLOVE.”
Throughout London and the provinces and, eventually, the colonies, the consistent use of these and other easily recognized symbols conveniently marked where shopkeepers and artisans carried on specific activities. To some extent they could be deployed as branding in a certain area, but they did not tend to be the sole domain of entrepreneurs and advertisers beyond their local markets.