What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The Sign of the Elephant.”
Richard Jackson and John Updike informed prospective customers that their shop was located at “the Sign of the Elephant, opposite John Angell’s, Esq,” in an advertisement in the September 10, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette. Elsewhere on the same page, Clark and Nightingale also used the combination of shop sign and landmarks to denote their location: “At the Sign of the Fish and Frying-Pan, opposite Oliver Arnold’s, Esq; near the Court-House.” Sarah Goddard and John Carter, printers of the Providence Gazette, did not list their location in either of the advertisements they inserted in the issue, but the colophon stated that “the Sign of Shakespear’s Head” adorned their printing office. Joseph Russell and William Russell also did not indicate their location in their advertisements in the September 10 issue, but these prominent merchants regularly ran other advertisements that told readers to seek them out at “the Sign of the Golden Eagle, near the Court-House.” Collectively, these advertisers paint a portrait of some of the sights colonists would have seen as they traversed the streets of Providence in the late 1760s.
Jackson and Updike marketed many of the same goods as Clark and Nightingale. Both sets of partners led their advertisements with “English and India Goods” before providing more complete accountings of their various sorts of merchandise. In selecting the visual images to identify and, in effect, brand their shops, however, they opted for different strategies. Jackson and Updike chose an elephant, an exotic beast unlikely to have been glimpsed by the vast majority of residents of Providence. Known only to most colonists through texts and perhaps a limited number of woodcuts and engravings in circulation in the Atlantic world, the elephant conjured images of the faraway origins of the “India Goods,” including textiles, sold at Jackson and Updike’s shop. Associating their wares with the elephant linked the merchant-shopkeepers to extensive networks of exchange that reached to the other side of the globe. Clark and Nightingale, on the other hand, advanced a much more utilitarian and familiar image. Neither the fish nor frying pan required imagination on the part of readers or passersby who saw their sign, but the image did communicate that the partners competently and efficiently outfitted their customers with the necessities. Their choice of logo emphasized the practical aspects of their merchandise.
Unfortunately, very few eighteenth-century shop signs have survived. The descriptions in newspapers advertisements do not indicate whether Jackson and Updike’s elephant or any of the other signs were carved or painted, but they do testify to their presence in colonial towns and cities. They also suggest that merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans not only displayed signs to assist prospective customers navigating the streets but also sometimes adopted images intended to convey messages about their wares.