What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“At the Sign of the Green Dragon.”
When Henry Sanders opened a “House of Public Entertainment” in Marblehead, Massachusetts, late in the summer of 1769, he inserted an advertisement in the Essex Gazette to invited “Gentlemen, Strangers and others” to experience his hospitality. He informed prospective patrons that they could find the tavern “near the Wharf of the Hon. Robert Hooper, Esq.” In addition to naming a landmark he assumed readers found familiar, Sanders noted that “the Sign of the Green Dragon” marked the precise location.
Like many other colonial tavernkeepers, as well as a good number of shopkeepers and artisans, Sanders adopted a device to represent his business and then displayed it on a sign and incorporated it into his newspaper advertisements. Over the years, those advertisements have become the sole evidence of the existence of some of the signs on display in the streets of colonial cities and towns. Although some were memorialized in letters or diaries and others mentioned in news items when they were connected to momentous events, newspaper advertisements provide the most complete catalog of eighteenth-century shop signs.
Such signs served several important purposes in early America. Standardized street numbers had not yet been developed in the late 1760s, though some of the largest cities would begin to institute them in the final decade of the eighteenth century. Sanders did not have the option of directing “Gentlemen, Strangers and others” to a particular number on a specific street. As we have seen, he instead relied on landmarks, a wharf already familiar to prospective patrons to get them to the general vicinity and a sign that marked his exact location. Once the sign had been erected for sufficient time, locals could incorporate it into the directions they gave for finding other people and businesses. The sign also doubled as the name of his establishment and likely became a logo that visitors and passersby associated with the tavern. Whether the sign depicted a dragon that was fierce or friendly the advertisement does not reveal, but it does hint at the visual culture colonists encountered as they traversed the streets of cities and towns in the eighteenth century. Almost certainly even more signs marked all sorts of businesses than those that appear in newspapers advertisements from the period.