June 1

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Providence Gazette (June 1, 1771).

“At the Sign of the Turk’s Head.”

In an era before standardized street numbers, merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, and others devised a variety of methods for denoting their locations in their newspaper advertisements.  William Eliot, for instance, kept shop at “the South End of Col. Knight Dexter’s House, opposite the Printing-Office” in Providence.  Jabez Bowen sold “ENGLISH GOODS” and medicines “at his Store on the Wharff of Samuel Chace.”  Beyond Providence, Nathaniel Greene “opened a Shop in … East-Greenwich, in the House where Captain Benjamin Green formerly dwelt.”

The directions in each of these advertisements depended on some level of knowledge of local people and landmarks.  Other advertisers in Providence and the surrounding towns supplemented the directions they gave to prospective customers with shop signs that definitively marked their locations.  Clark and Nightingale advised prospective customers that they could find their store “near the Court House, at the Sign of the Fish and Frying Pan.”  Thurber and Cahoon operated their business “At the Sign of the Bunch of Grapes, North End.”  Paul Allen invited “Ladies and Gentlemen both in Town and Country” to visit his shop “at the Corner of the Great Bridge in Providence, at the Sign of the Turk’s Head.” Along with all of these advertisements in the June 1, 1771, edition of the Providence Gazette, printer John Carter listed the location of his printing office, including a shop sign, in the colophon.  Anyone seeking to do business with him needed to look for “Shakespear’s Head, in King-Street, near the Court-House.”

These many and varied shop signs testify to a visual landscape of urban spaces that has transformed over the years.  The use of distinctive devices featuring words and images to mark locations continues today.  Although the Sign of the Fish and Frying Pan and the Sign of the Bunch of Grapes are no longer on display in Providence, residents and visitors encounter many other signs that aid them in finding specific locations and navigating the streets of the city.  In that regard, their experiences are similar to those of colonists who traveled the same streets more than two centuries earlier, even though the visual culture of urban spaces has evolved in that time.

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