What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“At the Sign of the Crown and Shoe.”
Many shopkeepers and artisans adorned their places of business with imaginative signs, both painted and carved. Although relatively few of those signs survive in museums and other collections today, newspaper advertisements provide a more complete accounting of their presence in early America. Those advertisements reveal some of the visual culture that colonists encountered as they traversed the streets in port cities in the eighteenth century.
In the May 17, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Richard Dickinson, a “Silk and Stuff Shoemaker,” identified his shop in Philadelphia with “the Sign of the Crown and Shoe.” Dickinson may have intended that this image communicate something regal about the shoes he made for his customers, that they were fit for a king. Yet the shoemaker may have had another purpose in mind as well. In his biography of shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hewes, historian Alfred F. Young explains that shoemakers ranked fairly low in the hierarchy of occupations in eighteenth-century America, just a step above seamen. In pairing the crown and shoe on his sign, Dickinson may have endeavored to express the dignity that he found in his work, humble as his occupation may have seemed to his clients and others.
In the same issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Jacob Reiser, “Tinman,” informed “his Customers in particular, and the Public in general” that he moved to a new location. Although Reiser did not have a sign of his own, he made use of one displayed by a neighbor to give directions to his new shop. Customers could now find him on Race Street, “next Door to the Sign of the Green-Tree, between Second and Third-streets.” Unlike Dickinson’s sign, the “Sign of the Green-Tree” did not readily divulge what kind of business operated at that location. It does, however, evoke images of how the sign might have appeared. While Reiser’s advertisement did not reveal what kind of tree was depicted or how elaborately, it does testify to the presence of such visual images and their utility in navigating the streets of Philadelphia.
Shop signs served many purposes in eighteenth-century America. They marked specific locations, but they could also be used as landmarks in giving directions to other places. The images on some shop signs became logos of sorts, associated with particular shopkeepers or artisans. Sometimes they represented the trade pursued at the location they marked, but other times they depended on a striking image that did not necessarily correspond to a specific occupation. Collectively, they contributed to the visual culture of everyday life in early American cities.