August 24

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

Boston Evening-Post (August 24, 1772).

“At the Sign of the STAGE COACH and FOUR on the one Side, and MAN and HORSE on the other.”

Shop signs identified a variety of businesses in colonial Boston.  Thomas Fleet and John Fleet, printers of the Boston Evening-Post, operated their printing office at the Sign of the Heart and Crown, a symbol so synonymous with their business that in an advertisement in the August 24, 1772, edition they advised readers of “Paper, To be Sold at the Heart& Crown” without giving any other details about the location.

In the same issue, Edward Wentworth, Jr., included two shop signs in his advertisement for a “Variety Shop” where he sold “All Sorts of West-India Goods, and many other Articles in the Grocery Way.”  He indicated that customers could find the shop “at the Sign of the STAGE COACH and FOUR on the one Side, and MAN and HORSE on the other,” perhaps appropriating signs that marked other businesses in directing customers to the “Variety Shop.”  The remainder of the advertisement suggests that Wentworth ran one or both of those other businesses as well.  He offered “Victualling, Lodging & Boarding for Gentlemen and good Keeping for Horses” as well as “Horses and Carriages to Let.”  The “Variety Shop” may have been a new venture, one that did not yet merit its own sign since others already marked its location.

Wentworth may have been quite content to stick with signs already familiar to residents of the South End, images they associated with his reputation, rather than hanging yet another sign, especially if he was uncertain how long he might run a “Variety Shop” in addition to a tavern.  After all, the devices on shop signs did not always directly correspond to the goods and services available in the shops they marked.  Residents of Boston knew that the Sign of the Heart and Crown adorned a printing office through experience, not because the image replicated the work undertaken there.  The Sign of the Stage Coach and Four and the Sign of the Man and Horse did correlate with “Victualling, Lodging & Boarding for Gentlemen and good Keeping for Horses,” but that did not preclude Wentworth from associating those images with other enterprises.   Rather than literal representations of the businesses they marked, shop signs often served as symbols meant to resonate with much more meaning.  They represented colonial entrepreneurs, their skills and reputations, not just the work they performed.

May 23

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

Providence Gazette (May 23, 1772).

“At the Sign of the BOOT, SHOE and SLIPPER.”

Joseph Gifford, a cordwainer, placed an advertisement in the May 23, 1772, edition of the Providence Gazette to inform prospective customers that he “NOW works in the Shop of Mr. THOMAS BURKET … on the main Street” and “makes and sells Boots, Half-Boots, Spatterdashes, Half-Spatterdashes, Shoes and Pumps of all Kinds.”  To help clients find the shop, he clarified that “the Sign of the BOOT, SHOE and SLIPPER” marked its location.

Gifford was not the only advertiser who referenced a shop sign in giving directions, though not all of them matched their emblems so closely to their occupations.  Jones and Allen sold “ENGLISH and INDIA GOODS” at the Sign of the Golden Ball on the west side of the Great Bridge.  Thurber and Cahoon stocked a similar inventory at the Sign of the Bunch of Grapes on Constitution Street.  In the North End of Providence, Edward Thurber carried a “fine Assortment of Grocery, Hardware, and Piece GOODS” at the Sign of the Brazen Lion.  One advertisement for a “fine assortment of ENGLISH GOODS” did not name the purveyor of those items or give any directions other than stating that the goods were “At the GOLDEN EAGLE.”  Anyone who resided in Providence for any length of time knew that Joseph Russell and William Russell, two of the city’s most prominent merchants, had a store at the Sign of the Golden Eagle.  Further directions were not necessary.  Even the colophon at the bottom of the final page of the newspaper made reference to a device that marked the location of the printing office.  Subscribers, advertisers, and others could find John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette, “at Shakespear’s Head, in King-Street, opposite the Court-House.”

Many more merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, tavernkeepers, and others marked their businesses with decorative signs, creating a rich visual landscape of advertising in colonial Providence and other towns.  In many instances, those signs were synonymous with the proprietors of those businesses.  Relatively few signs from the era survive, but newspaper advertisements testify to some of the sights that colonizers saw as they traversed the streets.

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.

February 6

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

Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (February 4, 1771).

“Next Door to the THREE DOVES.”

In an advertisement in the supplement that accompanied the February 4, 1771, edition of the Boston-Gazette, Thomas Knight advised prospective customers that he sold window glass and bottles “at the Three Kings in Cornhill.”  A short notice in the standard issue informed the public that the “Sale of Sugars, which was advertised to be at the Bunch of Grapes To-Morrow, is postpon’d.”  John Boyles advertised several dozen books in the supplement, listing the titles in two columns.  He also made reference to a shop sign in order to direct readers to his location.  The bookseller gave his location as “Next Door to the THREE DOVES, In Marlborough-Street, Boston.”

Like other major urban ports, Boston did not adopt street numbers until the very end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth.  Prior to that, advertisers and others resorted to a variety of means of describing locations.  For instance, they indicated street names and mentioned nearby landmarks.  Shop signs also helped when giving directions, not only for those at the locations marked by the signs but also for others in close proximity.  Boyles apparently had not commissioned his own sign for his bookshop, but that did not prevent him from using a sign affiliated with another business as a landmark for finding his location.

Some proprietors deployed their shop signs as brands representing their businesses, regularly naming them in their newspaper advertisements and sometimes inserting woodcuts depicting them.  The most ambitious eighteenth-century advertisers also distributed trade cards and billheads that made reference to their shop signs and included images.  Yet other entrepreneurs considered those shop signs a form of public property rather than the sole domain of the businesses they marked.  Boyles, for instance, did not seem to believe that the Three Doves belonged exclusively to his neighbor’s business.  He appropriated the shop sign in his own marketing efforts, using it as an efficient means of directing his own customers to his bookshop.

August 3

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

Aug 3 - 8:3:1770 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (August 3, 1770).


Advertisements for consumer goods and services in the August 3, 1770, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette included addresses of various sorts.  James McMasters sold English good at his store “on Spring Hill.”  Stephen Hardy stocked a similar inventory at his shop “in PITT STREET.”  Breeches makers James Haslett and Mathew Haslett pursued their trade “in King Street,” while Samuel Foster made boots and shoes at his shop “in Queen-street.” Thomas Achincloss sold textiles and hardware at his shop “at the Sign of the Marquis of Rockingham, King street.”

With the exception of Spring Hill, each of these landmarks invoked political figures in England.  King Street and Queen Street made general reference to the monarchy, but also evoked images of George III and Queen Charlotte.  Residents of Portsmouth named Pitt Street for William Pitt the Elder, the prime minister from July 30, 1766, through October 14, 1768.  Pitt was a popular figure among American colonists as a result of his leadership during the Seven Years War and his opposition to the Stamp Act.  Similarly, Charles Watson-Wentworth, the second Marquess of Rockingham and former prime minister, earned acclaim in America due to his support for constitutional rights for the colonies.  He immediately preceded Pitt as prime minister, serving from July 13, 1765, through July 30, 1766.  During his brief time in office, he oversaw the repeal of the Stamp Act.

These street names and shop signs testify to the expectations that many colonists had of their relationship to Great Britain throughout much of the imperial crisis that eventually culminated in the American Revolution.  Many colonists, most even, did not originally conceive of separating from the British Empire and the many advantages it bestowed upon them.  Instead, they sought redress of grievances, hoping to exercise traditional English rights on the other side of the Atlantic.  Many simultaneously asserted their allegiance to the monarchy and revered members of Parliament who defended American interests.  The location of Achincloss’s shop “at the Sign of the Marquis of Rockingham, King street” encapsulated the sentiments of those coloniosts.

July 6

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

Jul 6 - 7:6:1770 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (July 6, 1770).

“At the Sign of the Marquis of Rockingham.”

In early July 1770, Thomas Achincloss placed an advertisement in the New-Hampshire Gazette to inform consumers that he sold “a Variety of English Goods, suitable to the Season,” at his shop on King Street in Portsmouth.  To help prospective customers identify his location, he reported that his shop was “next Door to Jacob Tilton’s,” an inn and tavern “at the Sign of the Marquis of Rockingham.”  Tilton’s choice of a device to mark his establishment resonated with cultural and political meaning in ways that other tavern and shop signs often did not.  Samuel Wheeler, a cutler in Philadelphia, marked his workshop with “the sign of the Scythe, Sickle and Brand-iron.”  His sign depicted the products he made and sold.  Duffield and Delany, druggists in Philadelphia, operated their shop “At Boerhaave’s Head.”  Like other eighteenth-century apothecaries, they associated Herman Boerhaave, the influential Dutch physician and botanist, with their business due to his renown as a healer.

In contrast, Tilton did not name his inn and tavern for the Marquis of Rockingham due to any particular connection between the British peer and keeping a public house but instead as a cultural and political statement.  Charles Watson-Wentworth, the second Marquess of Rockingham, served as Prime Minister from July 13, 1765, through July 30, 1766.  During that brief tenure in the office, the American colonies dominated Parliament’s attention.  The Stamp Act went into effect on November 1, 1765, but Rockingham wished to repeal it.  The House of Commons heard testimony about the Stamp Act for three days in February 1766 and voted to repeal the measure on February 21.  George III gave royal assent on March 18.  Internal dissent within the cabinet lead to Rockingham’s resignation a few months later.  He spent the next years in opposition, further enhancing his reputation as a supporter of constitutional rights for the American colonies.  He would briefly become Prime Minister again in 1782, during the final years of the American Revolution.  He used his influence to encourage the British government to acknowledge the independence of the United States.  Already in the late 1760s and early 1770s, the Marquis of Rockingham had a reputation as a friend to the American colonies and a defender of their liberties within the British Empire.  Tilton recognized this and amplified Rockingham’s political stance by making him the personification of the inn and tavern he ran in Portsmouth, New Hampshire during the era of the imperial crisis that ultimately resulted in the American Revolution.

June 3

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

Jun 3 - 5:31:1770 Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (May 31, 1770).

“At the sign of the Jolly Sailor.”

In an era before standardized street numbers, advertisers resorted to a variety of means of describing their locations.  Consider the various directions that appeared in the May 31, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette.  Some were brief, such as John Willday’s invitation to visit “his store in Fourth-street, near Market-street.”  Willday believed that prospective customers who could locate the intersection of Fourth and Market could then easily locate his store.  Others provided more extensive directions.  John Day and Company, for instance, sold an assortment of remedies at “their Medicinal Store, next door to Jonathan Zane’s in Second-street, between Market and Chesnut streets.”  In addition to listing the cross streets on either side of their store, Day and Company also identified a nearby landmark to aid prospective customers.  Willday also invoked a landmark in giving the location of his second location, a store “near Christiana Bridge.”  Mrs. Bussiere, who sold starch and hair powder, gave extensive directions.  She sold her wares “in Mr. Fishbourn’s house, at the corner of Walnut and Water-streets, opposite Reese Meredith’s.”

To provide further aid in finding their businesses, some advertisers displayed painted or carved signs.  A notice about an upcoming sale of lots on Noble Street advised bidders to seek “the house of Benjamin Davis, in Northern Liberties, near the new Landing Place on Front-street, at the sign of the Jolly Sailor.”  The street and a nearby landmark directed bidders to the general vicinity, but the sign marked the specific location.  Duffield and Delany, druggists, adopted a similar strategy, instructing prospective clients to find them “At Boerhaave’s Head, the Corner of Second and Walnut streets.”  A sign depicting Herman Boerhaave, the Dutch physician and botanist, helped customers identify their shop once they arrived at the intersection.  Similarly, Robert Kenneday and Thomas Kenneday sold both prints and patent medicines “At their Print Shop, at West’s Head near the Bridge, in Second-street, below Walnut street.”  The streets and a landmark directed prospective customers to their neighborhood, but the sign depicting Benjamin West “of this city, now history painter to the King” clearly identified their place of business.

These examples demonstrate that signs often did not replace the need to offer other sorts of directions, such as streets, intersections, and landmarks, yet in the absence of street numbers they provided a means of denoting a particular location.  They also served as landmarks themselves, aiding both residents and visitors in navigating the streets of bustling port cities.  Some advertisers who did not have signs of their own occasionally made reference to their location in relation to shop signs displayed by others.  The signs listed in advertisements and displayed throughout cities like Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia helped people make sense of urban geography in eighteenth-century America.

May 17

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

May 17 - 5:17:1770 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (May 17, 1770).

“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.

May 20

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

May 20 - 5:20:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 20, 1769).

“Coy and Waterman do all Manner of Painting, Gilding, Drawing, and Writing upon Signs.”

Like many others who advertised in eighteenth-century newspapers, Coy and Waterman helped prospective customers locate their shop both by identifying a landmark and a describing their sign. They advised that they could be found “At their Shop, the Sign of the Painter’s Arms, opposite Moses Brown’s, Esq; in Providence,” where they sold “A Compleat Assortment of Painters Colours.”

Their sign, the Painter’s Arms, served not only as an advertisement for their wares but also as a testament to the quality of a service they also offered. After listing the several varieties of “Painters Colours” in stock, Coy and Waterman stated that they “do all Manner of Painting, Gilding, Drawing, and Writing upon Signs, in the most neat and genteel Manner.” They invited shopkeepers, merchants, artisans, tavernkeepers, and others to commission signs to mark their places of business, promote the goods and services they provided, and distinguish them from their competitors. Posting a sign played a part in creating a memorable identity for practically any enterprise. For instance, John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette, gave his location as the “PRINTING-OFFICE, the Sign of Shakespear’s Head” in the colophon of every issue.

Coy and Waterman’s advertisement suggests that the market for producing and maintaining signs in the late 1760s was vibrant enough that they needed to address the competition. The painters pledged to “work as cheap for Cash, or Country Produce, as any Person in Town, Newport or Boston.” Apparently prospective clients had several choices in a regional market.

Print played an important role in eighteenth-century marketing, but newspapers, trade cards, catalogs, and other printed media were not the only means for promoting commerce and consumption. Shop signs became synonymous with purveyors of goods and services, a precursor to creating brands, logos, and trademarks consistently associated with particular businesses. They have not survived in nearly the same numbers as eighteenth-century newspapers, but many of the advertisements in those newspapers suggest that colonists regularly glimpsed “the Sign of the Painter’s Arms,” “the Sign of Shakespear’s Head,” and many other shop signs as they navigated the streets of Providence and other cities and towns.

April 26

GUEST CURATOR: Samantha Surowiec

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

Georgia Gazette (April 27, 1769).


Signs were very important in colonial America, since they served as a way for colonists to distinguish between private homes and those that served as taverns for the public. According to Susan P. Schoelwer, tavern signs in the eighteenth century typically had impressive woodwork, but the paintings were not very elaborate. This was because there were more skilled woodworkers in the colonies than there were painters. As the nineteenth century drew closer, and the new United States of America matured, so did the signage. Travel became more common, and more skilled artists lived in the new nation, which resulted in more sophisticated signs, as well as more signs being advertised in newspapers. The images painted on these signs ranged from animals to horse-drawn carriages to even portraits and landscapes as painters became more skilled. To view images of tavern signs from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, visit “Tavern Signs Mark Changes in Travel, Innkeeping, and Artistic Practice.”



What kind of market for sign painting did Robert Punshon encounter in Savannah? The answer is difficult to determine. Entrepreneurs who placed advertisements for consumer goods and services in the Georgia Gazette rarely indicated that shop signs marked their location. In the same issue that Punshon advertised, for instance, Lewis Johnson inserted a notice about “An Assortment of MEDICINES” but did not list a sign to help prospective clients navigate to his shop.

In contrast, shopkeepers, merchants, and artisans in other places, especially the largest port cities, regularly included signs in the notices they placed in the public prints. In the April 23, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette, Samuel Young stated that “the Sign of the Black Boy” marked his store near the Baptist Meeting House. In another advertisement (as well as the colophon), John Carter reminded readers and potential customers that “the Sign of Shakespear’s Head” adorned the printing office. The next day in the Boston-Gazette, Elias Dupee advertised a “PUBLIC VENDUE” to be held at his “NEW AUCTION ROOM” located “near the Golden Key.” Although he did not have a sign for his own business, he made use of the sign marking a nearby shop in giving directions to his clients. Another auctioneer promoted a vendue “at the Bunch of Grapes” in an advertisement in the Boston Post-Boy published the same day.

The absence of shop signs in newspaper advertisements does not necessarily mean that advertisers did not have signs of their own. Two advertisements by Joseph Russell and William Russell ran in the Providence Gazette that week. Neither of them gave their location as “the Sign of the Golden Eagle,” although they advertised prolifically and frequently inserted that detail into their notices. The Golden Eagle became their logo, perhaps so well known that they considered it unnecessary to include it in every advertisement.

That being the case, Robert Punshon may have worked in a market for sign painting in Savannah that was much more vibrant than other advertisements in the Georgia Gazette indicated. Some eighteenth-century advertisers regularly associated their businesses with specific images, such as “Shakespear’s Head” or the Golden Eagle, as they experimented with developing brands and logos. Others who had shop signs did not necessarily advertise in newspapers or incorporate their signs when they did. That Punshon even listed sign painting along with house and ship painting suggests that either a market for signs already existed or he believed that one could be cultivated among the merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans of Savannah.