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).

“HOUSE, SIGN, and SHIP PAINTING, done by ROBERT PUNSHON.”

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.”

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

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.

January 22

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

Massachusetts Gazette (January 19, 1769).

“At his House next Door to the Sign of the Three Kings in Cornhill.”

When Benjamin Adams placed an advertisement in Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette to announce that “he intends to open a Public Vendue” or auction at his house, he included a landmark to help readers find the location. They could find his house “next Door to the Sign of the Three Kings in Cornhill.” That sign was one of many that helped colonial Bostonians find businesses and navigate the streets of the urban port. Similar shop signs were a familiar sight in other colonial towns and cities.

Today students in my introductory early American history class at Assumption College begin a project that seeks to identify all the shop signs listed in newspapers printed in Boston in 1769 and, eventually, locate them in relation to others on a map from the period. Although this will be an incomplete roster of the shop signs in the city 250 years ago, it will help to create a sense of an important visual aspect of a bustling urban port on the eve of the American Revolution.

We begin the project with a history lab. Instead of a lecture or discussion about assigned readings, today we will devote our time in class to a workshop that introduces students to Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers database. Once students have learned how to use that resource, they will work in teams to download digital copies of newspapers printed in Boston in 1769. Each team will be responsible for one newspaper. After they have acquired their newspapers, students will read through the advertisements (and, hopefully, pause to investigate some of the other content) as they search for shop signs. Each team will draw up a roster of shop signs they encounter. Later in the semester, we will plot the signs on a map from the period. I have enrolled in an introductory Geographic Information Systems class in hopes of producing a digital map based on this work.

This is very much an experiment. It may work extremely well, but it has the potential to be quite challenging, especially if we do not encounter a critical mass of shop signs in advertisements from 1769. Even if that is the case, students will enhance their research skills and information literacy. They will also learn an important lesson that historians are often confined by the sources available to us. This project is as much about the process of doing history as it is learning about the past.

December 10

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

Providence Gazette (December 10, 1768).

“The Sign of the Black Boy and Butt.”

No advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children happened to appear in the December 10, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette, but that did not mean that the black body was absent from the commercial landscape of the port city that newspaper served. Jonathan Russell inserted an advertisement for his “large and fresh Assortment of ENGLISH and INDIA GOODS,” noting that readers would easily recognize his store “on the West Side of the Great Bridge” because “the Sign of the Black Boy and Butt” marked its location. It was not the first time that he invoked his shop sign when giving directions to prospective customers, though he had previously referred to it simply as “the Sign of the BLACK-BOY.” Perhaps he had acquired a new sign, but it may have always included a depiction of a butt, a large cask. Russell’s description of it could have shifted over time.

Even when Russell was not advertising in the local newspaper, his sign was constantly on display in Providence, reminding residents and visitors alike of the connections between black bodies and colonial commerce. Nor was Russell the only merchant or shopkeeper to adopt such iconography. Two years earlier Augustus Deley placed an advertisement in the Connecticut Courant to proclaim that he “CONTINUES to carry on the Business of manufacturing TOBACCO … for chewing or smoaking.” Interested parties could find him “At the Sign of the Black Boy, Near the North Meeting-House in Hartford.” Signs depicting black boys had a long history in New England. More than thirty years earlier, Jonathan Williams placed an advertisement for imported wine and New England rum sold “at the Black Boy and Butt.”[1] In some instances, the youths represented enslaved workers closely associated with the products sold. Such was the case for Deley’s tobacco, grown on plantations in other colonies, and Williams’s rum, produced from molasses acquired as a byproduct of sugar cultivation on Caribbean plantations. The connection between Russell’s “Black Boy” and his “ENGLISH and INDIA GOODS” was not as immediate. Instead, it offered a shorthand description of the networks of trade, production, and consumption that crisscrossed the Atlantic in the eighteenth century. Commercial exchange in Providence was part of a larger system that included the transatlantic slave trade and forced labor at sites of cultivation and production. Residents of Providence did not need “the Sign of the Black Boy and Butt” to inform them of that. Instead, it testified to a reality that was familiar to consumers throughout the Atlantic world.

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[1] New England Weekly Journal (March 8, 1737).

September 10

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

Sep 10 - 9:10:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (September 10, 1768).

“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.

December 20

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

Dec 20 - 12:17:1767 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (December 17, 1767).

“At the Sign of.”

Magdalen Devine frequently placed advertisements in the Pennsylvania Gazette throughout 1767. Often a woodcut depicting some of her merchandise, two rolls of fabric and two swatches showcasing the patterns, accompanied her advertisements. This effectively created a logo for Devine, making her advertisements instantly recognizable without potential customers needing to even read a word.

For many eighteenth-century shopkeepers and artisans, the woodcuts that supplemented their advertisements illustrated the signs that marked the places where they conducted business. The devices in the woodcuts reflected the descriptions of shop signs in many advertisements, but that did not necessarily mean that those woodcuts exactly replicated the signs they represented. For instance, leather dressers James Haslett and Matthew Haslett included several visual variations on “the Sign of the Buck and Glove” in their advertisements in the New-Hampshire Gazette. One may have faithfully duplicated the actual sign; the others offered a similar likeness that distinguished their advertisements from others, attracted the attention of readers, and helped guide potential customers to their shop. Similarly, other woodcuts in eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements likely provided representations but not exact replications of shop signs, hinting at what colonial consumers saw when they traversed the streets.

Devine, however, suggested that the woodcut in her advertisements did indeed accurately reproduce her shop sign. In the course of giving directions to her shop, she indicated that she had recently moved “to the House lately occupied by FRANCIS WADE, on the East Side of Second-Street, between Black-Horse Alley and Market-Street.” To further aid “her FRIENDS, and the PUBLIC” in finding her, she noted that her shop was “at the Sign of” but did not conclude the sentence with a description or name for the sign. Instead, she inserted the woodcut that by then served as her logo. While other advertisers implied that woodcuts in their advertisements depicted their signs without commenting on how well they did so, Magdalen Devine provided one of the most explicit indications that what readers saw in the newspaper replicated the actual sign that marked her shop.

August 14

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

Aug 14 - 8:14:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (August 14, 1767).

“Now open’d for Sale, at the Sign of the LION and MORTER.”

Little and Jackson sold “A large and fresh Assortment of genuine Medicines” at their apothecary shop near the Crown Coffee House in Portsmouth. The sign the druggists displayed made it easier for residents and visitors to the port to locate their shop. Its device, the “LION and MORTER,” testified to the type of merchandise they carried, including popular patent medicines imported from England as well as ingredients for compounding remedies on the spot.

The mortar alone, a symbol widely recognized among potential customers, would have sufficiently described Little and Jackson’s business. Adding the lion, a regal symbol, imbued their business with more prestige, but that was not all it accomplished. It also replicated a shop sign already in use by one of their counterparts in Salem, Massachusetts. As early as January 1764, Philip Godfrid Kast advertised in the Boston Post-Boy that he imported and sold “a very large Assortment of DRUGS and MEDICINES” at his shop “at the Sign of the Lyon and Mortar.” In 1774, Kast even distributed a trade card that featured his sign, a rare visual image of what would have been a ubiquitous sight in colonial cities.

In choosing to pair a lion with a mortar, had Little and Jackson infringed on Kast’s efforts to brand his business? Not by the standards of the eighteenth century. The devices depicted on many shop signs had long been in use in England, first appearing in an earlier period with lower literacy rates. Just as the mortar and pestle were associated with druggists, other symbols denoted specific occupations. For instance, a sign showing a dog with its head in a bucket indicated that a smith practiced his trade at that location. Leather dressers who made all sorts of clothing, including James and Matthew Haslett, did so at the “Sign of the BUCK and GLOVE.”

Throughout London and the provinces and, eventually, the colonies, the consistent use of these and other easily recognized symbols conveniently marked where shopkeepers and artisans carried on specific activities. To some extent they could be deployed as branding in a certain area, but they did not tend to be the sole domain of entrepreneurs and advertisers beyond their local markets.

July 17

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

Jul 17 - 7:17:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (July 27, 1767).

“For sale at their Shop at the Sign of the BUCK and GLOVE.”

It would have been difficult not to notice the woodcut that accompanied James and Matthew Haslett’s advertisement in the July 17, 1767, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette. Except for the insignia of the lion and unicorn within the masthead at the top of the first page, it was the only visual image in the entire issue, immediately drawing the eye away from the text that surrounded it.

The Hasletts reminded potential customers that “they still carry on the Leather Dressing Business … at their Shop at the Sign of the BUCK and GLOVE in King Street” in Portsmouth. The woodcut indeed depicted a sign that featured a buck and glove, as well as a pair of breeches. The text of the advertisement also promoted “all sorts of Breeches ready made.”

This was not the first time that the leather dressers inserted a woodcut alongside their advertisement, but it had been ten months since they last did so. In the interim, their commercial notices had been unadorned, relying on the copy alone to convince potential customers to avail themselves of the Hasletts’ services.

When they decided to once again include a woodcut, they did not return to either of the two that previously appeared in the pages of the New-Hampshire Gazette. This woodcut was new, though it included the same elements incorporated into at least one of the previous iterations. All three depicted a signboard with a buck, a glove, and a pair of breeches hanging alongside a separate glove on the same pole. The first version included the date they founded their business and the Hasletts’ names in the same locations as the newest woodcut, but the second one eliminated their names and moved the date to the top of the sign. This version included decorative finials at the top and bottom of the sign that had not been present in either previous woodcut.

With this woodcut, the Hasletts further developed their brand. Their advertisement helps to create a better sense of the visual aspects of eighteenth-century signs that marked all kinds of businesses. However, the variations among the various woodcuts used by the Hasletts suggests that any woodcut should be considered a general or stylistic representation of how a sign might have looked rather than an attempt to closely or exactly replicate its appearance.