What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“He is to be spoke with at Mr. Samuel Prince’s, Cabinet-maker, at the Sign of the Chest of Drawers.”
Newspaper notices accounted for the vast majority of advertising in eighteenth-century America, but not all advertisers resorted to the public prints. Some posted broadsides or distributed handbills, trade cards, and billheads. Some artisans affixed labels to furniture produced in their shops. Others did not use printed media at all. Instead, they relied on shop signs to mark their locations and communicate to prospective customers what kinds of goods and services they provided.
Far fewer shop signs survive than newspaper advertisements, but various sources suggest that colonizers encountered a rich visual landscape of shop signs as they traversed the streets in towns from New England to Georgia. The April 6, 1772, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury testifies to some of the shop signs in the city during the era of the American Revolution. In the colophon, incorporated into the masthead, Hugh Gaine declared that he printed the newspaper “at the Bible and Crown, in HANOVER-SQUARE.” Elsewhere in the newspaper, John Sheiuble, an “ORGAN BUILDER, from PHILADELPHIA,” informed readers that they could speak with him “at Mr. Samuel Prince’s, Cabinet-maker, at the Sign of the Chest of Drawers, in New-York.” Prince’s shop sign made it into the public prints because a fellow artisan used it as a point of reference in his advertisement. Whether or not they read the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, many colonizers likely associated the Sign of the Chest of Drawers with Prince and the furniture produced in his shop. Sheiuble believed that the device was so widely recognized in the city that he did not need to mention the name of the street or any nearby landmarks to direct readers to Prince’s shop.
Sheiuble’s advertisement did not include a depiction of the Sign of the Chest of Drawers. Merely mentioning the sign likely evoked an image in the minds of those who had seen it, but left others to rely on their imaginations. On occasion, advertisers did adorn their newspaper notices (or trade cards and billheads) with images that replicated their shop signs. For the most part, however, short descriptions, like the Sign of the Chest of Drawers, account for how much we know about the images colonizers glimpsed in the windows or hanging above the doors of eighteenth-century shops.