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