November 27

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

Essex Gazette (November 27, 1770).

“At the Sign of the Lion and Mortar.”

In the fall of 1770, Philip Godfrid Kast, an apothecary, placed an advertisement in the Essex Gazette to inform potential customers that he carried “a general Assortment of Medicines” at his shop “At the Sign of the Lion and Mortar” in Salem, Massachusetts.  Purveyors of goods and services frequently included shop signs in their newspaper advertisements in the eighteenth century, usually naming the signs that marked their own location but sometimes providing directions in relation to nearby signs.  On occasion, they included woodcuts that depicted shop signs, but few went to the added expense.  Eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements provide an extensive catalog of shop signs that colonists encountered as they traversed city streets in early America, yet few of those signs survive today.

Kast did not incorporate an image of the Sign of the Lion and Mortar into his newspaper advertisements in the fall of 1770, but four years later he distributed a trade card with a striking image of an ornate column supporting a sign that depicted a lion working a mortar and pestle.  Even if the signpost was exaggerated, the image of the sign itself likely replicated the one that marked Kast’s shop.  Nathaniel Hurd’s copperplate engraving for the trade card captured more detail than would have been possible in a woodcut for a newspaper advertisement.  Absent the actual sign, the engraved image on Kast’s trade card provided the next best possible option in terms of preserving the Sign of the Lion and Mortar given the technologies available in the late eighteenth century.  Trade cards, however, were much more ephemeral than newspapers and the advertisements they contained.  That an image of the Sign of the Lion and Mortar survives today is due to a combination of luck, foresight (or accident) on the part of Kast or an eighteenth-century consumer who did not discard the trade card, and the efforts of generations of collectors, librarians, catalogers, conservators, and other public historians.  Compared to woodcuts depicting shop signs in newspaper advertisements, trade cards like those distributed by Kast even more accurately captured the elaborate details.  Those shop signs contributed to a rich visual landscape of marketing in early America.

Philip Godfrid Kast’s Trade Card, Engraved by Nathaniel Hurd, Boston, 1774 (American Antiquarian Society).

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.