What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“At the sign of the Scythe, Sickle and Brand-iron.”
Samuel Wheeler, a cutler, advised prospective clients that he “undertakes any kind of iron work that any business requires.” In advertisement in the June 28, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, he also listed a variety of items that he “makes and has for sale,” including “good scythes and sickles,” “steal stamps for carpenters or smiths,” “iron work for mills of any kind,” and “smiths work for houses.” Wheeler listed two locations for customers to examine his merchandise and make purchases, his shop “at the sign of the Scythe, Sickle and Brand-iron” on Second Street and his house “at the sign of the Scythe and Sickle” in Church Alley. Like many other artisans, Wheeler incorporated images of the items he made into the signs that marked his location.
Signs depicting scythes and sickles were a common sight in Philadelphia in 1700. In the same issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette, two other cutlers inserted advertisements that mentioned signs that included images of one or both tools. James Hendricks made and sold sickles “at the sign of the Sickle” on Market Street. Stephen Paschall also ran a shop on Market Street, where he made and sold a variety of cutlery “at the sign of the Scythe and Sickle.”
These advertisements reveal both the variation in signs adopted by artisans who pursued the same occupation and the challenges they faced in identifying themselves with distinctive devices. Hendricks chose a single item, the sickle, for his sign, while Wheeler multiplied the number of items, perhaps with the intention that the combination of scythe, sickle, and brand iron would be so distinctive that others were unlikely to adopt it. That had not been the case with the sign that marked his home rather than his shop. Wheeler and Paschall both mentioned signs that featured the scythe and sickle. Other cutlers in the city may have also posted signs with this common imagery. Signs helped to identify their workshops, but a sign alone was not necessarily sufficient to designate a business operated by a particular artisan.