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.