American Folk Art Museum Logo

23 Mar 2020

From the Collection: Signs

Signs and signboards have a long history in both North America and Europe. In 1644 the General Court of Connecticut ordered all towns in the colony to provide a place where travelers and strangers could obtain food and lodging. Following English tradition, inns and taverns were prominently marked with painted signs, often suspended between two high posts as close as possible to the road. 

Connecticut supported a large number of taverns and inns in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because of its extensive network of roads the heavy traffic generated by its proximity to several urban areas in New England and New York. In 1800 more than 650 licensed innkeepers were operating there. Consequently the state was something of a center for signboard production and ornamental painting. It has been estimated that more than 5,000 signs were used by taverns, inns, and hotels in Connecticut between 1750 and 1850. Of these, only about one hundred survive today.

The most successful early trade sign left little confusion as to its meaning, with or without the use of words. Symbols that were immediately recognizable relied upon a shared system of emblematic meaning, and this interaction between trade sign and viewer still lingers as a traditional method of advertising a business. 

Some of the earliest signs were flat and painted on both sides, but through the nineteenth century increasingly they were three-dimensional carvings hung off the facade of buildings to catch the eye of passersby. These carved signs were often oversize versions of everyday objects immediately associated with the trade they advertised. Their size helped to draw attention, especially as towns became congested with competing businesses. Many of the early signs established symbols that remain with us to the present time, such as the tooth that was used to advertise the services of a dentist.

Interested in learning more about signs? Here are some resources:



Image credit: Independent Order of Odd Fellows Sign for Friendly Lodge No. 85, Artist unidentified, Probably Pennsylvania, 1843–1870, Paint and gold leaf on wood, Gift of Kendra and Allan Daniel, 2015.1.158, Photo Credit: José Andrés Ramírez