Early American signs showcased at Hood Museum

by Alex Rich | 7/5/01 5:00am

Imagine the scene: Connecticut, circa 1800. You can almost see the weary traveler and his trusty steed now. They wind their way along a rural New England road. In the distance, the traveler sees a sign bearing a familiar and inviting image, the black silhouette of a horse. The traveler heaves a sigh of relief, knowing he has found a place to rest for the evening.

In fact, the above scenario might have been a Connecticut innkeeper's dream. 18th and 19th century proprietors often hung signs high atop their establishments in hopes of enticing customers into their inns, hotels and taverns. Such signs and the histories they reveal are the focus of the Hood Museum of Art's new exhibition entitled "Lions & Eagles & Bulls: Early American Tavern & Inn Signs from the Connecticut Historical Society."

The 24 signs in the exhibition range in date from the 1750s through the 1850s, and their styles and iconography vary from emblematic silhouettes to detailed portraits. In all cases, though, the signs serve as a rich source of cultural history, representing not only artifacts of American life but also early examples of public art and advertising.

The Connecticut Historical Society boasts the largest collection of early American inn signs, with more than 65 in all. The compilation of this exhibition is but "one aspect of much larger research," according to Barbara MacAdam, Hood Museum Curator of American Art.

This research includes anything from the initial discovery of the signs, to their conservation, and finally to understanding their depictions. The signs themselves characterize centuries of American history, and, accordingly, conservation and interpretation are not simple tasks.

In particular, the surface text and images are often not the original designs of the signs. Since they are centuries old, the signs were often altered either due to changes in ownership or the desired message on the sign. As a result, conservators are faced with determining what layer of each sign's history to explore, MacAdam, who is responsible for the exhibition's presentation at the Hood, explained.

Arranged roughly chronologically, the exhibition begins with the earliest signs in the Historical Society's collection. The older, smaller signs tend to be situated vertically and feature elaborate ornamentation around the central imagery, recalling decorative looking-glasses and chair-backs. The earliest signs often use organic images including animals, agricultural symbols and insects such as bees.

Like much advertising iconography today, sign painters often used basic and easily-recognizable logos, such as the black horse, a symbol then associated with lodging. Other sign painters drew upon familiar imagery from contemporary print sources and currency.

For instance, a recurring theme is the eagle, which became a patriotic symbol following the establishment of the great seal of the United States in 1782. Another sign draws its imagery from a popular print of General Wolfe, shown commanding his troops and symbolizing to the inn's visitors a friendly and welcoming gesture.

Certainly, this was the image the proprietors hoped to evoke in the signs. But what do we make of the sign painters themselves? Was their work an actual art form or were they simply sign-makers?

"Sign painting was one branch of ornamental painting," MacAdam explained, and "often easel painters started out working on sign painting or worked on both simultaneously," she added.

It seems sign painting was not necessarily a singular artistic effort, either. The actual image comprises only one aspect of the signs; a woodworker, cabinetmaker and even a metalworker may have first produced the sign before it even got into the painter's hands. Indeed, MacAdam said, "many different skills came to bear."

Though the majority of the artists created these signs anonymously, some painters signed their work regularly. One such painter, William Rice, has 19 signs attributed to him, many of which feature repeated lion imagery. The recurrence of such symbols may suggest that a "Rice lion" was equivalent to modern-day branding " think "AAA-approved" " lending credence to a particular establishment.

Later signs also differed from their predecessors in their larger, horizontal format, many even resembling today's often text-driven billboards. The signs also seem to be directed toward more specific audiences.

Take the sign for Dyer's Inn, for example. Dyer's Inn was a central point along the main road running from Hartford, Connecticut to Albany, New York. As a result, the two sides of the sign differ dramatically. One side, apparently intended for local farmers heading into town from the west, is emblematic of industry and perseverance, while the other side, intended for Albany-bound travelers welcomes "Strangers Home."

Other lodges made a point of their Masonic affiliation, hoping to attract local masons. Accordingly, these signs have a largely sculptural effect and Masonic imagery, such as the all-seeing eye and the compass.

At the same time, signs began to get more elaborate with stenciling and copper gilding. Some painters even began using smalt, or ground-up glass, giving signs a glittery, textured look. Inns also began to be renamed as either resorts or hotels, implying that the establishments themselves were more of a destination and not solely for itinerant travelers.

Yet another shift occurs in the depiction of alcohol in these signs. In the 18th century signs, alcohol was used as an alluring tactic for taverns and inns, with the promise of "entertainment" inside; later, in the 1840s, the theme of temperance became more familiar with the onset of establishments such as the Temperance Hotel.

Less conventional advertising strategies also seem to emerge toward the end of the 19th century. Reflective of a more literate society, signs become increasingly textual.

"The sense of commercialism reflects increasing literacy. They do not need the pictorial image to make their point," MacAdam said.

Looking toward the signs' influence on advertising of our time, the exhibition also notes the endurance of the imagery of early American signs. The rising sun adorning the 1836 Hannah Hotel sign is reminiscent of today's "stripped-down" version on the Days Inn logo.

As precursors to modern-day advertising, the signs' influence clearly extends far beyond the historical moments in which they were produced. Likewise, the signs offer enormous insight into the culture and values of Connecticut society of the time and of America as a whole.

"The signs open a great window on American society in the 18th and 19th centuries," MacAdam said.

While the signs are certainly unique items of American lore, "Lions & Eagles & Bulls" tries to illustrate that the changing designs and images on the signs reflect the shifts not only in the art of sign painting itself but also in the inherently American culture of the period.