By Karen Gonzalez
Wander down the Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg and you’ll see a variety of attractive and iconic shop signs. Replicated from English-style signs found in 18th-century London, they were an important part of advertising a business location.
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Sometimes the nature of the business was clear. But not always.
“It’s an English tradition having these kinds of shop signs. Back then, the signs did not necessarily connect with what was going on inside, however. Sometimes they were used as a sign of their trade, but often they were quite cryptic and you had no idea what they sold,” said Carl Lounsbury, senior architectural historian at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
The sign for Shields’ Tavern, combines the founding date — in this case 1745 – with images of a ham, a tavern keeper and a tankard full of a refreshing beverage.
Chownings Tavern’s sign shows a picture of a jolly tavern host opening a bottle of wine.
The Apothecary Shop has a more serious message that includes the typical symbols of the 18th-century pharmaceutical trade — a mortar and pestle.
Sometimes a bit of interpretation is in order. The sign at the John Greenhow store pictures a ship, which pointed to the fact that the store received and sold imported goods from around the world.
But what about all those pictures on the signs? Why not just words?
Lounsbury says it might just be the 18th-century version of branding.
“I think it’s just like the golden arches. It’s a hook,” Lounsbury said. “Yes, there were a lot of illiterate people around, but illiterate people can ask: ‘Where is Mr. Jones’ shop?’ I think it was just a hook to bring them in. If your shop went from selling wool and clothes to ironmongery, it’s easier and less expensive to have a sign with a more generic symbol. If you sold your business to somebody, you’d have to repaint the sign, so it was easier just to have a sign up with an image of something.”
Just as we do today, signage was used to help with directions for visitors. Signs with street names were not used until much later, so directions could rely on local landmarks, such as “next to the Apothecary Shop” or “across from the Raleigh Tavern.”
Some shops had no sign at all and were known simply by their location next to or across from landmarks with a prominent sign.
The high demand for signs required skilled tradesmen with an eye for opportunities.
“There were certainly sign painters in Williamsburg. They generally specialized in painting signs and coach decoration,” Lounsbury said.
Lounsbury has helped with the design of some of the newest restored buildings in Williamsburg, such as Shields’ Tavern and the Charlton’s Coffeehouse.
“Our shop signs here in Williamsburg are not copying anything precisely, but are based on the elements that we find from London signs from that era,” Lounsbury explained.
But times have changed, and the challenges have changed also. One of those challenges is the modern definition of clarity.
Lounsbury said, “I worry about the signs now being too literate. We live in a very literate society that can actually read better than they can interpret symbols.”
So visitors will find some words along with the pictures, helping the 18th century co-exist with the 21st.