Connecticut Historical Society

Hartford, CT



Lions & Eagles & Bulls: Early American Tavern & Inn Signs from The Connecticut Historical Society

October 27, 2000 - April 29, 2001


Proud lions, patriotic eagles, and solemn bulls - not to mention prancing horses, majestic oak trees, and festive table settings - once graced the roadsides of America. Painted onto wooden signboards and hung outdoors, high above the heads of passers-by, tavern and inn signs served the primary function of outdoor advertising, helping people locate the places and services they needed. Sign paintings also provided landmarks; before the widespread introduction of street numbering systems, "at the sign of..." served to answer the question, "Where is it?"

Most importantly, tavern and inn signs put art on public display. In cities and towns, signs for competing businesses transformed everyday streetscapes into democratic, open-air galleries, with a common set of images accessible to the gaze of all citizens. Even in the most remote crossroads, a single inn or tavern sign might be found to delight both local residents and weary travelers.

Left to right: images of signs and explanatory text provided by The Connecticut Historical Society

Surprisingly, this distinctively public art has long gone unnoticed. Lions & Eagles & Bulls: Early American Tavern & Inn Signs from The Connecticut Historical Society is the first nationally traveling exhibition focused exclusively on the art of early American inn signs. Premiering October 27, 2000 through April 29, 2001 at The Connecticut Historical Society (CHS), the exhibition showcases this elusive, yet everyday production of early American artists.

From antique-lovers to graphic designers, early-America novices to artists and advertisers, sign paintings can be appreciated today not only as artifacts from long-ago, but also as sources of inspiration for contemporary public and commercial art. In some cases, the designs, symbols, and shapes used in the signs are still part of what we identify as "American." In other cases, it is the spirit of invention evident in these signs - borrowing, reinterpreting, and adapting symbols and eye catching designs by the sign painters - that persists as an important attribute of American culture.

The sign paintings in the exhibition come primarily from The Connecticut Historical Society, which holds the nation's largest collection of early American tavern and inn signs. In 1998, CHS began a comprehensive effort to document and conserve the sixty-five sign paintings in its collection. The project included extensive research on Connecticut's tavern keepers, which aided in dating and establishing the provenance of many inn signs, not only those in the CHS collection but also in other public and private collections. Parallel to this research, the CHS also began to address the collection's conservation needs with the assistance of a team from the Williamstown Art Conservation Center (WACC) in Williamstown, Mass.

"The conservation work," according to Dr. Susan P. Schoelwer, CHS Director of Museum Collection, "has contributed exciting new insights to our understanding of tavern and inn signs. In addition to physically stabilizing the signs, conservation has uncovered unsuspected images which date back nearly two hundred years," explained Dr. Schoelwer.

The search for early imagery often mirrored an archeological dig through layers of paint and grime. A late 18th-century sign from Moses Blatchly's Inn in East Guilford (now Madison), Connecticut, provides one of the most dramatic examples of rediscovery. The sign has long been among the most popular in the collection. Its female figure, quaintly labeled, "The Scales of Justis / The Charming Patrones," graces the pages of numerous American history textbooks. When conservators examined the sign, however, they quickly concluded that the painting that had made the sign so appealing to publishers was, in fact, too good to be true.

Conservators first began work on the Blatchly Inn sign by testing the 20th-century layers of varnish and paint, determining that they could be removed without damage to underlying surfaces. As they worked, the original 1790s image slowly emerged: a much more delicately painted female figure wearing a trailing headdress of leaves and holding the scales of justice. Beneath the two hundred-year-old figure of Justice lies yet an earlier image, barely visible to the naked eye, of a sailing ship probably dating to the 1780s. On the other side of the sign, conservators discovered two distinct layers of imagery beneath the top layer, one showing a sailor with the legend "Hope on the Anchor," and the other displaying an American flag with the words "The Cantine"

For curators and conservators, the discovery of hidden images and names flooded the project with wonderful momentum. For Kate Steinway, Director of Exhibitions at CHS, "conservation of the sign paintings, and what was found, provides great opportunities for exhibition visitors to access new images and background material." The examples selected for the exhibition typify the arts of sign painting as displayed in front of American inns and public houses in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Armed with new information about tavern and inn signs, Steinway developed an exhibition that presents various topics relating to sign painting, focusing on the signs' imagery, and placing their designs and symbols within the social, political, and cultural contexts of their time.

The exhibition begins with an introduction to the craft of sign making, with particular emphasis on William Rice (1777-1847), the most prolific sign painter known to have operated in the Northeast. "By all accounts, Rice was the Bill Gates of the sign business," noted Dr. Schoelwer. He was not just a good painter, but also a shrewd businessman. By covering his signs with designs of lions and eagles, the effectively "branded" his craft. Soon his signs were featured on virtually every up-and-coming country inn west of Hartford, and especially along the Albany Turnpike from Hartford to Albany, A Rice lion outside assured travelers of a certain level of service within.

Travel and trade in early America grew with developments in transportation. During the 18th century, inns were usually placed in river or seaport towns in heavily trafficked areas. By the end of the 18th century, new turnpikes meant more traffic, which led to an increase in the number of inns established along interior highway routes. Lions & Eagles & Bulls features reproductions of primary and secondary research materials which complement information on stage travel and turnpikes in the 18th and 19th centuries.

For some travelers or local residents, taverns and inns represented a meeting place for social and political activities. Many of the sign paintings conveyed hidden meanings, providing those "in the know" with markers of exclusive affiliation. The Sign of the Pine Tree (1768, Lisbon, CT), for example, combines a yellow sun over a pine tree, a common 18th-century symbol of Liberty. "This could be a coded reference to the 'Sons of Liberty'," Steinway said, referring to an American resistance organization founded in the years preceding the American Revolution. Other signs feature masonic imagery, reproductions of lions from early print sources, and catchy phrases, such as "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," which, according to Steinway, may have been a version of a "last stop for gas" highway sign.

The shapes and content of the signs also document changes in styles and imagery. 18th-century signs usually feature one central image repeated on each side of an elaborately worked wood sign. A collaborative art form, sign making required sign painters to work with woodworkers and blacksmiths to provide the sign board and framing elements. In the 19th century, increasing emphasis an lettering in sign paintings paralleled rising levels of literacy, until tavern and inn signs featured lettering and graphic designs alone instead of pictures. Even the shape of the sign changed with the times, from vertical to oval to horizontal.

The desire to attract attention encouraged the elaboration of signs with a variety of inventive devices, including wood carving and turning, decorative ironwork, gilded lettering, and painted surfaces made dazzling by the addition of ground glass, known as smalt. Even the weather played a role in embellishment, wearing away background surfaces to give the effect of low relief. When damage became too severe, or businesses changed hands, many signs were repainted with new names and designs, hence the difficulty faced by conservators.

The traveling exhibition is complemented by a catalogue, published in association with Princeton University Press. The 192-page book is handsomely illustrated with eight essays written by prominent scholars of American art and cultural history. Edited by Susan P. Schoelwer.

Whether viewed as naive folk art or as commercial advertising, early American tavern and inn sign paintings are a visual delight. As early examples of public art, tavern and inn signs provide insights into the society and travel practices of their time. As cultural objects, the designs and images of sign paintings document the radical change from a pre-modern agricultural society to the entrepreneurial, market-driven, and increasingly urban economy of the early Republic.

Conservation of the tavern and inn signs was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, Heritage and Preservation Grant Program, and the Getty Grant Program. The traveling exhibition and catalogue have been underwritten with grants provided by: The Henry Luce Foundation; the Connecticut Humanities Council; the Kohn-Joseloff Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; the Edward C. and Ann T. Roberts Foundation; and James B. Lyon. Additional support for the catalogue was provided by Furthermore, the publication program at The J.M. Kaplan Fund, and The American Folk Art Society.


Lions & Eagles & Bulls: Early American Tavern & Inn Signs from The Connecticut Historical Society - Traveling Exhibition Schedule

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