Signs of the (old) Times

Once upon a time, in the early years of the city of Charleston, most people could not read or write. Without the ability to read signs, how did people know where to find food, shoes, clothing, hats, beverages, a place to sleep, or any other necessity of life?

The solution in Charleston, as in Europe and in other early American communities, was to use images or icons to identify businesses. A hat maker, for example, painted a hat on a sign board outside his store, while a cobbler might hang a large wooden shoe above his door. Some “trade signs,” as they were commonly called, used more abstract images that did not necessarily reflect the goods sold within the shop. Examples of such fanciful signs in Charleston included the sign of the Griffin, the Indian Queen, the Star, and the Blue Hand.

While trolling through Charleston’s early newspapers, I’ve found references to well over one hundred different trade signs. The earliest known reference, in fact, concerns our first newspaper, the South Carolina Gazette, which commenced publication in January 1732 “at the Sign of the Table Clock on the Bay.” Throughout the newspapers of our colonial era, one can find scores of references to commercial signs, ranging from the banal (like the “Sign of the Boot”), to the abstract (like the “Sign of the Rising Sun”) to the curious (like the “Sign of the Man in the Compasses”). Of these many references, however, I’ve found only two images of trade signs in our early newspapers: silversmith Thomas You advertised his wares in 1765 “at the sign of the golden cup,” while jeweler and goldsmith Jonathan Sarrazin conducted business at “the sign of the silver tea kettle and lamp.”

"The Sign of the Golden Cup," South Carolina Gazette, 6-13 April 1765

“The Sign of the Golden Cup,” South Carolina Gazette, 6-13 April 1765

"The Sign of the Tea Kettle and Lamp, South Carolina Gazette, 14 July 1766

“The Sign of the Tea Kettle and Lamp,” South Carolina Gazette, 14 July 1766

As the population became more literate, the use of trade signs declined. By the 1820s, for example, one finds only a few reference to pictorial trade signs in the Charleston newspapers, such as the sign of the Drum, the Heart, and “the Happy Discovery” (?!). While illustrated signs may have been in decline, three-dimensional tin objects became a popular advertising trend in mid-nineteenth-century America. A perusal of the Charleston newspapers of this era will provide humorous local examples of this trend, including oversize tin bibles, boots, tea kettles, and even “mammoth padlocks.”

Bissell & Co., "Mammoth Padlock," Charleston Courier, 20 December 1866

Bissell & Co., “Mammoth Padlock,” Charleston Courier, 20 December 1866

The practice of using images, or “trade marks,” to identify businesses did not disappear after the nineteenth century, however. In fact, thanks to the global sweep of the Internet and digital media, graphic pictographs or icons are as much a part of commerce and advertising as they were three hundred years ago. Just take a look around the fringes of your web browser, or glance at the colorful images on your cell phone. We are surrounded by these vestiges of an illiterate age, and they continue to shape the visual character of our community.

If you’d like to hear more details about this topic, including the full list of known local trade signs, please join me for a fun, illustrated program titled

Trade Signs of Old Charleston.”

Wednesday, January 21st at 6 p.m.

OR

Saturday, January 24th at 1 p.m.

2nd Floor Classroom, Charleston County Public Library, 68 Calhoun St., 29401.

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.