Cowan's Corner

Early American Tavern Signs: The Original Roadside Billboards

By Wes Cowan
and Joe Moran

Samuel Johnson once said, "There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern."

A glance down Main Street of a typical 18th century New England town would reveal many signs directing patrons and passers-by to the apothecary, the barber or the saddler. Tavern signs, depicting iconographic patriotic eagles, prancing horses and stoic bulls were usually the most eye-catching signs in town.

Because taverns were usually the most popular meeting spots, their signs have always held a special regard in history above other types of signs. A well-made sign was considered a measure of an establishment's success, so tavern owners sought out talented carpenters and sign painters. As a result, some of the most talented artists of the day, such as Benjamin West and Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole, took up the respectable profession of sign painting. Competition caused innkeepers to make more and more elaborate signs that projected farther and farther out into the street.

By the mid-18th century, however, the profusion of signs became a nuisance as they began blocking light and air circulation, and even causing casualties due to falling all of which gave way to legislation. In both Paris and England in the 1760s, trade signs were to be mounted flush against the building's walls, and only tavern and inn signs were permitted to project into the public space. Similar legislation was passed in the 1770s in Philadelphia restricting the use of signboards to tavern keepers alone.

America's "Golden Age" of sign making occurred from the last quarter of the 18th to the mid-19th century. The taverns became recognizable by the mere presence of the double-sided swinging signboards or hanging bracket. The signs primarily contained a large image and a few words. In the 1820s, due to the advent of railroad transportation and the increased speed of travelers as road conditions improved, many signs were changed from vertical to horizontal formats. Subsequently, signs positioned vertically began to carry more verbiage and less imagery.

White pine was the wood of choice for tavern signs. It was plentiful, and the species grew to a large size. Pine was also easy to carve and was very durable to the exterior elements. Linseed oil and shellac mixed with calcium carbonate were used to increase the pine wood's tolerance to the outdoors.

Many different kinds of wooden trade signs are available to collectors. Unfortunately, the most well-made tavern signs are scarce, and many are in private collections. Novice collectors should be forewarned that the date on the tavern sign usually represents when the innkeeper received his license not necessarily the date the sign was made. Heavily repainted signs are also considered a negative.

One must acknowledge the charm contained in these early tavern signs compared to today's modern billboard, "FOOD AND FUEL THREE MILES AHEAD." 

Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan's Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at Article research by Joe Moran.


Cowan's Auctions sold this mid-19th c. American wood sign for $1,150.

This double-sided and dated tavern sign with U.S. eagle sold for $11,500 last May. The sign came out of the Asa Taft Tavern in Massachusetts.

Pine board shoe repair sign with painted boots icons, $805.

Pine board drug store trade sign ca. 1900 with apothecary mortar and pestle icons, $1,495.



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