Lions & Eagles & Bulls:
In Connecticut alone, there were inns for drinking and inns for rigorously avoiding drink; resting spots for patriots and resting spots for loyalists; inns for masons and mechanics; even a Las Vegas-style spot for getting hitched quick.
Many have naturally assumed that the fascinating story of antique tavern and inn signs had long ago been told. After all, these treasured examples of American folk art have been collected for the better part of a century. But it wasn’t until a team of scholars began work at the Connecticut Historical Society, steward to the largest collection in the country, that scholars realized how little was actually known about these exuberant precursors to what architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott-Brown and Steven Izenour have called “the distinguishing architecture of the automobile age.”
Indeed, it was Sunday drives that helped to spark an interest in antique signs. “To identify themselves to carloads of antiquers looking for bargains in the country, shops dealing in antiques needed signs. What better sign to mark a shop selling venerable goods than one in the venerable style of the eighteenth century?,” writes Kenneth L. Ames. Outside of Nathan Liverant & Son today, he observes, is a tailored replica of the late Eighteenth Century Aaron Bissell sign. Within months of The Magazine Antiques’ first issue in 1922, antiques dealers were already framing advertising copy with the inky silhouettes of tavern signs.
Ames’ essay is one of about a dozen enclosed within the covers of Lions & Eagles & Bulls: Early American Tavern & Inn Signs From The Collection of The Connecticut Historical Society ($49.50 hardcover/$29.50 softcover). Edited by Susan P. Schoelwer, director of museum collections at CHS, and published by The Connecticut Historical Society in conjunction with Princeton University Press, this outstanding, collaborative study examines early American signage from every possible angle. Yale professor Bryan J. Wolf explores the cultural history of sign painting. Furniture expert Philip D. Zimmerman provides a detailed object history. Project historian Margaret C. Vincent delves into the hospitality industry in Nineteenth Century Connecticut. Nancy Finlay analyzes the mesmerizing imagery of signs. Conservation issues are detailed by Sandra L. Webber and Alexander M. Carlisle. Catherine Gudis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, looks at signs in a changing American landscape.
Dating from 1749 to 1892, the signs in the Connecticut Historical Society collection have hung undisturbed and practically unnoticed for nearly half a century at the museum’s handsome, oak-paneled headquarters on Elizabeth Street, not far from where Mark Twain once lived.
“Many people loved them but for others they were like the woodwork,” admits Schoelwer. The Winterthur Fellow and Yale PhD supervised the ambitious project that entailed an exhibition, catalogue, extensive research, and the refurbishment of these complex objects, which are equal parts painting and sculpture. The work got underway after the arrival of CHS executive director David M. Kahn in 1996. “We conducted a conservation survey in June 1998 and hired a historian five months later. It’s fair to say that by then we were in full swing,” notes Schoelwer.
At the core of “Lions & Eagles & Bulls: Early American Tavern & Inn Signs from The Connecticut Historical Society,” at the Connecticut Historical Society through April 29, 2001, are 65 works collected in the 1910s and 20s by Morgan B. Brainard, a Hartford antiquarian who was president of Aetna. “…They soon cluttered his office, home, garage, and summer cottage in Fenwick,” Ellsworth S. Grant, former president of the CHS, writes in his brief profile of the collector.
The Brainard signs came to CHS in 1961 and, except for the handful that were shown at Japan’s World Exhibition in 1970, have never traveled. Nearly all of the signs were made in Connecticut. Zimmerman, who went “beneath the painted surfaces to examine wood joints, hanging hardware, and other structural features,” concluded that they accurately reflect sign production elsewhere in the United States between 1750 and 1850. Moreover, scholars say that it was the concentration of signs from one area that allowed them to construct a detailed picture of their manufacture and use.
Combing newspapers, town records, directories, maps, tavern licenses, tax lists and account books, Margaret Vincent created a database of more than 5,000 innkeepers active in the Nutmeg State between 1750 and 1850. She also identified 60 sign painters. Collectors will find immensely useful her detailed biographical profiles of these artisans, who were usually active in related endeavors, including portrait painting. “Lions & Eagles & Bulls” also contains tables showing when and where these painters were active.
This documentation was immensely helpful in dating the signs, which are among the most challenging of folk art objects to authenticate. “Because signs are used and reused, the question of what is authentic becomes almost irrelevant,” notes Schoelwer. As an example, the curator sites the Grosvenor Inn sign, which was made circa 1765 for Caleb Grosvenor but was spruced up more than a century later by Augustus Hoppen. “In practice, it proved awkward and occasionally misleading to assign dates based exclusively on one criterion,” the curator concludes.
Eighteenth Century signs tended to be vertical or oval, with a central image repeated on each side of a framed panel that often resembled the back of a chair. As the Nineteenth Century progressed, signs more frequently were horizontal and used letters rather than pictures to convey their messages. One of Schoelwer’s favorite pieces is a charmingly naive sign created for the Williams’s Inn in Centerbrook. Rather than revise his template, which was horizontal, the painter simply applied it to his vertical signboard, which survived from an earlier period. Consequently, the horses that pull the Williams coach are headless.
Sign painters routinely covered over earlier images, a fact that led conservators to some of their most rewarding finds. Beneath paint dating to as late as 1930, researchers – with the help of raking, ultraviolet, and infrared light and x-radiography – detected images that were in some instances nearly two centuries old. The Blatchly’s Inn sign possesses one of the most complex surface histories in the show. One side is decorated with an allegorical figure holding the scales of justice. The image dates to 1794, but was restored in the early Twentieth Century. Underneath Justice is the previously undetected image of a sailing ship, The Charmed Patrone, dated 1788. On the other side of the sign, conservators discovered two layers of imagery beneath the surface.
“Between 1750 and 1850, more than five thousand signs hung at different times in front of taverns, inns and hotels in Connecticut,” Vincent writes. After reading Sandra Webber’s essay on the conservation of these vulnerable artifacts – which endured heat, cold, and the occasional tumble – one is hardly surprised that only 140 signs are known to have survived. A conservator of paintings at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, Webber was project leader for the exhaustive investigation that led to some important discoveries, including the fact that virtually all signs were drawn with the help of templates or mechanical devices.
Though a largely anonymous art, sign painting did have its stars. The masterpiece of the genre is a sign that William Rice painted for the Vernon Hotel. Signed and dated 1834, it reveals the craftsman’s talent not just for color and composition, but for marketing as well. One of the largest signs of its time, it is decorated on both sides with the Connecticut State seal. The foremost sign painter of his time, Rice’s lions and eagles gave cachet to inns along the Albany Turnpike from Hartford to the New York capital.
The Connecticut Historical Society’s collecting activities haven’t stopped with Morgan Brainard. Among two dozen subsequent acquisitions is a circa 1882 sign for Curtis’s Woodbury House, which still operates in that western Connecticut town. The sign was purchased from Harold Cole, a Woodbury, Conn. antiques dealer, in 1967. Bidding at Skinner in 1998, CHS secured a sign for Stiles’s Inn and the Thompson Hotel, dated 1831 and repainted circa 1902. The museum’s newest addition is the 1836 Warner’s Hotel sign. From the collection of Howard and Catherine Feldman, it was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1998. It is one of 18 William Rice signs in the CHS collection.
Today’s inn sign is more likely to be a Web site offering a virtual tour and online reservations. With that in mind, six hostelries with deep roots in Connecticut history are encouraging visitors to “Lions & Eagles & Bulls” to stay for the weekend. Rates and accommodations can be viewed at Roger Sherman Inn (www.rogershermaninn.com); Silvermine Tavern (www.silverminetavern.com); Boulders Inn (www.bouldersinn.com); Simsbury 1820 House (www.simsbury1820house.com); The Inn at Woodstock Hill (www.woodstockhill.com); and Randall’s Ordinary (www.randallsordinary.com). For details on discounts, check the museum’s Web site at www.chs.org/signs.
Following its close in Hartford, “Lions & Eagles & Bulls: Early American Tavern & Inn Signs From The Connecticut Historical Society” travels to the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, N.H. (June 30-September 16, 2001); the Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages in Stony Brook, N.Y. (September 29, 2001-January 13, 2002); the Museum of Our National Heritage in Lexington, Mass. (April 13-October 14, 2002) and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, Va. (November 2003-April 2004).