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Joiners, furniture makers and tavern signs in early America.

Updated: Jan 29

Early American trade and tavern sign makers combined their woodworking, joinery and painting skills to literally create an art form.


Early American sign painters were essentially itinerant artists. These primitive artists had little or no training, and for the most part, used their imagination to be their guide. Many–or most–were basically untrained artists who knew enough about their trade and other basic skills in woodworking, lettering, carving and metal-smithing to forge a living.


From the publication, Lions Eagles & Bears, “The range of designs and construction techniques suggests that signs were made by woodworkers of various skill levels and specialties, from house carpenters and joiners at one end of the spectrum, to more accomplished furniture makers at the other.”


One traveling across America today are inundated with an enormous number of signs, of which many are neither interesting or intelligently engaging. In colonial America, sign painters didn’t enjoy such numerous opportunities. These painters were also engaged in many other types of work, including house painting; coach, ship and furniture painting, and masonic work.


In the case of actually building a sign, some sign painters did have wood working and joinery skills, while many did not. In this instance, many sign-painters hired joiners to build sign boards for them. There’s evidence that joiners would build a number of sign boards, thereby creating an inventory which sign painters drew upon for their next assignment.


With the growing need for sign making, signboards became more purposeful in communication and design. Verbiage and images communicated everyday language and cultural meanings. Many parallels are seen between signs and other contemporary artifacts. The style and arrangement of signboard, turned posts, and pediment (the top portion of the sign) in 18th-century signs echoes that of the back, posts and crest rails of early 18th century “great chairs”. Pediment design of many 18th century tavern signs resemble scroll pediments of exterior doors on houses and important buildings as well as secretaries or high chests of drawers in the homes of prosperous and influential members of the community. The hand-sawn pediment shown in the sign image at this blog (Sign of the Pine Tree), demonstrates this decorative influence.


Another element in the sign at this blog is the hand joinery used, typical of early American woodworking. The frames were assembled with hand cut mortise and tenon joints, and pinned with wooden dowels.


You can learn more about the details, and imagery meaning of this sign at the “Trade and Tavern Sign” link at the top of the web page.


Source: Lions & Eagle & Bulls; Early American Tavern& Inn Signs

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We hope to share some of the great things we've learned about early American artisans, their history and their craft, through our web site and blog. Please check out the stories above, and the other signs and their stories at our site.

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For more information about my  work or available signs for sale, please contact me at jfosterhistoricsigns@icloud.com. You can also visit my facebook page at www.facebook.com/jfosterhistoricsigns

Jackson is honored 

to be included in the 2019 & 2020 Early 

American Life 

Directory of Traditional

American Crafts.

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