Before the days of hotels, restaurants, and gas stations, there were taverns. These dwellings are famous in early American history as the meeting places that helped spread revolutionary fervor. Their many roles as a place to meet, lodge, eat/drink, and be entertained made taverns a unique establishment that helped shape early American history.
Travelers would identify the local tavern by the outside sign that adorned it. For in a time when public houses were hard to distinguish from private ones, a visible tavern sign was often legally required.
Between 1750 and 1850, more than 50,000 tavern signs were produced by American painters, but today, most of these signs are lost and gone. In Hartford, Connecticut, the Connecticut Historical Society Museum and Library contains the largest collection of surviving tavern signs in the country with more than 60 on display. Their impressive exhibit sheds light on this nearly lost form of early American folk art that combined woodworking, painting, and metalsmithing to produce a unique multimedia creation. With the book, Lions & Eagles & Bulls: Early American Tavern and Inn Signs, we can uncover the history and symbolism of these fascinating relics..
Perkin’s Inn (West Greenwich, RI)
Fox’s Inn (Montville, CT)
Abbe’s Inn and the Lion Hotel (Enfield, CT)
Painted by William Rice, a prolific sign painter from Hartford, this tavern sign depicts a chained lion that evokes the setting of a menagerie or traveling animal show. These predecessors to zoos and circus were occasionally performed at taverns and inns.
Porter’s Inn (Farmington, CT)
A common symbol at the time was the allegorical figure of Liberty. Liberty holds her staff with her “liberty cap” on top as well as a shield that bears the arms of the State of Connecticut, a 3 grapevine motif. On the ground is a cornucopia that represents the land’s bounty.
Carter’s Inn (Clinton, CT)
This sign depicts an officer dining with a well-dressed man to attract an elegant and wealthy clientele. At the time, the term “resort” was new for American signs and implied a destination like the coastal resorts that were springing up.
Dyer’s Inn (Canton, CT)
A common symbol for industriousness and agriculture was the beehive and plow. It was a fitting symbol since Dyer’s Inn was known for hosting an agricultural fair. “Hold or Drive” comes from a popular maxim popularized by Benjamin Franklin.
He that by the plough would thrive, Himself must either hold or drive.
Lawrence’s Inn (Norfolk, CT)
This tavern sign from Lawrence’s Inn stands out as one of the earliest surviving examples of Masonic symbols being displayed publicly in the U.S. With the 2 pillars of King Solomon’s Temple, square and compass, letter G, sun and moon, and crossed keys, the old tavern almost certainly doubled as Masonic Lodge.
Mason’s Inn (New London County, CT)
Man on horseback ponders a hollow trunk. Tree fell in 1856. Man paying respects
Wightman’s Inn (Waterford, CT)
Daniel Loomis’s Inn (Coventry, CT)
The seals of the United States, as well as Connecticut, are combined in this patriotic tavern sign. It was common for early American tavern-keepers to be prominent officers in their local militia.
Harrington’s Inn (Northeast US)
Harrington’s Inn featured another patriotic tavern sign that depicts an eagle holding arrows and an olive branch. In early America, these symbols created a unified national identity.
Mason’s Inn (New London County, CT)
This image shows a man on a horse paying respect to a hollow trunk. It is believed to be a look into the future as a man visits the famous Connecticut Charter Oak.
Temperance Hotel (Plainfield, CT)
The United States has seen a number of Temperance Movements that resulted in establishments like this one, where the owner operated a dry tavern.
Stile’s Inn and Thompson Hotel (Thompson, CT)
This inn became a popular wedding destination for anxious couples from nearby states. The engaged couple could avoid their states’ required waiting period by coming to Connecticut for the ceremony. In the carriage is a figure who’s traditionally been identified as the Marquis de Lafayette.
For more, visit the Connecticut Historial Society, and make sure to visit their impressive exhibit in Hartford!