Emblematic trade signs have a long history dating back to Medieval Europe and even the ancient world. Especially when literacy was not commonplace, a large and well-executed trade sign served as an essential mode of communication as well as an attention-grabbing ornament. Easily interpreted symbols—such as a tooth for a dentist and a sheep for a tailor or wool dealer—instantly advertised the purpose of a business to passers-by. In a crowded city street, a panoply of trade signs, hanging overhead or standing outside of a shop door, contributed to a bustling commercial atmosphere where various businesses competed with one another visually for customers.
In the early 20th century, Americana collectors began to recognize the appeal of trade signs as sculptural objects that also told a story of the Unites States’ energetic entrepreneurial culture. Within the history of folk art as a developing collecting category, carved trade signs were identified alongside weathervanes and wildfowl decoys as significant contributors to an American tradition of sculpture that had typically been overlooked by the academic art historical canon. Key early collectors such as Electra Havemeyer Webb, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and Adele Earnest—a founder of the American Folk Art Museum—made trade signs essential to their collections. The examples seen here each came to the Museum as gifts from individuals, serving as further indication of the importance of private collectors in shaping the field of American folk art. Attentively carved, they take on a highly expressive character, populating their environments with a lively sense of personality.