Anonymity in Metal

By Christopher Malone, WPAMC Class of 2021

In early America, tavern and inn signboards were some of the best-known ways in which people read their surroundings beginning in the 17th century. While literacy rates are very hard to determine, its safe to say that school age children, some women and men as well as people of marginalized groups were not able to fully read or write. Literacy, however, cannot explain why simple signs with simple images were used for taverns, inns and shops well into the 19th century when literacy rates must have been much higher than 200 years before. Perhaps it was just easier to find the “sign of the boot” than it was to read “J. Cassler, Shoemaker.”

Figure 1: Horseshoe shaped iron hanger with considerable weathering and some rust spots. Photo by author.

The shoemaker Shop Sign located in the Winterthur Museum’s Shop Lane is a great example of a late 18th to early 19th century trade sign which was easy to read from the street, used the traditional trope of the boot to signify shoemaker, and, according to paint analysis, was painted in various colors throughout its lifetime.

Figure 2: The hanger went through various paint campaigns including some gilding. Photo by author.

One of the tantalizing questions that comes up when looking at this object is whether the horseshoe bracket surrounding the boot has anything to do with this particular style of boots being used for horse riding or other equestrian activities, or if the bracket was intended to be a complete circle. Surely if the bracket around the boot was closed, the boot would not completely fit. Paint analysis on the object reveals that at different times, the hangar, the horseshoe bracket and the boot were painted with different colors, ranging from red to green to blue. The hangar has traces of gilded paint while the other two pieces do not. Were the pieces always together or were they married at some point? If they were not always paired, which piece came first and what was the original use for the hangar?

Figure 3: The sign is made from thin sheet metal that has been cut with shears and shaped into a boot and what has been described as a “laurel wreath.” Photo by author.

The origin of this trade sign had yet to be determined. The date it was made has been estimated between 1790-1825, but without some type of provenance, we have little to go off of without starting to compare and contrast extant trade signs, tastes in color during the late 18th to early 19th centuries, as well as where tinsmiths were lived and worked in colonial America. This may help determine where it was made and give us a closer date range. As ubiquitous as blacksmiths were in America (the trade who would have made the hangar), tinsmiths were not as common. Advertisements for tinsmiths could be found in many newspapers across America, showing a need for this particular trade. The bracket and the boot are made of sheet metal, a material tinsmiths would be adept at wielding. The Shoemaker Shop Sign holds many secrets, but upon closer analysis, this object will start to reveal its mysteries and material history.

Figure 4: The teeth or dentils on the surrounding wreath have some remaining red paint on their surface, while the underside has green paint. Photo by author.

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