An enterprising 19th-century merchant who could afford the purchase price - which could run up to several hundred dollars - would invest in a shop figure to promote hiswares
. While some shop figures were countertop models, the most convincing of these silent hawkers stood just outside the door, and were often mounted on wheels so that they could be rolled in and out. Such full-length figures date to the 1700's, but had their heyday in the mid-to late 1800's; they began to disappear after the turn of the century as electrified signs made them increasingly obsolete.
The products of woodworking shops, these large sculptures were often made by shop carvers who turned their hand to other types of carving as their own trade declined. Different figures signaled different wares - a jaunty sailor was likely to stand in front of a ship's chandlery, for example, while a Chinaman might appear by the door of a tea emporium.
The most common type of shop figure, however, identified the tobacconist's. These figures, initially inspired by the American Indian - who had introduced the exotic weed to European explores - originated in 17th-century England. In America, however, Indian figures were not made in quantity until the mid-1800's. They generally depicted sterotypical chiefs and squaws - with plumed headdresses, tomahawks, or bows and arrows - but as the use of the Indian figure became widespread, carvers turned to more novel subjects, like the clown character, Punch or Uncle Sam, appropriately shown with a bundle of cigars, a snuffbox, or a pipe.
The trade signs and shop figures that merchants customarily placed outside their stores enticed customers to spend their money on an ever-increasing range of goods during the 1800's. When the century opened, the American merchantile system was a specialized one. Since there was no wholesaling, merchants both in cities and in small towns generally made their own wares, and thus concentrated on a single product. The hatmaker crafted and sold hats, for example, while the apothecary purveyed the drugs and remedies he mixed. One exception to the specialized shop, however, was the rural trading post, where farmers bartered their excess produce for necessities ranging from bullets to molasses.
By the mid-1800's, the development of factories and mills, as well as improved transportations systems, enabled manufacturers to distribute products on a national scale. City shops became retail outlets for manufactured goods, and the trading post developed into the bustling emporium known as the country store, which now stocked food delicacies, toilet soap, Paris ribbon, and Brussels lace, as well as more ordinary basics. The keeper of the country store often served as banker and postmaster, and his place of business also might double as a meeting lodge and social club, where townsfolk could gather to discuss politics or play checkers at the ubiquitopus cracker barrel.
Shop figures were not the only form of advertising that was used in early America; no sooner did business become established in this country than did trade symbols begin to appear over doorways and windows. These large, three-dimensional sculptures, the outgrowth of a Eurpopean tradition believed to have originated with the ancient Romans, were initially intended to catch the attention of a predominantly illiterate public by offering visuall, rather than verbal, messages. Bold and self-explanatory, an oversize cutler's knife or a giant locksmith's key could be "read" instantly by any potential customer - even one passing by quickly on horseback or carriage.
Most trade symbols were commissioned by business owners from handcraftsmen. Those carved from wood were generally made by the same workshops that produced ship carvings and shop figures. Metal trade symbols were produced by smiths working in tin, iron, and copper, and beginning in the mid-19th century, metal trade symbols were manufactured in factories that specialized in ornamental cast iron and zinc. Tradesman wanting to advertise their particular talents also craft signs for themselves; it was only natural, for instance, for a farrier to hammer out an enormous horseshoe that he could hang outside his own forge.
Their exaggerated forms and the simple logic of their straightforward symbolism endow these overblown sculptures with a peculiar appeal. The references were intentionally obvious: scissors indicated the services of a tailor, a pocket watch a jeweler, a shoe a shoemaker, a gun a gunsmith. An oversize tooth was the chilling, yet immediately recognizable sign of a dentist, while a mortar and pestle identified an apothecary. Sometimes the design came from a long established symbol, like the striped barber's pole. New forms might also develop with the arrival of an industry; the image of the sheep, for example, became a standard symbol for the numerous woolen textile mills that began operation in 19th-century England.
While many trade symbols were simple sculptural forms, some were quite elaborate, featurnig a variety of mechanical contrivances and moving parts. A tin teapot displayed above the doorway of a teashop, for example, might be plumbed with steam pipes so that puffs of steam would waft from its spout in cold weather. In an equally novel approach, the bespectacled eyes that frequently appeared over opticians' shops were often illuminated with gas lamps in the late 1800s, and then later, as technology developed, with electric lights.