Saturday, January 15, 2011

Update: The Mystery Sign from Colonial Williamsburg

Saturday, January 15, 2011
Susan reporting:

During our series of posts showing the Christmas decorations of Colonial Williamsburg last month, a reader asked an interesting question about one of the trade signs. Wrote Darla Vincent: "Can you please tell me what type of establishment this is? I cannot tell from the sign what the building is." The sign that puzzled her appears left (and check here for more about that dangling royal effigy.)

Often the images painted on 18th c. signs indicate the trade practiced within, or what the owner sells, such as shoes on the shoemaker's sign, and a waistcoat on the tailor's. But while this looks like the picture of a hay-rick, it seems unlikely that hay would be sold from a house-front shop in the middle of town. Because the building is not open to the public, no information about it appears on the historic area maps.

Mystified, we went straight to the ever-obliging experts at Colonial Williamsburg. Their explanation:

This house belonged to Dr. Peter Hay. The sign represents his apothecary shop, but is associated more with his personal name (the haystack) than with his trade. That's likely because, according to his 1766 obituary in both the Virginia and Maryland Gazettes, he was an especially well-known physician (especially when it came to midwifery skills), so people didn't need to know what he did, just where to find him. Incidentally, his wife Grissell operated a boarding house out of their home after the doctor died, so the sign could have continued in business (so to speak) after that. 

Many thanks to Darla for her question, and to Colonial Williamsburg for the answer. Now click here for a picture quiz: can you match the Williamsburg sign with the appropriate trade?

6 comments:

rebecca said...

i have always loved this sign....nice to know the rest of the info about Dr. Hay.

Anonymous said...

Good explanation. I can see why Dr. Hay used the haystack as his 'trademark.' Don't want to guess what else a physician skilled in midwifery would use instead.

Anonymous said...

Crossed forceps?

Emma J said...

Hahaha, very funny! I've always heard that the signs were to help people who couldn't read. Guess they'd figure out the hay stack?

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Emma J, quite by coincidence, another blog just addressed this same question:

http://historymyths.wordpress.com/2011/01/15/myth-37since-most-people-were-illiterate-shop-signs-had-to-have-pictures-instead-of-words/

Alice said...

Such a cool tidbit of information! I have to wonder, then, why they don't offer this piece of trivia to visitors, at least in the form of a plaque or note on maps...

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