What is this?

thumbnailOur exhibit, Making Connecticut, showcases over 500 objects, images, and documents from the CHS collection. “What is this?” posts will highlight an object from the exhibit and explore its importance in Connecticut history every other week. What is this object? What is the story behind it? To find out more,

Sign for J. Alderman’s tavern in East Windsor, painted about 1797 on wood, gift of Mrs. Morgan B. Brainard

Sign for J. Alderman’s tavern in East Windsor, painted about 1797 on wood, gift of Mrs. Morgan B. Brainard, 1961.63.7.

Long before neon lights or billboards, painted tavern signs were the primary form of outdoor advertising. And before interstate highways, these signs marked Americans’ travels along dusty or muddy roads by horse, private carriage, or stagecoach.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, taverns and inns provided essential services, ones so important that colonial laws in Connecticut required every town to have an inn or tavern identified by “some suitable Signe.” These establishments were places for travelers to find food and lodging for themselves and their horses and for locals to meet, drink, and share news.

Between 1750 and 1850, there were more than 50,000 inn and tavern signs produced by American painters. Only a fraction of these signs survive. The Connecticut Historical Society’s collection—numbering more than 60 signs—is by far the largest and most spectacular in the country.

This particular sign’s represented a tavern called “The Bull’s Head” in East Windsor, Connecticut. Evidence of this can be placed from the auction notices for Aaron Bissell, Jr.’s estate in 1836. They provide a detailed description of his extensive landholdings, which ran from the Hartford road to the Connecticut River on the west and the Scantic River on the north, with “the road to Bissell’s Ferry running across said land.” South of the Ferry road “is the place so long and so well known as Bissell’s Tavern; 105 acres of land, with a House, three large barns, and out-Buildings convenient for a large Tavern, and as good a place for such an establishment as any in the country.” North of the Ferry road, opposite the old homestead, was Bissell’s “country seat,” a two-story brick house built in 1813.

The inn was purchased by Daniel Gilbert Sperry and continued in business as “Sperry’s Hotel” through at least the mid-1840s. David Bissell’s inn (during the ten-year period of its existence) was located at the ferry landing itself, presumably drawing off some of the river traffic. John Alderman’s inn was located three doors south of Aaron Bissell’s, on the Hartford road, possibly on Bissell property. Alderman is not recorded as owning a house in East Windsor; his only known property being a 1-1/2 acre lot on the west side of the road, where he set up a distillery.

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