At the Sign of the Old Chair Seat

A plank chair seat with spindles and legs sawed off and repainted to make a sign. Possibly Pennsylvania-German. Photo: Garth’s Auctions, Columbus, Ohio.

While working on a research project earlier this year I had the opportunity to delve into 19th-century business directories. For some tradesmen using newspaper ads and business directory listings was the only effective means of advertising their goods and services to the public. For those newly arrived in town the local business directory provided maps, locations of city offices, churches and where to find merchants selling all manner of goods. For present-day researchers, from economists to those tracing their family history, old business directories provide valuable information on American life from the late 18th century to early in the 20th century.

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A business directory for New York City in 1794 included a list of goods on which a customs tax had to be paid. An exception was made for the tools belonging to persons involved in one of the mechanical trades. This was one way to attract badly needed skilled mechanics to the new Republic.

Let’s take a look through advertisements placed by tradesmen associated with woodworking. The ads are from the 1830s to early 1880s with the majority from the “western cities” of Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. All business directories were found in the collections of public and university libraries.

Paid advertisements were usually in a section towards the back of a directory. The cost of an ad depended on the size of the ad space. Consequently, a small business (and most were small businesses) needed to cram in all the necessary details in a space that might measure only 1 inch by three inches. Fortunately, there were numerous fonts and font sizes to jazz up their ads and grab the attention of the public. The combination of fonts and stock images used in these old ads is one feature that makes them so attractive to today’s woodworkers (and others).

A checklist of items to put in an ad include the tradesman’s name, business name, location, goods and services provided and references. Some directions on how the find the business (two doors down, westside, next to, between) were particularly helpful in the crowded conditions of the city. Phrases that communicate the tradesmen is ready, willing and able to meet the needs of a customer include “prepared to” “at the shortest notice” and “always on hand.”

Joseph Stringer (top-left) let his Cincinnati customers know he was previously a foreman at a premium saw manufacturer in New York. He is a “practical” saw maker and repairer indicating he will make or repair saws that fit the needs of the customer. The last lines of the ads are worth reading if you are looking for a job, can only afford a refurbished file or saw. First Premium Saw Manufactory of Cincinnati (bottom-right) has some weighty references. Mitchell & Rammelsberg made all varieties of furniture and at one time was considered one of the largest furniture factories in the world. Mudge & Clawson made over a hundred different styles of bedsteads.

It never hurts to have your name match your business.

Stock images, such as the handplane, made it easier for the woodworking customer find a merchant. The ad at the top-left is from a Cincinnati newspaper. After E. F. Seybold had a fire (or fire spread to his premises) it was a matter of urgency to let the public know his new location and that he had stock on hand. Business directories also helped customers find merchants after fires or other situations forced merchants to relocate.

Stout & Richey of Louisville, Kentucky advertised in a directory that seemed to allow only business-card type ads. Note that A.B. Seidenstricker of Baltimore is the successor to well-known planemaker Phillip Chapin. In the small print at the bottom of his add F.B. Marble of Cleveland boasts he can make BETTER tools at cheaper prices “as any establishment west of New York, or east of the Rocky Mountains.” That’s a lot of chutzpah and about 1800 miles (on today’s roadways).

Wood and metal compass from a toolmaker’s shop. It would have been displayed inside the shop. American, late 18th century to early 19th century. Photo: 1stdibs.

This is a well-ordered ad using its products to form a border. It also has the power of three: three products, three owners and three consecutive lots on Biddle Street. It makes me wonder if bolts were kept at No. 17, nuts at No.19 and washers at No.21 (and now you know why they would never have hired me). Richard H. Cole was granted a patent in 1857 for a machine that fabricated metal nuts. Denizens of St. Louis will recognize the names of the other two proprietors. C.P. Chouteau is likely a member of the family that helped found St. Louis. J.J. O’Fallon is likely the son of John O’Fallon. O’Fallon, senior, was a nephew of William Clark (of Lewis and Clark) and, after a career in the U.S. Army, made St. Louis his home and was involved in the expansion of the railroads.

The image of the adze draws the eye to Osborn & Swan’s ad and the name brands of tools on offer. Samuel Worl, cooper of Pittsburgh offered a full line of products. With his business located near the convergence of three rivers, including the Ohio River and steamboat traffic, he could take and fill orders from customers outside of Pittsburgh. 

One 1844 business directory featured histories and advertisements from what it termed the cities of the Mississippi Valley. It was essentially a tour from the large cities that were along the Ohio River (or had access via canal) and those cities along the Mississippi River. The last city was, of course, New Orleans. Antognini, like many French craftsmen of the city, had his advertisements offered in French and English. However, he is a bit sly in offering one particular item to only his French-speaking customers (and you will have to figure that out for yourself). But, billiard tables? Yes, let’s not forget the importance of a game of billiards, fine liquor and the opportunity to make a business deal. Billiards was a popular pastime and Monsieur Roubo had a whole section on games tables. Plate 255 below.

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As for hat forms, every man and woman wore a hat. The wealthy citizens of New Orleans looked forward to receiving news and drawings of the latest fashions from Paris. Antognini was probably one of several businesses that supplied  hat forms to the hatters and milliners of New Orleans. By 1861 Antognini had gained a partner and was still in business but seems to have discontinued making hat forms.

19th-century French wooden hat form comprised of two pieces. Photo: Elizabeth Street Gallery, New York.

Of the three coachmakers and blacksmiths on this page my favorite is Guillaume Retaud. Monsieur Retard pays for only what is necessary and he basically says “I do what it says.” 

Two Columbus, Ohio blacksmiths. Mr. Bevilhimer kindly thanks his customers and offers reassurance that he will be lighting a new fire to keep up with his orders. It’s possible he may have had to delay taking new orders until he cleared a backlog. Fred Litchford, on the other hand, wants to sell his business. I checked a later Columbus directory and found he was still in business and he was Black. He continued his business and eventually his son worked with him. 
I had to include this Baltimore blacksmith because he just goes whole hog with his inventory and, best of all, he was at the Sign of the Bellows and Anvil. Imagine that sign.

Left: a tin-mounted wooden bellows sign for a blacksmith. Photo: Weschler’s Auctions, Rockville, Maryland. Right: a tin anvil and hammer sign. Photo: Thomston Place Auction Galleries, Maine.

Thomas J. Magee was patriotic, a punster, or both. When applied to a ladder, “E Pluribus Unum” is very clever. Magee was first listed in the Cincinnati business directory in 1856. Two years later his carpenter and builder listing expanded to include ladder manufacturer. By their nature, a ladder ad should be tall and this ad fits the bill. Magee also doesn’t get to wordy. If you wanted carpentry and jobbing work it would be done, etc., etc. His last listing was in 1860. A five-year run for a business was not unusual. Magee may have moved on to another of the “western” cities or he may have succumbed to illness or injury.

I chose these two Columbus hardware stores because of their signs: the gilt padlock and the gilt broad axe. After putting them together I noticed they were next door to each other! Both the padlock and broad axe were traditional signs used by hardware shops. It must have been quite a sight to see the two gilt signs side-by-side and shining in the sunlight while the shop owners glared at each other. As you can see a good old fashioned hardware store carried everything.

Both signs are from 19th-century hardware stores. Photos: Skinner Auctions, Massachusetts.

All of the river cities and their merchants were of great importance to the pioneers that chose to move west. They were the transfer points when traveling by boat and the last large towns or cities before overland travel into the wilderness. St. Louis and the adjacent area was the jumping-off point for overland travel to Oregon and other parts of the West Coast. It was the last place for repairs and resupply. Hardware stores were often gathering places where the westbound traveler could shop, get directions to a specialized tradesman and hear the latest news.

Several St. Louis business directories gave merchants the option of using highly detailed images and colored paper. Paper colors were yellow, green, blue and this pinkish tone chosen by J.W. Tyzack. Tyzack also paid for the full image (the smaller central square portion was also an option). Who needs words when you have a picture of many of the tools used in the mechanical trades, on the farm and in the home. It’s all there including a pocketknife.

In the top portion Herman H. Meier, another hardware proprietor, advises he has taken over from Thomas Meier. He selected a very nice border of tools and implements—all is good. The following year he has an option to have his ad on color paper. He chose green, perhaps because his shop was on the corner of Green and Broadway. He has added the words Hardware and Cutlery at each end to make his ad more distinctive. Now, imagine his consternation when the new directory is published and his decorative tool border is upside down and backwards.

Three neat and orderly turners. Daniel Williams’ ad in the center is of particular note as he keeps a tree nail yard and makes trunnels (also known as trennels or trenails).

Siedhoff & Camp chose green paper and in case you didn’t notice they turn chair stuff, boring chair stuff, chair stuff and do turning in general.

In the gallery are several more tradesmen’s signs.

Suzanne Ellison (all typos and other errors were caused by Titivillus, explanation here.)


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