Shop and Inn Signs

Draper’s Sign, “The Dry Tree”
French (Paris)
c. 1600–1625
Wrought iron, stamped and polychromed
Réunion des Musées Métropolitains, Rouen, Normandy, LS.4030
© Agence La Belle Vie – Nathalie Landry

Shop, inn, and tavern signs compose an important part of the collection of the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles. In an era prior to the numbering of buildings as a means of identification, and also prior to the advent of widespread literacy in Europe, businesses depended upon pictorial signs to identify and advertise their wares. Many such examples, held at length from the facade by means of decorative brackets, were designed to hang over pedestrians. Other signs were intended to be affixed flat to the facade of a shop, either directly to a wall or as part of an ornamental framing device that might encase the shop doors and windows.
As vendor signs proliferated by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, laws were introduced in cities such as Paris and London to protect citizens from being harmed by objects that might pull away from their moorings due to excess weight and fall onto the street below. As times changed, the frequency of pictorial signs fashioned from wrought iron diminished. Many were jettisoned as streets were renovated, businesses closed, and fashions for advertising shifted. Henri Le Secq salvaged many such signs, although as is the case with much of the iron he collected, he was more concerned with preserving them than with documenting their original location. In a few rare instances, we can ascertain the location of the original shop with some precision, as with the masterfully executed sign “À l’Arbre-Sec” that once stood before a cloth merchant’s store on a Parisian street that still bears the same name. Inventive, evocative, and often playful, these signs are among the most engaging survivors of the legacy of wrought iron.