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Signs of the Times

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Signs for shops and businesses were some of the first art produced in Britain's North American colonies. At a time when many people couldn't read, shopkeepers and tradespeople used pictures and symbols to identify their businesses. Picture signs continued to be used even after the literacy rate had improved.

Time Required

Approximately one hour



As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • create signs representing eighteenth-century shops or trades
  • use icons and graphics to express ideas

Setting the Stage

When discussing eighteenth-century trades and stores, we often think about advertising. Discuss television commercials and other types of advertisements or signs that do not use words, but have only graphics and images. Discuss the possible reasons for these types of signs.

In eighteenth-century America, some people could not read, but they needed products they could not grow or make for themselves. To obtain these items, they went to a tradesperson or a store. Customers located the shops they needed by looking at the images on the signs.

Show students some examples of colonial signs. Some examples can be found in Samples of Signs from Colonial Williamsburg and in the Merchant Match-Up Game. Discuss what would be sold, made, or repaired in this business. Discuss the size of the objects depicted on the sign and why these objects were selected for the sign.


Assign each student the role of an eighteenth-century tradesperson or shopkeeper. (See the list of Occupations and Trades of the Eighteenth Century.) Give each student the following problem:

You are a tradesperson or shopkeeper in eighteenth-century Williamsburg. You have rented a shop on Duke of Gloucester Street. Now you need a sign or symbol for your shop. (Remember, even though many people can read they still need to find your shop so they can deal with you.) Your sign should tell customers what your shop has to offer. It should be simple, colorful, and easily remembered by your customers.

Have the students create rough drawings on practice pieces of paper. Finally, have each student produce a finished copy of his or her sign on white art paper.

Helpful Hints for Students

Brainstorm ideas for your trade sign. Use the Brainstorming Sheet as a starting place.

Think about the image that you want to represent your shop. It should be simple, bold, and eye-catching. Sketch practice drawings on newsprint to get some ideas on paper.

Lay out the design for your sign on a piece of practice paper. Remember that your sign should be easy to read from a distance of ten feet.

Think about the lettering style that you want to use. Don't mix too many styles on one page -- it's too confusing to the eye.

Lesson Extension

Project the Merchant Match-Up Game for the class or display it on an interactive whiteboard. Have students match each sign with the appropriate shop or trade.


Students will be graded on their complete eighteenth-century sign and how well they can describe how they developed the logo for their trades or businesses.

This lesson plan was developed by Diane Self and Kim Rizzuti, Painted Rock Elementary School, San Diego, CA and members of the staff of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.