Carved Naval Officer by Samuel H. Sailor

Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

Hand carved trade signs advertising stores and professions, such as those of tobacconists, apothecaries, dentists, cobblers, and purveyors of men’s furnishings and ladies’ fancy apparel, were a familiar sight in major American cities during the eight­eenth and nineteenth centuries. Carved of wood and brightly painted, these trade signs – one of the earliest forms of advertis­ing – were extremely important in a society in which illiteracy was common. The most popular figure of the nineteenth century, the cigar store Indian, often life-sized, was placed in front of to­bacco shops to advertise tobacco, snuff, pipes, and related goods.

In seaports such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, professionally carved representations of mariners advertised ship chandlers and nautical instrument makers. Known as “Little Men,” these figures were as aesthetically pleasing as they were utilitarian. Historians believe they were executed by carvers who had earlier made ship figureheads.

In Philadelphia, a polychrome carved figure of a naval officer stood above the entrance to Riggs & Brother, a clock, chronometer, and nautical instrument firm founded by William H. C. Riggs in 1818. The circa 1860 wooden figure, with sex­tant in hand, is attributed to Samuel H. Sailor, a Philadelphian known to have carved tobacconist figures and ship orna­ments between 1858 and 1885. For more than a century the shop sign advertised Riggs & Brother.

For several years, a former director of the Philadelphia Maritime Museum – now the Independence Seaport Museum – regularly visited the proprietors of Riggs & Brothers to advise them that the rare sculpture was being damaged by weather and pleaded with them to donate it to the museum. He was horrified one day in 1972 to learn that the shop had closed and the figure had literally disappeared. He frantically traced Sailor’s masterpiece to an antiques dealer who, after spir­ited negotiations, agreed to sell it to the museum in 1973. The shop figure, standing five feet high, was painstakingly disman­tled and extensively restored. It is now a prized piece of the extensive collections of the Independence Seaport Museum.

Founded in 1961, the Philadelphia Maritime Museum moved to its present location at Penn’s Landing on the waterfront and formally opened as the Independence Seaport Museum in July 1995. The museum explores, through temporary and permanent exhibitions, interactive equipment, and “hands-on” activities, the people, events, and technologies that have shaped the history of the Delaware River and the Delaware Bay. The one hundred thousand square foot educational and cultural center also offers historic ship tours, a working boat shop, and innovative programs that lead visitors on a fascinating journey of discovery through maritime heritage and tradition.

To obtain additional information, including a calendar of upcoming events, write: Independence Seaport Museum, Penn’s Landing, 211 South Columbus Blvd. and Walnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19106-1415; or telephone (215) 925-5439. Individuals with disabilities who need special assistance or accommoda­tion should telephone the museum in advance to discuss their needs. Persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech impaired who wish to contact a hearing person via Text Telephone may use the PA Relay Center at (800) 654-5984.