Painted by W.P.A. workers, Tavern Signs contains 31 detailed plates, plus notes on the taverns' historical significance, compiled by the Works Projects Administration's Pennsylvania State Wide Museum Extension Project, circa 1943.
The portraits, objects, and symbols featured on tavern signs evolved as a way to identify the taverns for the sizable illiterate population who would frequent the establishments; long before road maps became the norm, tavern signs acted as landmarks on the various post-roads winding through the countryside. According to the introduction in the book, "Not only did the sign of Three Crowns, [...] mean that the traveler was on the correct road to his destination in a distant city or town, but it also cheered him with the anticipated rest, refreshment and jolly companionship after the long rough journey by horse or coach."
Tavern Signs also provides some interesting background on the nomenclature of the various terms used. For example, "tavern" was used mainly in New England and New York State, and usually meant that drinks were available, but not necessarily food or sustenance. "Inn" was used primarily in Pennsylvania, (although many locations avoided it because is was so closely associated with the British) and served both food and drink to its patrons.
Here are some of my favorites from the W.P.A. collection.
General Greene Inn
This inn, which was located in Buckingham, Pennsylvania, became the headquarters for General Greene during the Revolutionary War. Greene is famous in my neck of the woods for having supervised the construction of a fort in Brooklyn, N.Y., built to protect the Continental Army in The Battle of Long Island (which Greene, in fact, missed due to illness). Today that Brooklyn neighborhood is called Fort Greene, and one of its most popular restaurants is called -- you guessed it -- The General Greene.
The Beekman Arms
As a college student in the Hudson Valley, I know The Beekman Arms as the pristine inn and restaurant in Rhinebeck, N.Y. It is one of the places that proud parents go with their graduating offspring for a lovely meal. (My parents took me to Pizzeria Uno for my graduation meal, but I've "gotten over it.") Rhinebeck is one of the oldest settlements in the Hudson Valley, and was populated largely by refugees from the Rhine Valley who were brought to New York by Col. Henry Beekman, whose father held a large land patent. The Beekman Arms is apparently the oldest continuously operated hotel in America, so you can still go to have a cocktail in the cozy bar with all the nearby college students and their parents.
The Spread Eagle
The Spread Eagle was located in Radnor Township, Pennsylvania -- about fourteen miles west of Philadelphia -- and was a favorite stop for mail and accommodations for travelers on the Philadelphia-Lancaster Turnpike. Gradually, more and more houses and businesses were built up around the vicinity of the inn, and the village became known as Sitersville, after the Eagle's landlord John Siter. For more information on the many incarnations of the Spread Eagle, I recommend Julius Sachse's Wayside Inns.
While Tavern Signs is clearly one of the most visually arresting books on tavern signage, it is by no means an exhaustive catalog of every tavern sign in the United States. For that information, I'd start with Helene Smith's Tavern Signs of America: a catalog. Smith catalogs each sign with the name of the tavern, the material and size of the sign, the original location, and the date and the sign painter (if known).
New York is well represented in Smith's catalog, but interestingly Gramercy Tavern is nowhere to be found. Curious.