Thursday, March 15, 2012

Got Wheat?

One large, central, sheaf of wheat. This image welcomed patrons to Lansings’ Inn, an establishment in Lansingburgh, New York, in the opening years of the nineteenth century. Located on the Hudson River about 12 miles north of Albany, Lansingburgh was a busy place at the turn of the century. Today incorporated into the city of Troy, Lansingburgh then boasted its own academy, shipyards, newspaper, and upwards of 10 taverns! With so much competition and bustle in Lansingburgh, why did the owner of Lansing’s Inn choose a wheat sheaf, of all things, to grace the all-important sign?

There are a few different reasons why this could be the case. The unknown owner and the anonymous maker of the sign obviously thought carefully about what image they wanted to depict. Wheat was an important commodity in the area during the early nineteenth century. Local farmers would bring their wheat into town, where it would be sold and shipped on the Hudson River. Troy’s city seal also evidences the economic importance of wheat-it is a sheaf of wheat surrounded by boxes and barrels with a tall merchant ship in the background. The wheat market played a significant role in the region’s development and success.

Since wheat was so important to the area economy, it would have been a recognizable image to people in town. It could have meant a variety of different things to them, from a literal reading as an agricultural crop or a trade good to a symbol of national prosperity or a desire for a good harvest. It also reflected well on Lansing’s Inn, announcing the establishment as a prosperous place, with plenty of good food and drink.  Paradoxically, the sheaf of wheat was both a very local but also a very universal symbol.

As an advertisement, the sign would have appealed to many different audiences, welcoming all to the inn. Locals or travelers, farmers or merchants, one large, central sheaf of wheat spoke to them all.

Got Wheat?

by Ashley Jahrling, American Folk Art course, Cooperstown Graduate Program

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