Fall 2017–Winter 2018

At the Sign of the Mortar and Pestle

The persistence of mercantile emblems

Alyssa Pelish

During a prolonged stay some years ago in the rural Wisconsin town where I grew up, I would regularly pass through a commercial intersection on the main street. The concrete block of a Marketplace Foods grocery, circa 2002, sat squatly on one side, the similarly prefab Walgreens, circa 2008, on another, each afloat in a vast sea of parking space. It looked like any number of strip mall intersections in America, those atmospheric dead zones removed from any particular place or point in history. And indeed, much of the little town’s early architectural history has been lost: its Carnegie library, a neoclassical relic in brownstone, was demolished decades ago, as was the 1930s movie house across the street, built out of the bones of an old feed mill. Meanwhile, the fast-food franchises and big-box stores that have colonized what was once farmland edge closer to the remains of the old downtown. In the winter, when heavy snow coats the dormant fields and a tone of gray is dominant, the streets seem especially anonymous. 

What would always catch my eye, though, was the glowing white-on-red pylon sign planted at the edge of the Walgreens parking lot. It was a nice, wide, bell-shaped mortar, its pestle at the reliably jaunty angle one expects. The red script of the Walgreens W looped possessively across the mortar—but it was the sign of the mortar and pestle, nonetheless. And this sign, as it happens—an oversized depiction of a mortar and pestle that indicates a place where medicines are sold—is very old.

A Walgreens pretending to be a compounding pharmacy.

The sign of the mortar and pestle, in fact, is nearly all that remains of an iconography of shop signs that crowded the streets of Europe from the late Middle Ages into the first decades of the nineteenth century. Only two other such symbols are still hung out: the barber’s pole and the sign of the three gold balls you’ll see on pawnshops. But imagine for a second what those streets must have looked like: The sign of the ax. The sign of the last. The sign of three shuttles. Signs like these were place names and professional emblems. The sign of the three cups. The sign of the shears. They were enduring landmarks and advertisements. Sons inherited signs from fathers, and former apprentices incorporated the devices on their masters’ signs into those above their own shops. The sign of the hautboy. The sign of the sword and buckler. These signs were a system of common icons by which people with little knowledge of letters and numbers could discern the carpenter’s from the cobbler’s, the weaver’s from the glover’s. 

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