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Manufactured goods in early California had to be imported. In 1842 the prominent merchant Thomas Larkin wrote to John Paty in Hawaii: "Sir, I wish you would purchase in Oahu for me the following articles and I will pay you the cost and fifty pr cent on the same, I paying here also all duties you may pay." His requests included nails, round iron, candles, wallpaper, moulding planes, padlocks, trunks, and a "Set of Signs (handsome) for ball room". [Larkin Papers I:207]

Larkin, originally from New England, had already built the fanciest house yet seen in California. I'm guessing the signage was part of an Anglo-American tradition that he knew and brought to California from the East Coast. That the signs would be available in Hawaii suggest they were not uncommon.

What sort of signage did ballrooms require?

  • Just guessing, but now this looks pretty much like ordinary shop signage "Ballroom here" (ie, wanna dance, come here, our wallpaper is also handsome). What puzzles me is how crude locally available signs must have been; or Hawaiian artists/materials good? – LаngLаngС May 20 at 19:53
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Looking at events called "ball" as described by the locals, roughly at the time:

enter image description here
While Mr. Leese was erecting his mansion, which seems to have been rather a grand structure, being made of frame, sixty feet long and twenty-five feet broad, Captain Kichardson was kindly proceeding across the bay to Sonoma, where he invited all the principal folks of the quarter to a banquet in the new building. Two events—each great in their way—were to be celebrated:
first, Independence Day, and next, the arrival of Mr. Leese in the country, his welcome and house-warming. The two worthy souls, cordially fraternizing, were determined to make a great affair of it ; and so indeed it happened. As it was the first grand scene in the future San Francisco, where there have since been so many, we are tempted to dwell a little on the eventful occasion. Future generations will pleasantly reflect on this auspicious commencement to the pride of the Pacific, then like a new-born infant cradled by its tender parents, Capt. Kichardson and Mr. Leese, and tricked out in all the magnificence of an heir's baby clothes.

First of all was given the union of the Mexican and American flags. (How little did the convivial parties then dream of the near advent of the sole and absolute sway of the Americans in the country!) General Vallejo next paid the honors to Washington. Then followed appropriate national and individual toasts in their order ; but which it is needless to particularize. The guests were as happy as mortals could well be and, in short, "all went merry as a marriage; bell." The abundance and variety of liquors at table seemed to tickle the Californians amazingly. One worthy gentleman took a prodigious fancy to lemon syrup, a tumbler full of which he would quaff to every toast. This soon made him sick, and sent him off with a colic which was all matter of mirth to his "jolly companions, every one." At ten o'clock our "city fathers" got the table cleared for further action, and dancing and other amusements then commenced. The ball was kept hot and rolling incessantly, all that night, and it appears, too, the following day for, as Mr. Leese naively observes, in his interesting; and amusing diary, "our fourth ended on the evening of the fifth" Many of the simple-minded Indians and such lower class white people as were not invited, had gathered around while the festivities and sports were going on among the people of quality, and could not contain themselves for joy, but continually exclaimed, "Que buenos son los Americanos!" ––What capital fellows these Americans are ! And doubtless the white gentry thought, and often said the same." (p170–172)

Frank Soulé, John H. Gihon, M.D., and James Nisbet: "The annals of San Francisco; containing a summary of the history of the first discovery, settlement, progress and present condition of California, and a complete history of all the important events connected with its great city: to which are added, biographical memoirs of some prominent citizens", New York : D. Appleton., 1855 (archive.org)

As this Mr Leese and his "mansion" illustrate a bit the conditions a few years before Larkin ordered handsome ball room signs and handsome paper for a room, it looks as if the signs are not intended for interior decoration, unlike the wallpaper.

The signs seem to intended for outdoor marketing, a simple but nice looking shop sign.

Like the 'typical':

enter image description here src

Or more to the point:

enter image description here src

But since we look for 'handsome', perhaps a little less rustic:

enter image description here src

That is just circumstantial, and thus just guessing, but now this looks pretty much like quite ordinary shop signage of slightly elevated quality: "Ballroom here" (ie, wanna dance, come here, our wallpaper is also handsome). What still puzzles is how crude locally available signs must have been; or how good Hawaiian artists/materials? Ultimately I conclude that ballrooms did not require such signs, but that they were nice to have to show that the building that had them was a dedicated, 'proper' establishment.

  • I like the out-of-the-box thinking. However, what does the Leese example contribute? As the owner of the only permanent building in town, he hardly had to advertise his Fourth of July event; the quote refers twice to invitations. Similarly, Larkin's house was fancy and prominent, and I'm skeptical that he would have erected signage upon it. – Aaron Brick May 22 at 4:50
  • @AaronBrick From tent to wooden house settlements seemed to grow in size and quality very quickly. Leese illustrates 2: like you said, one house needs no ads, and they balled outside; but they balled a lot (src makes that point repeatedly, important social event, from the beginning) Then Leese's place compared to Larkin leads me to conclude that there was by then a big range of buildings, big enough to signify (your "tradition"?) designated places? – LаngLаngС May 22 at 6:05
  • SF was booming but Monterey was not. FWIW, John Henry Brown wrote that SF's first "signboard" was erected in 1846, advertising his Portsmouth Hotel. – Aaron Brick May 22 at 16:13

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