Artist shares history with her authentic, hand-painted tavern signs

 
 
  • Heneghan painted this scene of George Washington and his men on an old headboard.

    Heneghan painted this scene of George Washington and his men on an old headboard. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Capt. James Lawrence was popular for his dying words

    Capt. James Lawrence was popular for his dying words "Don't give up the ship." A Connecticut tavern owner used his portrait on a sign, recreated here by artist Mary Heneghan of Naperville. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Artist Mary Heneghan of Naperville paints old tavern signs. She will show and sell her work at the Country Folk Art Festival this month in St. Charles.

    Artist Mary Heneghan of Naperville paints old tavern signs. She will show and sell her work at the Country Folk Art Festival this month in St. Charles. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • The old S's look like our F's, so people think Mary Heneghan misspelled words on this sign.

    The old S's look like our F's, so people think Mary Heneghan misspelled words on this sign. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Artist Mary Heneghan of Naperville paints old tavern signs. She will show and sell her work at the Country Folk Art Festival Sept. 17-19 in St. Charles.

    Artist Mary Heneghan of Naperville paints old tavern signs. She will show and sell her work at the Country Folk Art Festival Sept. 17-19 in St. Charles. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • A very pretty figurehead marked an early American tavern.

    A very pretty figurehead marked an early American tavern. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Artist Mary Heneghan of Naperville paints old tavern signs with many themes.

    Artist Mary Heneghan of Naperville paints old tavern signs with many themes. BEV HORNE/bhorne@dailyherald.com

  • Lady Liberty and American eagles were popular motifs for early American tavern signs.

    Lady Liberty and American eagles were popular motifs for early American tavern signs. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Lions were often chosen for tavern signs.

    Lions were often chosen for tavern signs. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • The father of our country, George Washington, graced many pieces of art and signs in early America.

    The father of our country, George Washington, graced many pieces of art and signs in early America. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Published: 9/11/2010 12:01 AM

You don't have to have colonial and early American furniture and accessories throughout your home to appreciate the tavern signs painted by Mary Heneghan, but a love of history helps.

History has served the Naperville woman well. Years ago when she met her husband, John, in a Mount Prospect bar, she impressed the then-history teacher with her knowledge.

And for years the couple enjoyed participating in Civil War re-enactments. They were on the Confederate side because John resembled a general of the era, and she was a sutler - merchant who sold provisions to an army in the field - so she got to sell some signs.

In fact, this was how she found a blacksmith who makes authentic hardware and nails for hanging her signs. Her prices for the signs range up to $500, although she says some are much less expensive.

For the first time, Heneghan will display and sell her signs at the Country Folk Art Festival Sept. 17-19 at the Prairie Arts Center in the Kane County Fairgrounds of St. Charles.

Colors, subject and taste vary in the signs, which are close to copies of the originals.

One very primitive example was designed for the illiterate, Heneghan said. It displays a crow, a human foot and a building with "INN" written on the roof. This marked an establishment owned by George Crofut, according to an article on the website of the Hartford Courant in Connecticut.

Women might be Lady Liberty or figureheads on ships. Lions and patriotic eagles also were popular, and a silhouette could depict a horse or a mermaid. Men are often Navy captains or generals such as George Washington.

Pick out a favorite sign, and you can get a history lesson. Take the sign from the Bissell tavern in Connecticut that featured Capt. James Lawrence, a hero of the War of 1812 who said "Don't give up the ship" as he lay dying from a battle wound.

"A lot of old tavern signs say nothing about liquor or entertainment," she said. "They picked a popular general, and that shows what their politics were."

Her passion for authenticity can be a problem. Heneghan said the sign hanging in her dining room won't sell.

"Gentlemen you are welcome," it says. "Sit down in ease, pay what you call for and drink what you please." But the S's resemble our F's, and people think the artist misspelled words.

Tavern signs can add a touch of character and authenticity to any room in the house, said Heneghan, and they don't have to be reserved for home bars or "man caves."

Heneghan hangs signs throughout her home - above the colonial wingbacks in the living room, the fireplace in the family room, and the oval dining room table designed so the side leaves could be lowered especially to leave a narrow panel for laying out a body during a home wake. But she thinks one or two signs would fit in any room in any home. A food or cooking theme often finds a spot in a kitchen, for example. The artist also sells sports signs at the monthly Kane County Flea market.

And here's a secret: Some of Heneghan's signs are crafted in her wood shop, but others are painted on old headboards or footboards, which might come with carved tassels for her to gild or spindles with a classic early American look.

"Letting them go is the hardest part," said Heneghan. "They're my babies. And the fact that my hands always have paint on them."

What: Country Folk Art Festival

When: 6-10 p.m. Friday, Sept. 17; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 19

Admission: $8 Friday evening; $7 Saturday; $5 Sunday. Children under 15 free; parking free; handicapped accessible; strollers allowed.

Where: The Prairie Arts Center, Kane County Fairgrounds, Randall Road between North Avenue (Route 64) and Roosevelt Road (Route 38).

Information: (630) 858-1568 or folkartfest.com

Etc.: The Country Folk Art Festival features items handmade in America; there also will be some antiques.