Why the Whale?

Carolina, an English colony chartered in the 1600’s, adopted the customs of her mother country.  One of these customs was the use of symbolic signs to indicate a business owner’s trade.  This practice continued well into the 19th century.   In 1865, Mr. William M. Bird used the whale sign to advertise his principal product, whale oil, which was used for illumination, lubrication, and as a preservative for rope and leather.

The original William M. Bird sign

The original William M. Bird sign

Mr. Bird actually hung two signs: a whale and an eagle, with the whale on the front of the building and the eagle on top.  Both signs were created by Joseph Boesch, an artisan in bronze, copper and iron whose workshop was located on State Street, just around the corner from the William M. Bird & Co. store at 205 East Bay Street. In the earthquake of 1886, the East Bay building was partially destroyed and the eagle damaged beyond repair.  The whale, badly damaged also, was skillfully repaired, re-gilded and re-hung.

“The Sign of the Golden Whale” at William M. Bird continues to symbolize the company and its ability to adapt quickly to changes in the market. The original sign hangs now on the second floor of the Charleston Museum located at 360 Meeting Street, Charleston, South Carolina.


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