Representational images such as this finely carved hanging sheep are among the oldest types of shop signs, along with painted signboards. While its origin is lost in time, the practice can be traced to at least the late Middle Ages, when the resurgence of commerce and growth of trade sparked economic development throughout Europe. In Britain hanging sheep traditionally referred to the Golden Fleece, the object of Jason's ancient quest with the Argonauts. Appropriately sheep were most commonly used as signs for woolen drapers, or dealers in woolen cloth, and, to a lesser extent, by all trades related to cloth and clothing.
Throughout the nineteenth century, three-dimensional images remained a popular way for merchants to identify and advertise their places of business in America as well as in England. The signs retained their symbolic function and many familiar associations long after the general rise of literacy had rendered their original purpose obsolete. Recalling the 1870s and 1880s, Louis Jobin, a well-known French-Canadian carver, once remarked that in addition to creating religious figures and altars, "above all I made signs.... I created a hanging sheep, to represent a tailor." This example is particularly well executed. The sloping body and delicately carved forelegs and hooves that hang straight down create a strongly naturalistic presence that convincingly transmits the impression of an actual animal suspended by a metal band around its middle.
Ralph Sessions, "Hanging Sheep Shop Sign," in Stacy C. Hollander, American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with American Folk Art Museum, 2001), 545.