A sign - through the ages the word has had many meanings, embracing the religious, the mystic, the strange as well as the simple and the strictly for communication. Long before men were blessed with the ability to vocally transmit their thoughts to one another, they evolved some kind of a sign language to tell of their needs, desires, hopes and fears. The billboards and marques of yesteryear may not conform with the glistening metal and multifaceted plastic counterparts of present, but their individuality and craftsmanship have indeed stood the test of time.
No public building, bridge or institution is complete without a bronze tablet or cornerstone, identifying the public official in office when the structure was built. This custom was employed by the kings who built temples in Babylon 3,000 years before Christ. The Babylonians made their buildings of clay bricks. The names of the temples and kings who built them were stenciled on the soft clay bricks before they were baked or sun-dried. In so doing these ancient kings identified themselves as builders, and I suppose the more buildings so identified the more important the builder.
One Egyptian king was suspected of putting his name on every building, including many he did not build, by substituting his name for that of the actual builder. Some early American billposting followed this pattern, and from what I can find out some of it as not so early, being within the span of life of many who are still active in business.
Babylonian merchants hung the symbols of their trades over their doors, symbols being used because only a few could read. Merchants still find the ancient practice of identifying their stores by signs or symbols to be a good one. There are parts of the world today where symbols must be used in identification signs because of the illiteracy of the populace. In India today, a picture of the product or some symbol denoting usage is a necessary part of every sign. This is not hard to understand when one realizes that there is an illiteracy rate of 93 per cent in that country of some four hundred million people, and there are 128 dialects or variations in language. In China the "chop" or trademark is usually accompanied by some pictorial representation of the product or service. The ancient Greeks inscribed notices of importance on lead sheets and posted them in public places, and Athens shops were identified by signs over the doors. Statues and decorative features that were part of Greek temples were made of bronze or marble, or a combination of both, or were carved of ebony, ivory and gold. The Greeks were a people with great love for the gaudy and it is highly probable that Greek shopkeepers had some extremely colorful symbols over their doors.
In Rome the picture of a cow identified the dairyman, the phallus or symbol of life identified the bakery as did the picture of a mule turning a mill. The pitcher handle identified thirst-quenching establishments. Sculptures inscriptions were affixed to Roman houses in a spot smoothed off and sometimes whitened. Craftsman inscribed pictures of the tools of their trade in this spot. An early recognition of traffic importance is evident in the concentration of signs on Pompeii walls, where crowds gathered.
The Medici family of Florence is credited with the origin of the three golden balls as a pawnbroker's sign. The family was first engaged in the medical profession. Averardo de Medici was an officer under Charlemagne, who according to legend, slew a giant named Mugello, on whose mace were three gilded balls. Averardo adopted the three golden balls as the device of his family. Later the Medicis became bankers and pawnbrokers, and eventually the golden balls became the symbol of finance rather than medicine.
English tavern were identified, as some are even today, by coats of arms which may have originated in the use of castles as inns while their owners were off to war. The Golden Lion, or the Sign of the Bull, denoted places where strong drink could be obtained, and others were identified by bears, dolphins, angels, castles, crosses, mermaids, suns and stars - to name only a few.
Rivalry in the search for original ideas was apparently as high as it is today, although there is considerable evidence that originality in sign designs was more flourishing in the Renaissance period than is true today. This may be credited to the type and caliber of artists who were employed to paint these picturesque signboards. Many members of the Royal Academy painted inn signs. The Muleteers, painted by Correggio, now preserved in the Sutherland Museum in London, was painted as an inn sign. High prices paid for tavern signboards painted by renowned artists indicate the importance that was attached to the inn sign as a sales implement. A portrait of Shakespeare was painted by Clarkson for a tavern that stood in Little Russel street, near Drury lane, in London. There is also evidence that other famous painters such as Watteau and Holbein painted inn signs.
Carved black boys proffering tobacco, stood in front of seventeenth century English tobacco shops. This is perhaps a reflection of the slave trade on which the English mariners levied a tribute. It has been said hat the carved and brightly painted Indian used to identify early American tobacco shops was a successor to the English black boy, but there is also evidence that the Indian dates back to the days of Sir Walter Raleigh, who you will recall is the gentleman who made smoking popular.
The influence of the symbolic signboards of eighteenth century England is evident in early Philadelphia shop signs. A basket maker hung a basket on a pole; the saddler's shop was identified with a horse head; a miniature fire engine signified a fire pump maker; a chemist shop used the unicorn's head on the signboard; a breeches maker very aptly pictured a pair of breeches on his sign; a ship outfitter used the sign of the fish; a boot maker chose a buckle shoe, and the gunsmith appropriately used a shot gun or rifle.
It is not at all surprising that a lock and two keys identified a locksmith, or the spinning wheel was used by the weaver, a pretzel by the pretzel maker, the tensed arm and mallet symbolized the gold beater, and the saw for the carpenter. These eighteenth century Philadelphia tradesmen simply chose a picture or symbol of the product or service they offered, or, like the basket maker and gunsmith, the actual product was used.
Scattered about the United States today are quite a few reminders of bygone days. The brightly painted cigar store Indian still serves a few tobacco shops. Other old timers include "Sailor Boy," a painted teakwood tar holding a binnacle, standing in front of T.S. and J. D. Negus, famed makers of marine instruments. Cairns & Bros., makers of fire helmets and firemen's personal equipment at, have been identified for over a century by "smokey Joe," a wooden fireman perched on a pedestal in front of the store.
Verando Musumece's cobbler shop is identified by an old shoe hanging over the door, and a bright red boot which shows the ravages of time hangs over a shop. The giant green boot that hangs on the front of Regal shoe stores is a descendant of such signs as these. A gilt-painted red snapper, carved of wood, has hung over a fish store for nearly half a century. A molded horse named Modock, which serves as a sign for Kauffman's Saddlery Company. A helmet and blanket are added features during the winter. Manhattan's oldest drug store displays the time honored mortar and pestle.
The Farmers market in Los Angeles, is a famous and interesting shopping center, described by Fred Beck as "a cross between a Babylonian weinie roast and Guy Fawkes' day in Cheapside." Los Angeles Times readers were informed in Beck's paid advertising column on November 28, 1946, about an interesting sign in the market, It is a replica of a mortar and pestle, some two feet high, studded with colored glass. It is hollow, and when it was used on McNall's chemist shop in old England, an oil lantern was placed inside the sign at night to illuminate it. McNall had five sons, and in 1841 one of them set sail for America, taking with him the apothecary sign from the McNall shop. Young McNall set up shop in Bennington, Vermont, and used this granddaddy of electric signs to identify his shop. After McNall died, the jeweled mortar with the lantern in it was moved across the street to Lisbon's drug store where it remained for many years. Apparently it got mixed up in the "go west" movement, because it is now in use, wired for electricity, on John S. Gilrain's drug store at the Farmers Market.
Quite a few years ago the Case farm implement people provided their dealers with a molded eagle, about three feet high, perched on a pedestal, which is a replica of the Case trademark. Quite a few of them are still around. I saw one recently sitting in front of an implement store in Hondo, Texas. Occasionally there are signs of revived interest in this type of identification. Fisk Rubber Company is giving some thought to using the famous Fisk "time to retire" youth in third dimensional form to identify Fisk tire dealers. Standing about six feet high, he holds the familiar candle in one hand and supports an actual tire over the other arm.
We can truly say that the sign has the oldest experience table in all advertising, spanning some 5,000 years. It is interesting to note that during most of this span of time, the sign has been symbolic. Somewhere near the end of the nineteenth century and in the early part of the twentieth century, signs began to assume the character of other printed advertising. They leaned toward the use of words and names, became rectangular in shape, sometimes used vertically and other times horizontally.
These changes reflect the change in trade practices and problems. The boot maker of the eighteenth century had the primary problem of identifying himself as the local bootmaker, since he was probably the only one in the community. The shoe repairman of today has the dual problem of identifying himself as the shoe repairmen and to differentiate between his shop and a competitor or probably a group of competitors. Around Dallas and Houston a chain of Zinke shoe repair shops are identified by a novel sign, an upturned shoe with a shoemakers' hammer pounding the heel, the action being provided in animated neon. With the name prominently featured above this neon picture, it is evident at a glance that here is a Zinke shoe repair shop. This is another descendant of the old buckle shoe sign. With the glamour of neon and action added.
Printed advertising has also influenced the trend toward word signs instead of picture signs. Through magazines, newspapers, outdoor advertising, direct mail, people have become educated that Shell mean gasoline, Hart Schaffner & Marx means men's clothing, Goodyear means tires, Culverts is whiskey, Pabst is beer, and Ford is an automobile. Radio, and now television add further emphasis.
The high rate of literacy is another factor; people are presumed not to need pictures as they once did. The roadside farmer paints his egg and poultry copy on the back of an old Coca Cola sign; he sees no need to draw a picture of an egg or chicken. His berries or apples or corn will be advertised in a like manner, and in the city his colleague who runs a fruit stand will do virtually the same thing.
There is a certain monotony in signs today. Extreme similarity in sizes and shapes, similarity and frequently exact sameness in alphabet characters, tend to make groups of signs assume the individual character of a stack of cuspidors, or a row of telephone poles. They have the same degree of distinction as the bricks in a brick wall: they become a pattern rather than individual signs.
Thomas Edison invented the modern incandescent lamp in 1879, and shortly after that the old oil lamps and Welsbach gas burners began to fade from the picture. New York was then as now, the largest city and the mecca of travelers in the United States. It was there that we could logically expect the first real development in electrical outdoor advertising. Broadway (the Great White Way) became the great lane of light that it is today.
The "first electric sign erected in New York, on the site of the present Flatiron Building, was the well-known Manhattan Beach electric sign, first lighted May 1892. It was on the uptown wall of the old Cumberland Hotel. This was real pioneering, and I supposed there were many who laughed at this venture and said it was simply a fad and couldn't last. However, this display was the forerunner of all the wonderful advertisements which have since adorned the Great White Way. By the use of those somewhat primitive electric bulbs this sign flashed its story - "Manhattan Beach - Swept by Ocean Breezes."
One of the most interested spectators of this sensational new kind of advertising was H.J. Heinz, and as he sat in his hotel watching the electric light message, a great idea formed in his mind. Not long afterward another electrical sign dominated the same spot. A huge green pickle flashed on and off, and some of the 57 varieties were featured in electric lights - preservatives, Indian relish, malt vinegar, tomato chutney, sweet pickles. It is interesting to note that even in those days Mr. Heinz was advertising in Atlantic City on the famous Heinz pier.
In pre-prohibition days there were many attractive displays for wines and liquors of all kinds. Among these might be mentioned the funny little Irishman carrying Burke's Bottled Guinness, the man on the giant horse playing polo proclaiming Black & White Scotch whiskey, the golfer making a drive from a tee, heralding Coate's Plymouth gin, and the giant mixing a highball many thousand times a night to influence the crowds to use "Wilson, that's all," which, by the way, was the most famous slogan of its time. There was also a very beautiful electric display for Cook's Imperial champagne, featuring gigantic bunches of grapes and a sparkling glass of the "Bubble Water" made in St. Louis.
The old view of Longacre Square shows the famous White Rock display. The two fountains, one on each side of the huge clock, gushed forth colorful water into a basin. The face of the clock was brilliantly colored, and at the time spectators seemed to delight in watching the hands move. This electric was well known and is still remembered as one of the most successful displays. Then you will notice also the gigantic Kellogg sign on top of the Mecca Building. This evidently read "I want," in the next flash, "I got, and I suppose the boy made a radical change in his facial expression between the two flashes.
During the period from 1900 to 1920, there were many fascinating electric displays in Broadway, and many of them are still remembered by New Yorkers, which shows the inherent quality of this type of advertising to stay in the minds of the spectators. For example, there was the huge Anheiser-Busch eagle flapping his wings for Budweiser beer on the roof of the Hermitage Hotel. This was a splendid in-stance of putting life and action into a famous trademark. The King of Siam came to this country, and the moment he saw the eagle he knew he had to have one just like it in his capital, Bangkok. A new eagle was shipped in sections to Bangkok, and for all I know, it is still burning there in the public square. Another spectacular built for use in a foreign country was the one which the British American Tobacco Company ordered for Pirate cigarettes, to be shown in Shanghai, China.
Back in the days when petticoats really had influence, high above the sidewalks of Times Square was erected the famous sign which will never be forgotten by those who saw it. Each evening for the amusement of the crowds, the Heatherbloom Petticoat Girl ran into a wind and rainstorm, and her skirts were whipped about furiously. Although the petticoat is as obsolete as the dodo, through the use of this electrical sign Heatherbloom went down in petticoat history never to be forgotten.
New Yorkers and visitors to our Great White Way have long remembered the Corticelli Kitten frolicking with the spool of silk thread until he tangled himself into great complication. Although the mechanism for this type of display was as perfect as possible to make it, some amusing mishaps occurred. Broadway laughed heartily the night the rain went upward in the Heatherbloom Petticoat sign, and it was equally entertained the time the Corticelli spool of thread chased the kitten. Although the sign inspectors were worried about these reversals, the throngs were much amused and the advertisers made no complaint - they derived thousands of dollars of publicity out of the occurrences.
The Chariot Race was a unique display erected for the Rice Leaders of the World Association, and the only one of its kind to appear on the Great White Way. When it went up, it was the largest ever operated in the world and is said to have taken more mechanical contrivances than any other sign. Its location was the roof of Hotel Normandy facing Herald Square. The design depicted a scene in an old Roman arena. An amphitheatre was visible, and the people were cheering a chariot race. The leading chariot was hard pressed by the others. Dust clouds, flying colors, racing horses, dangerous corners all depicted a thrilling arena scene. Gold leaf was used for the background design, the harness of the horses was studded with cut glass jewels of all colors, and thousands of colored lights were used.
Above the scene of action was a curtain upon which flashed the message of 150 national advertisers. One message appeared at a time, for a period of fifteen seconds. There were four changes a minute, and the entire series of messages took forty minutes.
The story of "Clicquot Club Ginger Ale - World's Largest Seller," was told in a glorious manner through a spectacular display which has left an indelible impression on the minds who saw it. Nineteen thousand electric lights were used in its construction. This display appeared in the Putnam Building. It consumed 267 KW an hour and twenty-nine flashers were used in its operation.
Against the night sky appeared a crimson glow, and as it gained intensity, beautiful color combinations appeared. Then, with a rush and a sparkle, there blazed forth the full radiance of the northern lights. As the crowds watched, the lights receded and vanished. Then attention was drawn to a plump, jolly-faced Eskimo boy, all bundled up in his white furs. He was seated on an Artic sled, and as he sped gaily along, streaks of sparkling snow shot backward from the runners. This Eskimo boy faced the crowds and grinned merrily. His team was composed of three little Eskimos, smaller editions of himself, and they dashed over the frozen snow. As the boy snapped his whip the runners jerked their heads to the front.
The driver carried on his sled a mammoth bottle of ginger ale, as tall as most three-story buildings. He cracked his whip (which was actually sixty-six feet long), and the word "Cliquot" blazed against the sky in light blue and white. At the next crack of the whip the word "Club" appeared, then "Ginger Ale," the "World's Largest Seller." All the time the three little Eskimos kept running through the night; they never grew tired and never lost interest in their work - taking that precious bottle of ginger ale safely into camp. Overhead the aurora borealis blazed, bringing New York's summer skies the gay splendors of the midnight sun.
In more recent years remarkable things have been done in the field of spectacular electrical display, and not alone in New York City. The Chesterfield cigarette electric display in Atlantic City is a splendid example of modern technique and color effects. Detroit has a very good looking spectacular electric display for General Motors, and the Pepsodent electric, with the girl in the swing, at the head of Longacre Square is now a familiar sight.
|Questions? Anything Not Work? Not Look Right? My Policy Is To Blame The Computer.|
|Oneliners, Stories, etc. | About Just For The Fun Of It | Site Navigation | Parting Shots | Google Search|
|My Other Sites: Cruisin' - A Little Drag Racin', Nostalgia And My Favorite Rides | The Eerie Side Of Things | It's An Enigma | That"s Entertainment | Just For The Fun Of It | Gender Wars | Golf And Other Non-Contact Sports | JCS Group, Inc., A little business... A little fun... | John Wayne: American, The Movies And The Old West | Something About Everything Military | The Spell Of The West | Once Upon A Time | By The People, For The People | Something About Everything Racin' | Baseball and Other Contact Sports | The St. Louis Blues At The Arena | What? Strange? Peculiar? Maybe.|