“The importance of an artist is to be measured by the quantity of new signs which he has introduced to the language of art.” ― Henri Matisse
Most of my life I think I’ve been curious about signs and why people choose the types of colors, fonts, and graphics for their businesses. I’ve wondered about why certain areas are cluttered with dilapidated or flashy signs and other areas have subtle signs that blend into the landscape. After visiting the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, I now find myself drawn to almost every sign I see. Then I start analyzing them. I can’t help myself. The history of signs in this country is really pretty interesting. If you haven’t been to the American Sign Museum yet, I highly recommend it. But beware of the effect it has on you.
As a real estate professional, I also pay attention to neighborhood signs, even numbers on homes and mailboxes. They can tell you much about the neighborhood or even the home. The surrounding businesses and their signage can also tell you much about the area and what is valued or not valued.
My dad was a high school American History teacher, but he also built and owned several carwashes. On a trip to New England one year, we fell in love with the carved gold leaf signs that seemed to be everywhere. These Cape Cod signs were modeled after the quarter boards of sailing ships bearing the name of the vessel. He ended up commissioning a signmaker in Martha’s Vineyard to carve the signs for his carwashes. When he sold the carwashes a few years back, he kept one of the signs (thank goodness).
My dad’s father was an attorney and we were lucky enough to find one of his signs in my aunt’s basement. It now hangs proudly in my dad’s office. I don’t know the era of this sign, but I’m assuming that it’s probably from the 30’s or 40’s. The simplicity says so much about the times, but also the type of man that he was: down-to-earth, unpretentious, and sensible. I love the black and white as well.
Business signs date back to Ancient Greece and Rome. If you’re lucky enough in this lifetime, please travel to Italy. Two places of historical interest in signage are Pompeii and Herculaneum. Before traveling there, I had no idea about their daily interests. The paintings and mosaic tile signage for businesses were remnants of the way the lived.
English law in the 14th century required innkeepers and taverns to hang signs. This practice spread. I really enjoy looking at the ancient signs in the UK that still hang above local pubs and taverns and imagine what literary greats had pints there.
When I taught British Literature, I had students analyze the stories of conduct and character being told between two of William Hogarth’s drawings, Gin Lane and Beer Street. I wanted them to pay particular attention to the business signs to see which businesses seemed to be thriving and which ones were dying and why. What did the upkeep of those signs say about the people, what they valued, and society in general? What was it saying about the effects of gin vs. beer? What do you think was Hogarth’s message?
This is your sign to start noticing the signs around you. If you see an interesting one, feel free to send a picture of it to me!