Signs in America's Auto Age: Signatures of Landscape and Place

Signs in America's Auto Age: Signatures of Landscape and Place

by John A. & Keith A. Jakle & Sculle, Keith A. Sculle

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Signs orient, inform, persuade, and regulate. They help give meaning to our natural and human-built environment, to landscape and place. In Signs in America’s Auto Age, cultural geographer John Jakle and historian Keith Sculle explore the ways in which we take meaning from outdoor signs and assign meaning to our surroundings—the ways we “read”


Signs orient, inform, persuade, and regulate. They help give meaning to our natural and human-built environment, to landscape and place. In Signs in America’s Auto Age, cultural geographer John Jakle and historian Keith Sculle explore the ways in which we take meaning from outdoor signs and assign meaning to our surroundings—the ways we “read” landscape. With an emphasis on how the use of signs changed as the nation’s geography reorganized around the coming of the automobile, Jakle and Sculle consider the vast array of signs that have evolved since the beginning of the twentieth century.

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University of Iowa Press
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American Land & Life
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University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2004 University of Iowa Press
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ISBN: 978-0-87745-890-6

Chapter One Signs Downtown

The signs of commerce brought much visual excitement to American cities, especially in central business districts. What spoke forcefully in America of urban vitality was not architecture alone, nor architectural ensembles concentrated along streets at the scale of landscape, but buildings, plain and simple, as they were variously signed as distinctive places for business. America's cities were largely commercial affairs. Few were laid out with picturesque tree-lined boulevards anchored by monumental buildings. They were not structured, in other words, to reflect directly elite social and political power, as was more the case in Europe. Rather, American cities were laid out on utilitarian street grids essentially as real estate speculations.

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Americans knew their cities primarily as pedestrians. Thus, signs were configured primarily to communicate to people walking on sidewalks. With the increased importance of mass transit and certainly with the twentieth-century arrival of the automobile, commercial signs necessarily had to communicate over increased distance: building facades were seen more and more through transit car windows and automobile windshields.

To walk is to be closely involved with one's surroundings through sight, sound, smell, and touch. However, when cocooned in an automobile, close encounter with city space is much reduced. The detail of slow multisensory intake gives way substantially to that visually experienced through the eye's scanning: the city reduced in its conceptualization to rapid gaze. In the automobile city, signs are absolutely essential to the "reading" of landscape for place meaning.


At the time of the American Revolution, commercial and residential functions were very much mixed in cities like Philadelphia and New York. Most artisans and merchants worked where they lived, usually in a row house closely sandwiched between other like structures along a street. Shops, where customers entered directly from street or sidewalk, were necessarily located at a building's front, family living space being pushed to back rooms and upper floors. A signboard protruding above a door might announce the proprietor's name or suggest, through a painted or carved likeness, the product or service available within. Goods might also be displayed in a front window - door, sign, and window combining as invitation to enter.

By the Civil War, business and residential activities in cities tended more to be separated building to building, although different kinds of buildings remained substantially mixed within neighborhoods. Only in elite residential areas were business buildings totally resisted, and only in the new central business districts, where commercial activity concentrated at a vast new scale, were houses largely missing. Banks, department stores, and office buildings (which housed insurance companies, newspapers, and trade associations, among other enterprises) represented distinctly new building types. But the row house precedent still influenced most retailing, which remained primarily the bailiwick of the small entrepreneur. Shops still elbowed one another closely, but often with fascia signs and display windows of plate glass stretched across entire storefronts. By World War I, the scale of downtown retailing across America had substantially increased, small shops giving way to large specialty stores. Skyscrapers soared to great heights, offering opportunity for giantism in rooftop and other sign displays.

Taken as a whole, the signage that Americans actually saw and responded to in big city downtowns early in the twentieth century was quite complex, especially along major retail streets. Old signs often remained as new signs were introduced, creating a palimpsest of sign art, often with substantial historical depth. In streets given more to wholesaling or warehousing, sign innovation was usually less evident, a function of more conservative business practice given that wholesale firms did not compete with one another in quite literally attracting customers "off the street."

Sign conservatism also played among more prestigious businesses right at a city's heart. Banks, insurance offices, and other businesses that could afford to do so invested in expensive, highly durable signs configured to appear, and to be, long-lasting. It was not inertia at play, but a quest for symbolism suggestive of business strength and financial security. Carved in stone or engraved in brass, molded in bronze or etched in polished glass to be bolted onto building fronts, such signs identified businesses as part of a city's commercial elite. They spoke in understated terms about business excellence. They were made deliberately tasteful.

It was the electric sign, however, that captured maximum attention in commercial districts as the twentieth century progressed. Electric signs not only communicated forcefully in the dark of night, but were greatly enhanced over other signs when illuminated in the day. They spoke of businesses being up-to-date and changeful in modern times. For retailers, dependent on walk-in custom, electric signs became absolutely essential. Observed journalist George Williams, writing in 1909 in the new trade journal Signs of the Times, "The electric sign is the one object of attraction that people cannot and do not want to avoid. It is a democratic institution. It is admired by the saint and the sinner, the aristocrat and the plebian, the cultured and the vulgar, the scholar and the illiterate." Electric light had universal appeal. But, more to the point, wrote Bury Dasent in the Journal of Electricity, Power, and Gas, "The fiery electric signal has become in truth 'the sign' of the progressive merchant, and takes its place as a matter of course in the equipment of every high class and up-to-date establishment."

Because of the signs' brightness, motorists could more readily see electric signs in the day. This was especially so when signs were projected out over sidewalks perpendicular to storefronts. From a car motoring down a street, building facades were viewed at an oblique angle, making fascia signs, especially small ones, difficult to decipher at a glance. When electric signs were additionally set to blinking on and off, they attracted even more attention. Called "flashers," they seemed to compel notice and were actually cheaper to operate as they consumed less power.

Nonetheless, electric signs tended to be fragile and required frequent maintenance, if only to replace burned out lamps or tubing. Technical innovation was constant, thus inviting sign replacement through upgrading. At first, most storefront electric signs were lit by exposed incandescent bulbs arranged to spell out words. Use of translucent materials lit from behind came to the fore through the 1920s. Neon signs with exposed luminous tubing obtained widespread popularity in the 1930s. But most popular of all storefront signs, undoubtedly for their lower costs of construction and operation, were metal signs of highly reflective porcelain-enameled sheeting that were merely floodlit at night (fig. 4). Whatever the type, sign makers found themselves concerned with the following attributes of sign design: overall form (including size and shape), pattern (including lettering and pictorial representation), color (both hue and tone), and motion (involving flashers or other mechanisms). In that regard, fads and fashions in sign design came and went over the decades in a decided drift toward lower costs and enhanced sign legibility for motorists.


Off-premises signs that advertised goods and services, usually by brand name, also came to line downtown streets. After 1900, posted bills (or posters), photomechanically reproduced with powered printing presses, led the way, as did large signs painted on the walls of buildings. Billboard advertising involved multiple printed sheets pasted together to create large integrated images. Such signs were directed toward a fully anonymous "public": a hypothesized market distanced in time and space from an actual business transaction. Their purpose was not to excite immediate purchase, but to instill awareness (if not create a sense of impelling need), predisposing customers toward eventual consumption. The increasingly affluent American masses, with their increased leisure time, were, of course, the consuming public that the advertising industry sought to manipulate.

Capacity to buy widely available goods and services, however much it vindicated capitalism in the debate over public responsibility versus private enterprise in early twentieth-century America, met with reticence in some established social circles, especially when it came to bill posting. Critics saw billboards as blighting public space for private gain. Disgust with billboards was also rooted in the growing tension between social classes, especially in regard to newcomers recently arrived from abroad. Immigrants, unable to read English-language newspapers and magazines (and the wordy ads that they contained), could be readily persuaded by billboards, which relied more on pictures, and on short, easily-interpreted phrases. Through billboard pictures variously positioned in urban space, the illiterate probably were made to seem more a part of America's social mainstream, much to the consternation of social purists.

J. Walter Thompson, who pioneered advertising in elite magazines beginning in the 1870s (and whose agency consistently earned the highest billings in the industry for fifty years beginning in the 1920s), added billboard advertising despite lack of interest from many advertisers. For example, Eastman Kodak pitched its low-priced and easily operated cameras mainly in genteel magazines and reported as late as the early 1920s that it seldom employed billboards and was categorically opposed to streetcar advertising, the two bill-posting venues believed most persuasive with the working classes. In contrast, the manufacturer of Sapolio, a popular scouring power, took very early to advertising cards, posting ads initially on New York City streetcars in 1884. A subsidiary firm became one of the first advertisers to standardize postings as to size. Around 1900, advertising agents, who had moved beyond brokering space for advertisements in the print media to include copy writing and artwork design as well, also began to handle outdoor advertising.

In the throes of the nation's growing affluence and cornucopia of goods and services, sign makers began implementing the rudiments of what communication theorists have recently come to call the semiological triangle: communication conceptualized in terms of a signifier, a "sign" (or referent), and a signified. People, as signifiers, communicate experience to one another using shared language, for example, spoken words as "signs," "signs" that stand in as referents for that which is being referenced or signified. Thus, signifier, signified, and "sign" are all interlocked, and leaving one out makes full comprehension of how people communicate, including advertising's exhortations, impossible. Functional differences between the products of different firms (potentially reduced to quantitative and testable distinctions such as cost, dependability, and efficiency) were inserted as signifiers into common language through advertising. Persuasions, carried over from the time when producers and consumers negotiated with one another directly, were recast for the impersonal mass market. For example, ads promoted products by associating them with certain kinds of people depicted in certain kinds of places, for example, fashionably attired socialites in country club settings. Rather than promoting superior product quality or dependability, advertisers increasingly emphasized a product's life-style implications, promising personal therapy if not improved social status.

Images eventually outstripped words in all advertising copy, even in magazines. Pictures came to dominate. Such images, and the associations they engendered, reverberated in layers of meaning: the signified of one stage of comprehension becoming the "sign" for another, on and on. To borrow from sociologist William Leiss and his associates, advertising is not just a business expenditure. Its creations "appropriate and transform" a vast range of social ideas. Advertising unifies as discourse through and about objects, bonding them together as persuasive images of well-being. A geographical corollary complements the sociological claim, since advertisements situate people in places, both metaphorical and literal places.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, outdoor advertising signs had grown very specialized. Five sign categories were identifiable according to size, composition, and location - to use the industry's own taxonomy of the time. Posters were most common. Poster subtypes included lithographed paper sheets or panels, streetcar cards, cards used in display windows, and cards tacked onto convenient surfaces like posts and walls. Hand-painted signs, another category, was divided into the following subtypes: bulletins - with subcategories (city, highway, and railroad locations, for example), painted walls, signs over business entrances, and small signs. Three other types included electric signs (both storefront signs and large "spectaculars"), window dressing signs, and miscellaneous signs. The latter included, for example, suspended banners, flags, sandwich boards, and truck graphics. Of the various sign types, those that attracted maximum attention in big city downtowns were undoubtedly the large wall signs, the billboards, and the so-called electric sign spectaculars.


By 1900, most American big city central business districts sported large signs painted on the brick walls of businesses and other buildings. Required was a sidewall unbroken by windows or other openings that, for lack of an adjacent obstructing structure, was visible from a public way (fig. 5). With such signs, landlords could extract additional rent from their properties and merchant tenants could reinforce sales. But the most benefit accrued potentially to the sign company as creator of the display, and, of course, to the advertiser whose product-line the sign promoted.

To be glimpsed in passing, painted wall signs usually offered only very short, even cryptic, written messages, slogans predominating. Most were highly pictorial: a picture of a product (or, more likely, its packaging) or a picture of the product being consumed or used. So also were advertiser logos prominently featured by way of reinforcing brand identity. The main purpose of such outdoor advertising was to excite a sense of need. It was the "quick take" that counted. Large signs were difficult to ignore in the context of a city street. Such outdoor advertising, wrote one journalist, was "a flash of color, a pleasing impression, a staccato message, again and again for day after day." Customer predispositions were expected to well up through repeated exposure.

BILLBOARDS The term billboard appropriately designated signboards upon which paper poster panels were pasted either singly or in combination. The advertising industry sought to emphasize the positive by characterizing billboards as art and bill posters as artisans. Thus, billboards were said to visually enhance the urban scene, turning the downtown street, it was frequently argued, into something like an outdoor art gallery. But more often billboards were seen as obstructing scenery rather than as contributing to it. When clustered in large numbers, they were criticized for bringing visual chaos to downtown scenes. Almost from the beginning critics called for their removal. Resistance to their indiscriminate use divided the outdoor advertising industry itself, one faction committing to self-regulation and another holding out for complete laissez-faire.

In 1900 the Associated Bill Posters' Association standardized posting practices. Sheets, standardized at forty-two inches by twenty-eight inches, were to be mounted on boards capable of holding three, eight, or sixteen sheets. However, the preferred size came to be the twenty-four-sheet poster panel (four sheets high and six sheets long) adopted by the association in 1912, a size that resonated better with motorists. Standardization, at whatever size, suggested industry restraint. As large manufacturers with big advertising budgets were among those approving the decision, standardization came to be accepted even by the most recalcitrant of poster firms. Also, entirely wooden sign structures (supports, frame, and poster boards included) began to be replaced by steel structures. Proponents argued for their increased longevity (three to four times that of wooden signs) and, more importantly, their modern appearance.


Excerpted from SIGNS in America's Auto Age by JOHN A. JAKLE KEITH A. SCULLE Copyright © 2004 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John Jakle is professor of both geography and landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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