The Preservation of Historic Signs

By The Old House Web
This story was adapted from Preservation Brief #25, The Preservation of Historic Signs, originally published in 1991 by the Technical Preservation Services office of the U.S. National Park Service.
by Michael J. Auer
The National Park Service

Table of Contents

"Signs" refers to a great number of verbal, symbolic orfigural markers. Posters, billboards, graffiti and traffic signals, corporatelogos, flags, decals and bumper stickers, insignia on baseball caps andtee shirts: all of these are "signs." Buildings themselves canbe signs, as structures shaped like hot dogs, coffee pots or Chippendalehighboys attest. The signs encountered each day are seemingly countless,for language itself is largely symbolic. This Brief, however, will limitits discussion of "signs" to lettered or symbolic messages affixedto historic buildings or associated with them.

Signs are everywhere. And everywhere they play an important role inhuman activity. They identify. They direct and decorate. They promote,inform, and advertise. Signs are essentially social. They name a humanactivity, and often identify who is doing it. Signs allow the owner tocommunicate with the reader, and the people inside a building to communicatewith those outside of it.

Signs speak of the people who run the businesses, shops, and firms.Signs are signatures. They reflect the owner's tastes and personality.They often reflect the ethnic makeup of a neighborhood and its character,as well as the social and business activities carried out there. By givingconcrete details about daily life in a former era, historic signs allowthe past to speak to the present in ways that buildings by themselves donot). And multiple surviving historic signs on the samebuilding can indicate several periods in its history or use. In this respect,signs are like archeological layers that reveal different periods of humanoccupancy and use.

Historic signs give continuity to public spaces, becoming part of thecommunity memory. They sometimes become landmarks in themselves, almostwithout regard for the building to which they are attached, or the propertyon which they stand. Furthermore, in an age of uniform franchise signsand generic plastic "box" signs, historic signs often attractby their individuality: by a clever detail, a daring use of color and motion,or a reference to particular people, shops, or events.

Yet historic signs pose problems for those who would save them. Buildingschange uses. Businesses undergo change in ownership. New ownership or usenormally brings change in signs. Signs are typically part of a businessowner's sales strategy, and may be changed to reflect evolving businesspractices or to project a new image.

Signs also change to reflect trends in architecture and technology:witness the Art Deco and Depression Modern lettering popular in the 1920sand 1930s, and the use of neon in the 1940s and 1950s.

The cultural significance of signs combined with their often transitorynature makes the preservation of historic signs fraught with questions,problems, and paradoxes. If the common practice in every period has beento change signs with regularity, when and how should historic signs bekept? If the business is changing hands, how can historic signs be reused?The subject is an important one, and offers opportunities to save elementsthat convey the texture of daily life from the past.

This Brief will attempt to answer some of the preservation questionsraised by historic signs. It will discuss historic sign practices, andshow examples of how historic signs have been preserved even when the businesshas changed hands or the building itself has been converted to a new use.

Historic Sign Typesand Practices

Pre-Nineteenth Century

American sign practices originated largely in Europe. The earliest commercialsigns included symbols of the merchant's goods or tradesman's craft. Emblemswere mounted on poles, suspended from buildings, or painted on hangingwooden boards. Such symbolic signs were necessary in a society where fewcould read, although verbal signs were not entirely unknown. A sheep signifieda tailor, a tankard a tavern. The red and white striped pole signifyingthe barbershop, and the three gold balls outside the pawnshop are two suchemblems that can occasionally be seen today. (The barber's signsurvives from an era when barbers were also surgeons; the emblem suggestsbloody bandages associated with the craft. The pawnbroker's sign is a signof a sign: it derives from the coat of arms of the Medici banking family.)

Flat signs with lettering mounted flush against the building graduallyreplaced hanging, symbolic signs. The suspended signs posed safety hazards,and creaked when they swayed in the wind: "The creaking signs notonly kept the citizens awake at night, but they knocked them off theirhorses, and occasionally fell on them too." The result, in England,was a law in 1762 banning large projecting signs. In 1797 all projectingsigns were forbidden, although some establishments, notably "publichouses," retained the hanging sign tradition."(1)

By the end of the eighteenth century, the hanging sign had declinedin popularity. Flat or flush-mounted signs, on the other hand, had becomestandard. Like symbolic signs, however, the tradition of projecting signshas survived into the present.

Nineteenth Century Signs and Sign Practices

Surviving nineteenth-century photographs depict a great variety of signs.The list of signs discussed here is by no means exhaustive.

Fascia signs, placed on the fascia or horizontal band between the storefrontand the second floor, were among the most common. The fascia is often calledthe "signboard," and as the word implies, provided a perfectplace for a sign--then as now. The narrowness of the fascia imposed strictlimits on the sign maker, however, and such signs usually gave little morethan the name of the business and perhaps a street number.

Similar to fascia signs were signs between the levels of windows acrossthe upper facade. Such signs were mounted on horizontal boards or paintedon the building. Signs of this type tended to use several "lines"of text, the name of business and short description, for example. The message,reading from top to bottom, sometimes covered several stories of the building.Other painted signs presented figures, products, or scenes. Such signswere typically more vertical than horizontal in emphasis. Whether suchpainted signs featured text or images, they became major features of thebuilding, as their makers intended them to be. The building itself oftenbecame a backdrop for the sign.

Signs in the form of plaques, shields, and ovals were used on many nineteenth-centurybuildings. Such signs had the advantage of being easily replacedas tenants came and went. They also easily incorporated images as wellas lettering.

Hanging or projecting signs, both lettered and symbolic, were also commonin the nineteenth century, although less so than previously. Projectingsigns were often paired with another at a 45-degree angle for increasedvisibility. Occasionally a sign would stretch out from the building acrossthe sidewalk, supported by a post at the street.

Goldleaf signs, and signs painted or etched on glass in windows, doorsand transoms were quite common.

Porcelain enamel signs were also very popular in the latter half ofthe nineteenth century and into the mid-twentieth century. Signs carvedfrom stone or wood also appeared frequently, especially on institutionalbuildings. Painted shutters and even window shades provided additionaladvertising space.

Posters found their way into display windows when they weren't pastedonto the building. Sidewalk signs or "sandwich boards" offeredanother chance to catch the eye of any passerby not watching the graphicsoverhead.

Nineteenth-century tenants looking for additional advertising space foundit in unexpected places. They used the entrance steps to mount signs ina variety of ways: Handrails, risers, skirts, and balusters sported signsthat gave businesses on upper levels a chance toattract notice.

Awnings offered other opportunities for keeping a name before the public.The fringe or skirt of the awning, as well as the panel at the side werethe usual places for a name or street number. Flags, particularly hungfrom the upper floors, and banners, sometimes stretching across the sidewalk,also appeared on buildings.

Rooftop signs appeared with greater frequency in the second half ofthe nineteenth century than previously. Earlier rooftop signs tended tobe relatively simple--often merely larger versions of the horizontal signstypically found on lower levels. Late in the century the signs became moreornate as well as more numerous. These later rooftop signs were typicallyfound on hotels, theaters, banks and other large buildings.

The sign types described here were not used in isolation. Window andawning signs attracted sidewalk pedestrians and people in the street. Upperlevel signs reached viewers at greater distances. If signs were numerous,however, they were nonetheless usually small in scale.

As the century wore on, signs increased in size and scale. Wall signsseveral stories high were not uncommon in the second half of the century. This development reflects changes in urban life as the centuryheaded to its close. Cities were experiencing rapid population growth.Buildings became bigger and taller. Elevated trains and electric trolleysincreased the pace of city life. And when it comes to signs, speed altersscale. The faster people travel, the bigger a sign has to be before theycan see it.

Twentieth Century Signs and Sign Practices

The advent of the twentieth century approximately coincided with thecoming of electricity, which gave signs light and, later, movement. Illuminatedsigns were not unknown before electricity. An advertisement printed about1700 mentioned a nighttime sign lit by candles, and in 1840 the legendaryshowman P.T. Barnum built a huge sign illuminated by gas.(2) But electricitywas safer and cheaper than candles, kerosene and gas. Its widespread usegave signs a prominence they retain today: illuminated signs dominate thestreets at night.

Electricity permitted signs to be illuminated by light shining ontothem, but the real revolution occurred when lightbulbs were used to formthe images and words on signs . Lightbulbs flashing on and off madenew demands on the attention of passersby. Lightbulbs blinking in sequencecould also simulate movement. Add this property to the mix, and a dramatictransformation of American streets resulted.

Moving signs were not unknown prior to the advent of electricity, forwind-driven signs had made their appearance in the nineteenth century. Butelectricity gave signs an unparalleled range of motion. This movement addedyet another element to the life of the street.

Neon is another great twentieth-century contribution to the signmaker'sart. "Neon," coined from the Greek word for "new,"is a "new gas." It has the useful property of glowing when anelectric charge passes through it. (Argon, krypton, xenon and helium sharethis property. Only neon and argon, however, are typically used in commercialsigns.) Encased in glass tubes shaped into letters or symbols, neon offeredsignmakers an opportunity to mold light into an infinite variety of shapes,colors, and images. Combined with an electric timer, the neon tubing couldpresent images moving in succession.

Neon first appeared in signs in the 1920s, and reached its height ofpopularity in the 1940s. The first documented neon commercial sign in theUnited States was at a Packard Motor Car dealership in Los Angeles in 1923.(3)After a period of decline, it underwent a renaissance, beginning in the1970s. Artists experimented with neon as a conscious art-form, and severalnotable architects further helped in its revival.(4) Renewed interest inthis colorful medium also sparked interest in preserving historic neonsigns.

Along with such developments as the coming of electricity and then neon,stylistic movements influenced twentieth-century signs. In particular, ArtDeco and Streamlined Moderne affected not just buildings, but their signsas well.

Architects working in these styles often integrated signs and buildingsinto a unified design. This was particularly true of storefronts builtusing pigmented structural glass, commonly known as "Carrara glass,"and porcelain enamel on steel panels. These materials allowed words andimages to be etched into the glass or enamel, or to be constructed in differentcolors and patterns as part of an overall design for the building. Suchstorefronts were popular from the 1920s into the 1940s.

As the century advanced, new styles took hold. The late 1950s broughtsigns with fins, star bursts, and other images reflecting a new fascinationwith outer space.

In the decades after World War II signs were also transformed by a groupof materials now known generically as "plastic." Plastic hadseveral advantages over wood, metal and other traditional sign materials.As the name indicates, "plastic" can take almost any shape. Itcan also take almost any color. Plastic is translucent. Lit from behind,it appears to glow. It is relatively durable. Above all, it is inexpensive,and can be mass produced. Plastic quickly became the dominant sign material.

Another profound influence on signs in this period stemmed from businesstrends rather than from technological breakthroughs or design movements:the rise of chain stores and franchises. National firms replaced many localbusinesses. Standard corporate signs went up; local trademarks came down.The rise of mass culture, of which the national chain is but one expression,has meant the rise of standardization, and the elimination of regionaldifferences and local character.

The decline of gold-leafing and other traditional sign techniques contributedto these trends. Mass-produced signs have replaced local signs that differedfrom owner to owner and from signmaker to signmaker. The result is notjust sameness, but impersonality as well: It is becoming rarer, for example,to find owners' names on signs. Whether the trend toward sameness can successfullybe resisted is yet to be seen. (Some crafts, such as gold-leafing and porcelainenameling, for example, have experienced a revival of sorts.) But the preservationof historic signs is one way to ensure that at least some of these expressionsof local history continue to enliven our streets.

Sign Regulation

Historic commercial areas have customarily been a riot of signs. Yetif clutter has ample precedent, so do efforts to control it. Early attemptsto regulate signs in this country include those of professional associationsof advertisers, such as the International Bill Posters Organization ofNorth America, founded in St. Louis in 1872.(5)

However, early efforts by municipalities to enact sign regulations metwith disfavor in the courts, which traditionally opposed any regulatoryeffort based on aesthetic concerns. Early successes in the legal arena,such as the 1911 case, St. Louis Gunning Advertising Company v. City ofSt. Louis, were realized when proponents of sign controls argued that signsand billboards endangered public health and safety.

Yet gradually courts found merit in the regulation of private propertyfor aesthetic reasons. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the landmarkdecision, Berman v. Parker, in which the court declared: "It is withinthe power of the legislature to determine that the community should bebeautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well balancedas well as carefully patrolled." (6)

With the blessing of the courts, communities across the nation haveenacted sign controls to reduce "urban blight." And where historicbuildings are concerned, the growth of local review commissions has addedto the momentum for controls in historic districts.

Typically, sign controls regulate the number, size and type of signs.In some cases, moving or projecting signs are prohibited. Often such ordinancesalso regulate sign placement--owners are told to line up their signs withothers on the block, for example. Materials, likewise, are prescribed:wood is encouraged, plastic discouraged or forbidden altogether. Sign controlsoften specify lighting sources: indirect illumination (light shining ontothe sign) is often required instead of neon tubing, bare lightbulbs, or"backlighting," used in most plastic signs. Some ordinances forbidlighting completely. (Neon, especially, is still held in disfavor in someareas.) Finally, ordinances sometimes require signs to be "compatible"in color and other design qualities with the facade of the building andthe overall appearance of the street.

Existing signs frequently do not meet requirements set forth in signcontrols. They are too big, for example, or project too far from the building.Typically, sign ordinances permit such "nonconforming" existingsigns to remain, but only for a specified period, after which they mustbe removed. If they need repair before then, or if the business changesowners, they must likewise be removed.

Sign controls offer communities the chance to reduce visual blight.They can also assist in producing both a new visibility and a new viabilityfor historic commercial districts. Yet sign ordinances are not withoutproblems. Sign controls satisfy contemporary ideas of "good taste."But "bad taste" has ample historic precedent. And in any case,tastes change. What is tasteful today may be dated tomorrow. Sign controlscan impose a uniformity that falsifies history. Most historic districtscontain buildings constructed over a long period of time, by differentowners for different purposes; the buildings reflect different architecturalstyles and personal tastes. By requiring a standard sign "image"in such matters as size, material, typeface and other qualities, sign controlscan mute the diversity of historic districts. Such controls can also sacrificesigns of some age and distinction that have not yet come back into fashion.(7)Neon serves as an instructive example in this regard: once "in,"then "out," then "in" again. Unfortunately, a greatnumber of notable signs were lost because sign controls were drafted inmany communities when neon was "out." Increasingly, however,communities are enacting ordinances that recognize older and historic signsand permit them to be kept. The National Park Service encourages this trend.


Sign as Icon

Signs often become so important to a community that they are valuedlong after their role as commercial markers has ceased. They become landmarks,loved because they have been visible at certain street corners--or frommany vantage points across the city--for a long time. Such signsare valued for their familiarity, their beauty, their humor, their size,or even their grotesqueness. In these cases, signs transcend their conventionalrole as vehicles of information, as identifiers of something else. Whensigns reach this stage, they accumulate rich layers of meaning. They nolonger merely advertise, but are valued in and of themselves. They becomeicons.

Preserving Historic Signs

Historic signs can contribute to the character of buildings and districts.They can also be valued in themselves, quite apart from the buildings towhich they may be attached. However, any program to preserve historic signsmust recognize the challenges they present. These challenges are not forthe most part technical. Sign preservation is more likely to involve aestheticconcerns and to generate community debate. Added to these concerns areseveral community goals that often appear to conflict: retaining diverseelements from the

past, encouraging artistic expression in new signs, zoning for aestheticconcerns, and reconciling business requirements with preservation.

Preserving historic signs is not always easy. But the intrinsic meritof many signs, as well as their contribution to the overall character ofa place, make the effort worthwhile. Observing the guidelines given belowcan help preserve both business and history.

Retaining Historic Signs

Retain historic signs whenever possible, particularly when they are:

* associated with historic figures, events or places.

* significant as evidence of the history of the product, business orservice advertised.

* significant as reflecting the history of the building or the developmentof the historic district. A sign may be the only indicator of a building'shistoric use.

* characteristic of a specific historic period, such as gold leaf onglass, neon, or stainless steel lettering.

* integral to the building's design or physical fabric, as when a signis part of a storefront made of Carrara glass or enamel panels, or whenthe name of the historic firm or the date are rendered in stone, metalor tile. In such cases, removal can harm the integrity of a historicproperty's design, or cause significant damage to its materials.

* outstanding examples of the signmaker's art, whether because of theirexcellent craftsmanship, use of materials, or design.

* Local landmarks, that is, signs recognized as popular focal pointsin a community.

* elements important in defining the character of a district, such asmarquees in a theater district.

Maintaining and Repairing Historic Signs

Maintenance of historic signs is essential for their long-term preservation.Sign maintenance involves periodic inspections for evidence of damage anddeterioration. Lightbulbs may need replacement. Screws and bolts may beweakened, or missing altogether. Dirt and other debris may be accumulating,introduced by birds or insects, and should be cleaned out. Water may becollecting in or on sign cabinets, threatening electrical connections.The source of water penetration should be identified and sealed. Most ofthese minor repairs are routine maintenance measures, and do not call forspecial expertise. All repairs, however, require caution. For example,electricity should be turned off when working around electric signs.

More extensive repairs should be undertaken by professionals. The signindustry is a large and active one. Sign designers, fabricators and skilledcraftsmen are located throughout the country. Once in danger of being lostaltogether, gold leaf on glass and porcelain enamel are undergoing revivals,and the art of bending neon tubes is now widely practiced. Finding help

from qualified sources should not be difficult. Before contracting forwork on historic signs, however, owners should check references, and viewother projects completed by the same company.

Major repairs may require removal of the sign to a workshop. Since signsare sometimes damaged while the building is undergoing repair, work onthe building should be scheduled while the sign is in the shop. (If thesign remains in place while work on the building is in progress, the signshould be protected.)

Repair techniques for specific sign materials are discussed below (see"Repairing Historic Sign Materials" on page 10). The overallgoal in repairs such as supplying missing letters, replacing broken neontubing, or splicing in new members for deteriorated sections is to restorea sign that is otherwise whole. Recognize, however, that the apparent ageof historic signs is one of their major features; do not "over restore"signs so that all evidence of their age is lost, even though the appearanceand form may be recaptured.

Reusing Historic Signs

If a building or business has changed hands, historic signs associatedwith former enterprises in the building should be reused if possible by:

* keeping the historic sign--unaltered. This is often possible evenwhen the new business is of a different nature from the old. Preferably,the old sign can be left in its historic location; sometimes, however,it may be necessary to move the sign elsewhere on the building to accommodatea new one. Conversely, it may be necessary to relocate new signs to avoidhiding or overwhelming historic ones, or to redesign proposed new signsso that the old ones may remain. (The legitimate advertising needs of currenttenants, however, must be recognized.)

Keeping the old sign is often a good marketing strategy. It can exploitthe recognition value of the old name and play upon the public's fondnessfor the old sign. The advertising value of an old sign can be immense.This is especially true when the sign is a community landmark.

* relocating the sign to the interior, such as in the lobby or abovethe bar in a restaurant. This option is less preferable than keeping thesign outside the building, but it does preserve the sign, and leaves openthe possibility of putting it back in its historic location .

* modifying the sign for use with the new business. This may not bepossible without destroying essential features, but in some cases it canbe done by changing details only. In other respects, the signmay be perfectly serviceable as is.

If none of these options is possible, the sign could be donated to alocal museum, preservation organization or other group.


Repairing Historic Sign Materials

PORCELAIN ENAMEL. Porcelain enamel is among the most durable of materialsused in signs.(8) Made of glass bonded onto metal (usually steel) at hightemperatures, it keeps both its high gloss and its colors for decades.Since the surface of the sign is essentially glass, porcelain enamel isvirtually maintenance free; dirt can be washed off with soap and waterand other glass cleaners.

Porcelain enamel signs can be damaged by direct blows from stones andother sharp objects. If both the enamel surface and the undercoat are scratched,the metal surface can rust at the impact site. Because the bond betweenglass and metal is so strong, however, the rust does not "travel"behind the glass, and the rust is normally confined to localized areas.The sign edges can also rust if they were never enamelled. To treat theproblem, clean the rust off carefully, and touchup the area with cold enamel(a type of epoxy used mostly in jewelry), or with enamel paints.

Dents in porcelain enamel signs should be left alone. Attempting tohammer them out risks further damage.

GOLDLEAF OR GILDING. Goldleaf or gilding is both elegant and durable.These properties made it among the most popular sign materials in the nineteenthand early twentieth centuries. Surface-gilded signs (for example, gildedraised letters or symbols found on the exterior) typically last about 40years. Damage to these signs occurs from weather and abrasion. Damage togilded signs on glass normally occurs when the protective coating appliedover the gilding is removed by harsh cleaning chemicals or scratched byscrub brushes. The sign can then flake upon subsequent cleanings.

Historic gilded signs can be repaired, typically by regilding damagedareas. An oil size is painted on the surface. The gold leaf is appliedwhen the surface has become sufficiently "tacky." Similarly,historic "reverse on glass" goldleaf signs can be repaired--byexperts. A sample of the flaking sign is first taken to determine its composition.Reverse on glass signs use goldleaf ranging from 12 to 23 karats. The goldis alloyed with copper and silver in varying amounts for differences incolor. (Surface gilding--on raised letters, picture frames and statehousedomes--uses 23 karat gold. Pure gold, 24 karat, is too soft to use in suchapplications.) The damaged portions of the sign are then regilded in thesame manner as they were done historically: the inside surface of the glassis coated with a gelatin; gold leaves about three inches square are thenspread over the area. The new letter or design is then drawn in reverseon the new leaf, and coated with a backing paint (normally a chrome yellow).With the new design thus sealed, the rest of the leaf is removed. The signis then sealed with a clear, water-resistant varnish.

Gilded signs, both surface and reverse on glass, can be cleaned gentlywith soap and water, using a soft cloth. Additionally, for glass signs,the varnish backing should be replaced every seven years at the latest.

NEON. Neon signs can last 50 years, although 20-25 years is more typical.When a neon sign fails, it is not because the gas has "failed,"but because the system surrounding it has broken down. The glass tubeshave been broken, for example, thus letting the gas escape, or the electrodesor transformers have failed. If the tube is broken, a new one must be madeby a highly skilled "glass bender." After the hot glass tubehas been shaped, it must undergo "purification" before beingrefilled with gas. The glass and the metal electrode at the end of thetube are heated in turns. As these elements become hot, surface impuritiesburn off into the tube. The resulting vapor is then removed through "evacuation"-- the process of creating a vacuum. Only then is the "neon"gas (neon or mercury-argon) added. Neon gives red light, mercury-argon producesblue. Other colors are produced by using colored glass and any of dozensof phosphor coatings inside the tube. Green, for example, can be producedby using mercury-argon in yellow glass. Since color is so important in neonsigns, it is vital to determine the original color or colors. A neon studiocan accomplish this using a number of specialized techniques.

A failing transformer can cause the neon sign to flicker intensely,and may have to be replaced. Flickering neon can also indicate a problemwith the gas pressure inside the tube. The gas may be at too high or toolow a pressure. If so, the gas must be repumped.

Repairs to neon signs also include repairs to the surrounding componentsof the sign. The "metal cans" that often serve as backdrops tothe tubing may need cleaning or, in case of rust, scraping and repainting.

As with gilded signs, repair of neon signs is not a matter for amateurs.


New Signs and HistoricBuildings

Preserving old signs is one thing. Making new ones is another. Closelyrelated to the preservation of historic signs on historic buildings isthe subject of new signs for historic buildings. Determining what new signsare appropriate for historic buildings, however, involves a major paradox:Historic sign practices were not always "sympathetic" to buildings.They were often unsympathetic to the building, or frankly contemptuousof it. Repeating some historic practices, therefore, would definitely notbe recommended.

Yet many efforts to control signage lead to bland sameness. For thisreason the National Park Service discourages the adoption of local guidelinesthat are too restrictive, and that effectively dictate uniform signs withincommercial districts. Instead, it encourages communities to promote diversityin signs--their sizes, types, colors, lighting, lettering and other qualities.It also encourages business owners to choose signs that reflect their owntastes, values, and personalities. At the same time, tenant sign practicescan be stricter than sign ordinances. The National Park Service thereforeencourages businesses to fit their sign programs to the building.

The following points should be considered when designing and constructingnew signs for historic buildings:

* signs should be viewed as part of an overall graphics system for thebuilding. They do not have to do all the "work" by themselves.The building's form, name and outstanding features, both decorative andfunctional, also support the advertising function of a sign. Signs shouldwork with the building, rather than against it.

* new signs should respect the size, scale and design of the historicbuilding. Often features or details of the building will suggest a motiffor new signs.

* sign placement is important: new signs should not obscure significantfeatures of the historic building. (Signs above a storefront should fitwithin the historic signboard, for example.)

* new signs should also respect neighboring buildings. They should notshadow or overpower adjacent structures.

* sign materials should be compatible with those of the historic building.Materials characteristic of the building's period and style, used in contemporarydesigns, can form effective new signs.

* new signs should be attached to the building carefully, both to preventdamage to historic fabric, and to ensure the safety of pedestrians. Fittingsshould penetrate mortar joints rather than brick, for example, and signloadsshould be properly calculated and distributed.


Historic signs once allowed buyers and sellers to communicate quickly,using images that were the medium of daily life. Surviving historic signshave not lost their ability to speak. But their message has changed. Bycommunicating names, addresses, prices, products, images and other fragmentsof daily life, they also bring the past to life.


With halting steps I paced the streets, and passed the sign of "TheCrossed Harpoons" --but it looked too expensive and jolly there. .. . Moving on, I at last came to a dim sort of light not far from the docks,and heard a forlorn creaking in the air; and looking up, saw a swingingsign over the door with a white painting upon it, faintly representinga tall straight jet of misty spray, and these words underneath -- "TheSpouter Inn: --Peter Coffin."

The creaking wooden sign in Moby Dick identifies public lodging. Butit also does a great deal more than that. It projects an image. It setsa mood and defines a place. The ability to convey commercial and symbolicmessages is a property of all signs, not just those in novels.

Every sign hanging outside a door, standing on a roof, extending overa storefront, or marching across a wall transmits messages from the signmaker to the sign reader. Mixed in with names, addresses, business hoursand products are images, personalities, values and beliefs.


Selected Reading List

DiLamme, Philip. American Streamline: A Handbook of Neon AdvertisingDesign. Cincinnati: ST Publications, 1988.

Evans, Bill and Andrew Lawson. Shopfronts. New York: Van Nostrand ReinholdCo., 1981.

The Gilder's Manual. Washington, D.C.: The Society of Gilders, 1991.(Reprint of The Gilder's Manual; A Practical Guide to Gilding in All itsBranches. New York: Excelsior Publishing House, 1876.)

Liebs, Chester. Main Street to Miracle Mile: American Roadside Architecture.Boston: Little, Brown and Company/ New York Graphics Society, 1985.

National Main Street Center. Main Street Guidelines: Signs for MainStreet. Washington, D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1987.

Phillips, Peter H. "Sign Controls for Historic Signs," PASMemo. Chicago: American Planning Association, November 1988.

Smith, Kent. Gold Leaf Techniques. Cincinnati: ST Publications, 1989.

Stage, William. Ghost Signs: Brick Wall Signs in America. Cincinnati:ST Publications, 1989.

Stern, Rudi. Let There Be Neon. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1979.(Rev. 1988).


(1) Bill Evans and Andrew Lawson, Shopfronts. New York: Van NostrandReinhold Co., 1981, p. 109, 114.

(2) Charles L.H. Wagner, The Story of Signs: An Outline History of theSign Arts from Earliest Recorded Times to the Present "Atomic Age".Boston: Arthur MacGibbon, 1954, p. 37.

(3) Rudi Stern, Let There Be Neon. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1979,p. 19.

(4) See Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learningfrom Las Vegas. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977.

(5) George H. Kramer, "Preserving Historic Signs in the CommercialLandscape: The Impact of Regulation." (Unpublished Masters Thesis:University of Oregon, 1989), p. 15. This section on sign regulation isheavily indebted to this work. See especially Chapter 2, History of SignRegulation and Chapter 3, Mechanics of Sign Regulation, pp. 7-60.

(6) Berman v. Parker involved the condemnation of an older buildingfor an urban renewal project. The decision "ironically would proveto be a major spur to a new wave of local preservation laws...." ChristopherJ. Duerksen, ed. A Handbook on Historic Preservation Law. Washington, D.C.:The Conservation Foundation and The National Center for Preservation Law,1983, p. 7.

(7) A balanced approach to sign controls is offered by Peter H. Phillips,"Sign Controls for Historic Signs," PAS Memo, November 1988.(Published by American Planning Association, Washington, D.C.).

(8) See John Tymoski, "Porcelain Enamel: The Sign Industry's MostDurable Material," Signs of the Times, December 1990, pp. 6671. Forgoldleaf, see October 1984 and November 1990 special issues of Signs ofthe Times. An excellent short "course" in neon evaluation isoffered in "Neon: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," by Paul R.Davis, Identity, Spring 1991, pp. 5659.


The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of BethSavage, National Register of Historic Places. The author is also indebtedto Rebecca Shiffer of The Society for Commercial Archeology, and to othercolleagues in the cultural resources programs of the National Park Service,sign artists in private practice, and professionals and preservationistsin a number of organizations. These include staff of the Technical PreservationServices Branch, directed by H. Ward Jandl, especially Kay Weeks, AnneGrimmer, Sharon C. Park, and Thomas C. Jester; staff of the National ParkService Regional Offices, especially Michael Crowe, Thomas Keohan, CatherineColby and Christopher Jones; deTeel Patterson Tiller and Stephen Morris,Interagency Resources Division; Caroline Bedinger, Historic American EngineeringRecord; Catherine Lavoie and Sara Leach, Historic American Buildings Survey,and Stan Fowler of Glen Echo Park. Significant contributions were alsomade by Peter Phillips, Yuma County Planning Department; Pratt Cassityof the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions; Betsy Jackson, DougLoescher and Kennedy Smith of the National Trust for Historic Preservation;Richard Longstreth, George Washington University; Richard Wagner, DavidH. Gleason Associates, Inc.; Michael Jackson, Illinois Historic PreservationAgency; Vance Kelley, Kansas State Historical Society; William

Pencek, Maryland Historical Trust, Chere Jiusto, Montana HistoricalSociety, and Gerron Hite and Stan Graves, Texas State Historical Commission(the latter on behalf of the National Conference of State Historic PreservationOfficers). The following artists and professionals active in the sign industryoffered publications, photographs, technical material, and advice: LynnBaxter and Tod Swormstedt, ST Publications; Kent Smith, Kent Smith Signs;Craig Kraft, Kraft Studios; Larry Kanter, Neon Projects; Len Davidson,Davidson Neon Design; Thomas Ellis, The Enamelist Society; Timothy Pugh,the Porcelain Enamel Institute; William Adair, Goldleaf Studios.

Washington,D.C. October 1991

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