The Daily Heller: Once a Star, Now Not Even a Little Twinkle

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E.C. Matthews (1892–1977) was one of the most prolific—and today, mostly unknown—pioneers of how-to commercial art, cartoon, type and letter-drawing books. During his career, he taught and inspired wannabe artists to paint and design signs; "sho cards"; alphabet specimens; periodical, book and pamphlet layouts. You name it, he could teach it. I've collected a few of his books without knowing the man (or the "E.C." and only recently found out it is Eric Christian Matthews). He published under the imprint New Era Studio in St. Louis, MO, and answered to the name "Matt." He was also known for truck lettering out that he painted out of an old carriage shop turned garage.

In 1956, he wrote a book with the title Florida Sign-tific Advertising that contained a biographical summary. I just obtained a copy. The author of the foreword, one J.H. Chester, wrote the following: "I was a grocery clerk with ambitions to become a sign painter." Thanks, in part, to Matthews' "phrases of good advice" in his "inspiring books," Chester says he lived his dream. They ultimately became good acquaintances, too, although, Chester notes, he was "not what you would call a communicative soul."

An interest in this forgotten hero has been reinvigorated with the few tidbits of information Chester gleaned from conversations.

So here goes: E.C. Matthews grew up in a large family on a ranch in Colorado. His grandparents on both sides were early Colorado pioneers; his father a self-taught land surveyor; his oldest brother a fingerprint expert; middle brother a Marine Lt. Colonel; and another brother, a mathematician at UCLA. Matthews studied cartooning in 1916 at the Lockwood Art School in Kalamazoo, MI. He logged his first sign-painting experience in Colorado Springs and moved on to Toledo, OH, where he began his how-to book career (he also wrote on philosophy and religion). Among his influential books, notes Chester, were The Lacquer System of Sign Painting; Modern Illustration; How To Draw Funny Pictures, illustrated by Matthews's friend ZIM (Eugene Zimmerman, a popular book, newspaper and magazine cartoonist of the era). And that's basically it for the biography.

Now, about this odd volume published in 1956: It was, after all, the heyday of American and European postwar Modernism, but not in Florida. Under the chapter title "A New Look," Matthews wrote, "You have undoubtedly noticed a lot of this 'new lettering' used in magazines, on billboards and for other kinds of advertising. It has that free and graceful swing, which attracts attention and makes it easy to read. Also, it offers plenty of opportunity for personal modifications and individual treatment. The Roman, Egyptian and various 'block' letters are so well-standardized that it is difficult to get much swing and personality into those styles. … These new alphabets are easier than they look."

Where does Florida fit into all this? Well, Matthews was not a follower of the Bauhaus or Swiss schools, The Art Institute of Chicago or Yale, he was a rock-ribbed sign painter through and through and an admirer of the best show card "writers" of his time, and Florida was where he found "a very good exponent" in Jacksonville's Frank C. Clark, whose work below he celebrates in his Signtific manual.

You've now learned about E.C. Matthews and will see Mr. Clark and others' work. I'll leave the rest to you …