Ephemera Road Trip: Seeing the Signs
by Penny Wolfson
I like scenery as much as the next person–the lush Pennsylvania mountains, the reminiscent-of-Huck-Finn islands in the Mississippi, the barren landscape of eastern Montana–but the truth is I like people and history better. And there’s nothing that shows the mark and march of humankind more than signs, painted in giant black block letters on the sides of ancient factory buildings, etched into or raised above the stone surfaces of civic edifices, and dancing in neon curlicues on the fronts of decades-old theaters and cafes in rundown downtowns. Red Wing, Minnesota, famous for shoes and pottery, hugs the Mississippi’s western shore. The town, which flourished in the 1870s–it was the world’s largest wheat market–sports some classic building print. The elegant St. James Hotel, built in 1875, announces its name in sharp, stenciled paint, the period after “Hotel” literally beckoning the traveler to stop. Other buildings, like the foundry and iron works, all from the same era, bear similar signs with blocky, serif type faces that once might have implied “progress” or “optimism” and now strike the viewer as mock-serious, both authoritative and whimsical.
From my windows at the Radisson in Bismarck, North Dakota, named after the German emperor, I can see signs for McDonald’s Rock N’ Roll cafe; the frieze of the Bismarck Auditorium (Arthur van Horn, 1914, brick and stone), and in the distance, the former Northern Pacific passenger railroad station, now a very good Mexican restaurant, where over-21s on the patio can get a shot for $1 every time a freight train rolls by. The Northern Pacific sign (below) which incorporates a yin yang symbol, was the brainchild of chief engineer Edwin Harrison McHenry, who saw the monad on the Korean flag at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and co-opted it for his company. It lends an oddly modern feel to the late nineteenth-century scroll and leaf molding behind it. On the other side of the tracks a huge bright blue “LUBE” sign, obviously from another era, has been painted, flanked by an array of automobile-related logos.
One great aspect of focusing on print is that even the most down-at-the-heel cities have great examples. In Butte, Montana, home of a huge strip mine, the empty-feeling, windy downtown streets reveal “ghost” writing advertising the Fireproof Leggat Hotel and Butte’s Special Beer, plus yellow and blue neon script for the Murray Cafe.
And then there’s the gorgeous Teslow grain elevator (left), out in Livingston, Montana, announcing itself in bold and simple letters, standing tall, a scrap of human testimony in the gigantic sky and mountains of the West.