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Ephemera Road Trip: Signage from the Pacific Northwest

by Penny Wolfson


Seattle is a city of signs and wonders. The Pike Street market flickers with great neon (one of my favorites is the elegantly curved green-letters-inside-an-arrow “Rest Rooms” directive), and the town contains an endless supply of espressi and coffee logos, including the flagship Starbucks and the Cupcake Café (see below). In Pioneer Square, one can still see remnants of the original Skid Road (see below, the Jesus-and-neon sign for the Bread of Life mission, as well as the brick-wall ship for the J & M Café and Cardroom.)

The towns of coastal Washington and Oregon boast an abundance of print and graphics, most of which make reference to the sea. In an Irish place called Duffy’s in Aberdeen, WA, the proprietor has assembled a beautiful shelf full of five-pound cans of crabmeat, which, according to the woman at the register, helps assure customers they are eating the real thing. I love the contrast between the convex, ridged surface of the can and the slim bold letters of DEPOE BAY, which make room for its beady-eyed red Dungeness crab, or the 50s-era print and script on the Hallmark Quality container.

In Astoria, OR, which takes its name from–who else–that crazy, beloved beaver trapper John Jacob, the once vibrant Finnish community has left behind its signs for saunas and hot tubs, their own meat market, now a café, which has renovated the building but kept the old engraved title above its own new one, and across the street, Suomi Hall, built for the Finnish Brotherhood in 1893. The white clapboard hall, featuring its blue and white sign with crossed Finnish and American flags, still stands proudly across the tracks from the docks and the canneries, some of which are still operating.

Walking along the dock at Coos Bay, OR, past the Printing Museum (which is really the office and press of the town’s defunct newspaper, the Marshfield Sun, published 1891-1944), one can see some of Coos Bay’s prized possessions, set up as an outdoors exhibit: its tugboats. The tugs themselves boast some beautiful lettering (see the Koos No. 2, with its bright red baby-block-like capital K, below), as do many of the town’s seaside enterprises, like the Coos Bay Iron Works or Sause Bros. Ocean Towing Company.

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