We’ve all seen them – signs on storefronts that appear to be from a different era, stylish relics of times gone by. Perhaps the sign hangs over a modern doorway, accented with bright neon tubing. Or maybe it takes the form of a “ghost sign,” painted on the side of a building, preserved for years as a souvenir of another time. Regardless of its format, happening upon a vintage sign is a fascinating reminder of the ever-changing nature of design.
Font Nostalgia: Vintage Sign Styles
While sorting through images of vintage signs, a clear pattern emerged – a rounded ornamental script often juxtaposed above a legible, plain sans-serif typeface.
Examples of this pattern abound throughout the decades and in many parts of the world. One prime example comes to us from Mobile, Alabama; the word “Bluebird” is written in a whimsical brush script style font, most likely custom-designed but similar in appearance to our modern day ITC Studio Script. To complement the Mobile sign’s decorative portion, a boxy, sans serif font stands below as an anchor. The unusual shape of the letter “R” gives the word a unique feel; many similar sans-serif fonts have a wider space between the stem and the tail (the two “legs” of the letterform). These small details in combination with the baby blue color scheme give the sign an exceptionally retro look.
Another vintage artifact, this time residing in Berlin, Germany, displays similar characteristics but achieves a different overall tone. More information is known about this particular sign, thanks to the research of the Buchstaben Museum in Germany. The word Innendekoration, meaning interior decoration, is beautifully represented by a compact yet appealing script that was custom-designed in 1947. The word Lederwaren (leather goods) possesses a low x-height, a characteristic common in the 1930’s and 1940’s. A well-known font called Bernhard Gothic exemplifies this same trait, designed in the year 1929.
Sutton Place Frame Shop in New York City demonstrates this same pattern yet again, using loopy lettering stacked on the left along with another strong sans-serif font on the right. The designer oriented the “Sutton Place” text at an angle, a choice that gave a certain energy to the overall layout. Imagine if that were not the case – the dynamic quality of the sign would no longer exist. The typeface used for “Frame Shop” is similar to that of the Bluebird sign, only narrower and a bit more stylized. The slight yet deliberate tapering of some of the letterforms lends a dated feeling to the words.
Similar to the 3-dimensional signs noted above, painted “ghost signs” also often exhibit this same complementary pattern of a decorative font paired with a sans-serif one. A ghost sign is an old, faded advertisement painted on the facade of a building that publicizes an obsolete product, non-operational business or the building’s one-time owner or tenant. Kolb’s Pan-Dandy Bread ghost sign in Philadelphia uses an extended, thick script paired with a smaller sans serif to maintain a balanced arrangement. The massive scale of this sign and the manner in which it was created feels archaic, but concurrently like a foreshadowing of our giant modern billboards.
Philadelphia gives us another historical treasure, the extravagant Meglio Furs sign on South Broad Street. The typography pattern continues with an eccentric script matched with a simple, unadorned font on top. Here, though, we also have an example of the importance of shape. A large red arrow forms the background for part of the name of the company, while simultaneously pointing visitors directly into their store. Central also to the historical significance of the sign is the vertical Furs component. Vertical type such as this was very prominent in earlier decades, but you’ll be hard-pressed to see a modern sign with such a layout.
Marcel of Paris lends us one last example of this prominent historical design pattern. The storefront opened in 1926 on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., flaunting its authentic Parisian “beauty culture.” The sign, this time appearing to be a window decal, represents this Parisian flair effectively with its thin, refined fonts. The typeface used for “Marcel,” most likely custom-designed, has been embellished with a long, elegant line running from the end of the word back to the beginning. Oddly enough, despite the fact that it is the oldest, Marcel of Paris looks the most modern of all the signs mentioned above. Perhaps it is due in part to its color – or lack thereof.
Although each of these signs has its own distinct character, they all have similarities in form and structure. Because of these parallel qualities, we are able to immediately see that they are from a different era. A legible, plain sans-serif typeface was often paired with a rounded ornamental script during the 20th century, and other characteristics such as stacked vertical type and low x-heights added to the outdated feel of signs.
No matter what the history is behind each one, we can all agree that vintage signs are alluring antiquities that we can view and enjoy in our everyday lives. Have you seen any interesting vintage advertising lately?