NEB&W Guide to Signage

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There are several versions of signs. Signs can be painted directly on a building, posters and "bills" ("post no bills") attached to walls and fences, and for large signs, a special board, or billboard was erected. The billboard could also on building walls, or a freestanding billboard with struts and bracing. Then there is the neon sign.

Signage on paper doesn't survive outside too long, so these should represent contemporary products for your era. Signs painted on walls survive, until or unless painted over, or the building comes down. There are a number of signs still visible today, dating back a century. This type of sign was much popular c. 1900, so the advertising can be decades out of date, representing WWI products or earlier. These should be faded, and can be one of those subtle features that requires a second look. Neon, invented in 1911, made them obsolete, so they tended not to get repainted with more modern advertising.

According to James Fraser (American Billboard, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.), in 1900, a group of major advertisers agreed to a standard size for billboards. The sheets were 42 inches by 28 inches, and a billboard was to take either 3, 8, or 16. (I'm not sure which was the width and which the height, and therefore, how the three sizes were arranged.)

A favorite modeling trick is to cut out an ad or a sign reproduction in a magazine or book, lightly sand it on the back to thin the paper, and glue it onto a building wall. If the paper is soaked in a water-white glue mix, and the sign pressed into the mortar lines, it can be made to look like it was painted on the wall.

There is one thing to avoid. Printed signs such as used on billboards included pictures. In this fashion, printing allowed the reproduction of complicated pictures. Signs painted on the walls were painted in place. I've paid a LOT of attention to these - the use of pictures was surprisingly minimal. Instead these are filled with great amounts of lettering, in a mix of ornate fonts. For one thing, it is difficult to paint a large picture, while lettering on the rectangular brick grid is easy.

Also, remember that the Victorian world was much less used to pictures as opposed to words. Also, if you are zipping along a highway, you don't have time to read much on a billboard, but you can take in a picture. And you might only pass that way once. On the other hand, in 1900, billboards were seen by the same people day in and day out, and seen at a leisurely pass. The words explain more about the product, rather than just an instant product recognition.

The standard element of the Victorian row house was a blank area on the side. On the side with the door, hall and stairway, most of the side was blank, but this side was normally away from the street and only exposed if the adjacent building was torn down, or not as tall. A corner building normally had the opposite wall on the corner street, but the front room on each floor had a fireplace/chimney area for the first 15 or 20 feet from the corner. Thus the windows started past this point, and this allowed a blank area for a vertical format two or three story sign.

Talking of format, billboards have a horizontal format, and magazine pages have a vertical format. I found it so frustrating when looking through period magazines that most ads overlap the elements so it not possible to simply cut out a piece of the advertisement to make the format horizontal. Unlike the older signs painted on buildings, billboards had very few words, and certainly not the fine print (except modern day tobacco ads) that you find in these magazine ads. One final thing to add to the frustration is that the magazine ads tell more of a story, so simply cutting out a piece takes it out of meaningful context. (The ability to manipulate images using Photoshop has drastically changed sign-making.)

Peter Magoun pointed out that c. 1900, signs on buildings contained punctuation, but by mid-century, periods, commas, etc. had generally disappeared. Also keep this in mind if taking signs from magazines to glue on to your model walls.

Also, prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933. I often wonder what effect this had on signs already painted. I don't think they had to paint these out, but on the other hand, the ONLY sign for an alcoholic brewage I've seen painted on a wall was on building where a new structure had been constructed adjacent (blocking the sign) and then the sign was exposed after this building was torn down.

Troy Laundry

In Troy's One Hundred Years (1891), the author said: "The perfection attained by the laundrymen of Troy in washing, starching, and ironing collars, cuffs, and shirts, has given a wide fame to the city since the establishment of the first public laundry in it 50 years ago. The display in every large city" (emphasis mine) "of the Union, on sign and advertising boards of the familiar lettering, - Troy Laundry, - is as common as it is significant."

I've never seen such a sign, even in the home city here. Has anyone seen such a sign?

Mail Pouch Tobacco

According to Morgan (Symbols Of America), the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Co. of Wheeling, WV began making stogies in 1879. In 1897, they introduced the West Virginia Mail Pouch chewing tobacco, apparently as a way to use the scraps of tobacco leftover from stogie-making. (As the demand grew, they didn't have enough scraps to go around, so whole leaves were added until by '32, the product was entirely uncut tobacco.)

Sometime around 1900, the company began to offer a free paint job for barns if the farmer allowed them to paint a side or sometimes a roof with a billboard size sign. In 1910, the change was made to Gothic letters. I believe the color scheme of white and yellow letters on a black background goes back at least that far. The signs were seen coast to coast, and sometimes on buildings other than barns. At first, the local sign painter was given the job, but by the 1930's, there were so many being painted, the company employed their own sign painters and sent them out in two-men teams.

The Highway Beautifical Act of 1965, which prohibited any signs with 660 feet of any federally-funded highways, did away with the Burma-Shave signs and almost did away with the Mail Pouch signs. Highway officials actually painted over some of the offending signs, and in '69, the company stopped repainting the remaining legal ones. However, there was enough of an outcry that in '74, an amendment was made to allow signs on farm structures "of historic or artistic significance". A lone painter, Harley Warrick of Belmont, OH, continued to touch up some 300 signs in the Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania area centered around the company's headquarters, and Morgan said that perhaps another 3,000 faded signs could still be read (at least as of a decade ago).

Model Signs

Walthers and Microscale makes a blank decal paper, and we have made a number of signs using this. Like the Model T, we could do any color as long as it's black.

We've used the desktop publishing software to make simple signs. This is especially useful when the sign has to just fit a certain space. Brent Chartrand found that the laser printer wouldn't print directly onto the decal paper, but we could take the paper output and print onto the decal paper via the photocopier.

We also took a 1910 Troy City Directory, photocopied ads from there at the Troy Public Library, and photocopied the copies at the Student Union machine to reduce them. Borders were made on our computer, the reduced copies pasted-up inside the borders, and our copier was used to print onto the decal paper.

Given only black, the most effective signs are those with a black background. You can pre-paint the area whatever color you want to show through the blank areas of the decal, so the lettering can be white, yellow, etc.

We found that Champ Decalset makes the black toner bleed, but Walthers Solvaset doesn't. Art Griffin Griffin makes decals of actual signs, particularly on brick walls, which means they come with built in weathering. Blair House They offer a tremendous number of paper signs of steam-era advertising. Clover House Clover House manufacturers dry transfers, both for rolling stock and for buildings. The building signs represent the 1900-era Art Nouveau type of lettering. Some of the billboard reefer sets could also be used, especially if you model after the Depression, when such lettering was banished from reefers themselves.

Bill Gill found this website: with over 50 pages of actual signs, including many "ghost" signs.

NEB&W Green Dot Graphics

Thirty years ago, downtown Troy was used to film the movie Ironweed (with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep). The stores along River Street were converted to look suitable for 1939. The scenes were filmed at night and during the day the general public could walk through the "set." I took a series of broadside views of these period storefronts.

About a decade ago, Troy was used as the set for the filming of the movie The Age of Innocence with Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day Lewis, so it was made to look like New York City 1870. (Troy is known as the "Hollywood on the Hudson".) I also took photos of all of the signs (which wasn't as extensive as that for Ironweed. In Feb. of 2001, Troy was used for part of the filming of Steven Speilburg's The Time Machine, but I couldn't find any good signage this time.

(Previously I had used the photographic prints themselves to decorate storefronts and other buildings on the club layout. Photographs curl with changes in humidity, as the prints are on coated (one-side) stock. As color photocopying became available, I cut out the signs from the photographs and glued them up as a master to make our NEB&W Green Dot Graphics. These were very popular, but at some point I filed the masters away and can't find them. (I still can't find them.) I do have the negatives somewhere and over time I plan on posting them on this site.


This word is not connected with the source of "graphic" but comes from the Greek word for "scratch", as a diminutive form from the Italian. For generations, children scratched messages in their desk tops, as they had long boring hours sitting in front of that one surface.

On freight cars, modelers are familiar with chalk markings used by trainmen to aid switching. In later times, random graffiti was also added. Chalk washes off fairly quickly, an advantage for the trainmen, who wants the current switching movement to stand out against all the previous ones chalked on the side. For the vandal, the temporary nature of chalk markings is undesirable.

I think in steam-era days, walls might have messages scratched in (as on the tops of wooden school desks). Fountain pens and pencils don't work well even on bathroom walls, not to mention box car sides, or outside walls. Even ball-point pens which came in after WWII don't write well other than facing down. Indoor graffiti had to await felt-tip markers and pens.

Externally, graffiti came after the development of the aerosol cans, and then paint "bombs". After all, there is a big difference between the time it takes to spray-paint letters and the time it would take to pry open a can of paint, brush-paint the graffiti, and seal the can. Therefore, while you might see "Post No Bills" in a paint scrawl done by the owner, other graffiti would be much rarer.

In WWII, pressured spray cans were developed, using compressed gasses. They were used, I believe, mainly for insect repellants. In order to get enough charge, high pressure was used, which is why they were called "bombs". Around 1950, I think it was the development of Freon that changed things. Freon becomes a liquid under moderate pressure. (Only around 1990 was it discovered that Freon was partially to blame for destroying the ozone layer.)

The earliest I've seen for a spray can of paint was in the October '54 MR, in a review for the new improved Pactra paints. Only black was available in a spray can. It cost $1.29 back then, but for 89 cents, you could get 8 small bottles of paint and a brush. If, say, that $1.29 translates into $12.90 or more in today's money, it may have been too expensive to waste on spraying graffiti. My family moved from New York City to upstate in 1966, and it was shortly afterwards (if I remember correctly) that suddenly subway cars were covered head to toe with spray-can graffiti.

There is another consideration to graffiti. Certainly back in steam days, kids were no angels. On Halloween, windows were soaked and outhouses overturned. My mother's great prank was to add an "I" in the middle of "TO LET" signs. However, a family did feel public shame over serious trouble that any of their kids got into, and this was quite a moderating factor in many aspects, including graffiti. (Reread Sherlock Holmes, where scandel was one of the greatest things to fear. A private school could face ruin if it got out that any of their pupils cheated. Nowadays, the school administrators would go on "Hard Copy", and a pupil caught red-handed would write a book about their experience.)

In steam days, hobos used to chalk what appeared to be meaningless graffiti near a house to indicate whether the residents were hostile or would give out hand-outs. During WWII, the "Kilroy was here" logo was chalked over all, although I'm not sure if that was mostly outside the U.S., or also within this country.