This post is an appreciation of one type of hand drawn signage: show card writing. Not Route 66 roadside signage, not painted shop signs, gold leaf work or that by walldogs, not barns, not hot rod lettering, nor Wayne White (the guy who paints words on cheap oil paintings like the cover of Lamchop’s Nixon album); though they all have a place in this discussion and are cool as hell in their own way. This post is about those ephemeral show cards that you might find in the window of an off-price clothing store (of old) or in a grocery store advertising “Ground Chuck — $1.69 lb.” in blue and red letters eight inches high.
“Snapper” was a slang term for sign painters, derived from the snap of chalk line to layout the text, or perhaps from the propensity for traveling painters to “snap up” the jobs as they came into town. Sign painting was good work for itinerant artist types. In fact, famous traveler Woodie Guthrie used his sign writing skills, not his music to make his way early on.
“Contrary to popular mythology, it was with paint brushes in hand, not a guitar, that [Woody] Guthrie hit the road for California. He had hocked his guitar . . . and it was his artistic skills that he brokered for room and board.” –Nora Guthrie
John Hodgins is a gent living way Upstate New York who, though retired, will whip you up some signage or a banner in a bold style. That snappers are a dying breed gets summed up nicely in his tagline: “John Hodgins, 60 50 years behind the times.”
Not going to lie, I want to get some 10engines grocery signs like this. Hodgins also published a book on the subject (“…a long time ago” he told me with a smile), Snapper: A Collection of Stories of Sign Painters that is now out of print. (Can you hear my google alert working?)
I really love this sort of stuff, consider this work culturally important, and yes, also nostalgic. The food/diner signs are my favorite. Straight out of a Tom Waits song.
THIS WAS (IS) A JOB FOR PROFESSIONALS
A good thick brush, some children’s fingerpaint and a roll of butcher paper seems like all that’s separating you from making your own grocery show cards, but the real barrier to entry is getting good at the style. Check out this video to see that there’s more to writing show cards than literacy.
Show card writing was one of the early steps in a sign writer’s career (or THE step for many) and the basic tenets of layout and letter formation were taught vocationally throughout the early twentieth century. To get computer-perfect consistency decades before computers were made meant a steady hand, an exacting eye and hours and hours of rote drilling and diligent practice.
Want to learn how to do this? Scroll all the way down for a link to an exhaustive text on the fundamentals of show card writing (published 1922).
The fact that the art is dying out, combined with their temporary nature (that ‘specials’ notice will be thrown out when a new one is announced the next week) means there are relatively few examples to look at now.
Thankfully though, even in this modern age of vinyl die-cuts the appreciation of hand-painted signage may be on the increase. For almost 2 years, Faythe Levine & Sam Macon have been traveling the U.S. documenting this art for their film Sign Painters: Stories From An American Craft — and they’re not done yet.
- John Hodgins’ website. Get yourself some Snapper art: Paper Signs
Sign Painters (movie)
- Think you can do this? Here’s an amazing book: Principles and Practice of Show-card Writing (1922) by Lawrence E. Blair. Google Books.
- When show card writing meets graffiti: A Love Letter For You.