What Signs Say: Speaking the Language of Michigan’s Commercial Signage

By April Bryan

Beyond business names and services rendered, commercial signage communicates much more. Sign features may suggest eras, indicate site use over time, and speak to local and national trends. But before discussing these larger concepts it is helpful to become familiar with sign vocabulary. By examining a variety of extant signs throughout Michigan, this post identifies common commercial signage terms, related materials, and sign types framed in a mini sign-historical framework.  Let’s talk signage!

The earliest signs in America took their cues from European designs, such as bracket-suspended wooden tavern signs (the original blade sign) and cutouts symbolizing services (a hat for millinery, a boot for cobbler). Later, when nineteenth century architects designed the majority of commercial buildings to be viewed from the front they created the need for an applicable signage style. The fascia sign met that need.

DeHavens Hale's

Flush with building fronts, fascia signs could be chiseled into, painted onto, or applied as signboards (wood, sheet metal, porcelain enameled, etc.) to facades, most often between first and second floors.  Note the hand painted brick lettering on the DeHavens Store (Village of Lawrence, Van Buren County), which identified the site’s lower level retail use. To capitalize on space, some companies also painted and applied signage vertically between windows. An array of new options, including metal and plastic letters, expanded façade-based signage applications in the twentieth century. Hale’s Department Store (South Haven, Van Buren County) provides a midcentury modern example with aluminum letters bolted to porcelain enamel on steel. Fascia signs remain relevant today.

The early twentieth century’s rise of the automobile drove new sign design. Enameled porcelain signs (also called placards), made famous at service stations, ruled the road through the 1930s. While motoring up Main Street at accelerating speeds drivers might miss simple placards and signs flush to storefronts. In response, businesses erected larger, eye-catching, two-sided, projecting signs perpendicular to storefronts. For instance, Harris Furniture’s building-mounted blade style sign (Grand Rapids, Kent County) couldn’t be missed by motorists with its towering size and points of light-illuminated open channel letters.

Wenger's Howards

Cas Bar.JPG  Zehnder's,

Neon sign popularity blazed during the 1930s and ‘40s. Neon at night brought light and even movement (animated arrows and other sequentially lit images) to once dark or floodlit signs. Largely, local companies handcrafted these signs—a benefit, for long journeys could damage fragile neon. Neon, in contrast to other existing sign materials, could be pricey to purchase and maintain. But with cost came value in terms of light longevity (burning up to 40 years) and durability.

Early neon signs often adhered to symmetrical and basic geometric forms comprised of squares and rectangles, as demonstrated by the building-mounted Wenger’s Bowling sign (Grand Rapids, Kent County). The pole mounted Howard’s Liquor Store sign (Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County) exemplifies classic neon’s use of rectangles. Notice how the designer finessed the look by staggering the top and bottom cabinet boxes (aka sign boxes). Later additions, corrugated fiberglass and acrylic letters, comprise the interior portion while a partial wraparound arrow houses chaser lights. Cas Bar (Detroit, Wayne County) offers a look at an infrequently used circular cabinet box. Short names like “Cas” work here, but companies demanding more sign space often sought square and rectangular cabinet boxes better suited to neon block letter bases.

Some adopted the era’s Streamline style, such as the curvilinear shapes and Art Deco neon line trios that form the iconic  ground-mounted Zehnder’s sign (Frankenmuth, Saginaw County), continuously in use since the mid-1930s. Notice the standard white or light shade block letters painted on all four signs—ideal for daytime readability.

Konkles Pontiac sign (

Tall, two-sided, and projecting, the 1940s T style sign paired readability with visibility. The Konkle’s Bar sign (Grand Rapids, Kent County) may be described as a modified-T based on the angled flourishes which enhance the rectangular building blocks. Taken together, the vertical and horizontal portions may be referred to as panels or components of each other. Note the arrow-shaped panel beneath the neon martini. The inverted-T and variations on the L style, like the modified-L Pontiac sign (Chelsea, Washtenaw County), also proved fashionable throughout the 1940s.

 Wills  Solo's.JPG

A closer look at the cabinet holes (once fit with neon electrode housings) on the Wills Hardware sign (Crystal Falls, Iron County) suggests earlier neon use. Also notice the sign’s condition and consider what the wear says about its age. Single neon tubes displayed in shop windows, such as the style seen at Solo’s Bridal Shop (Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County), are called skeleton signs and window hangers or simply, hangers.

Black River-sideways
Regional influences observed in sign design can point to local history, natural resources, and the larger cultural landscape. The rustic wood sign-style edges evoke camping while the trees, blue sky, and flowing water incorporated into the Black River Motel’s artwork (Port Huron, St. Clair County) convey the significance of water recreation and tourism in Michigan’s Blue Water area.


National trends impacted sign design throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. For example, Southern California’s futuristic Googie style inspired boomerangs, chevrons, amoebic shapes, jumbled letters, and dramatic angles on signs coast to coast. During the Space Race, beginning in the late 1950s, signs adopted cosmic characteristics, like the sky-high, asymmetrical, chaser light frame on the Ritzee’s sign (Urbandale, Calhoun County) and popular red ball sign addition used by the Spartan Motel (Three Rivers, St. Joseph County). Other common celestial shapes included suns, moons, stars, and starbursts. Not intended to be space-related yet often called a sputnik, the 1960s Roto-Sphere sign addition whirled colorful, illuminated spears on a pole-mounted, two-part rotating ball.

Norway Ralph Hayward

Introduced in the 1940s but patented for sign use in the 1970s, vacuum forming permitted pop-out characters, widened graphic design options, and proved more cost effective to produce and maintain than neon signage. Early vacuum formed sign examples can be easy to date due to their commonly used shapes and colors (especially yellow and red) as well as their cracking and fading.  Manufacturers often used this plastic sign form in the production of branded privilege signs, which they provided or sold to retailers. Norway Bar (Avoca, St. Clair County) features a Vernors privilege sign, which may be dated using the ginger ale maker’s logo style. The sign pair shares a steel frame and the bar’s sign faces feature hand-painted letters. The Ralph Hayward example (Vicksburg, MI, Kalamazoo County) illustrates the form’s 3D graphic and pop-out type options.

Certainly, more sign styles, stories, and materials exist than we may discuss in this post. To keep the conversation going please join us for “Sign Here: Identifying, Dating, and Describing Michigan’s Commercial Signage” at the upcoming MHPN conference, “Resolve, Revolve, Evolve,” at Wayne State University, Detroit, May 11-14, 2016. Join sign-based discussions by connecting with likeminded social media groups such as Instagram’s active sign community. There, you can explore hashtags including #everything_signage, #gas_food_lodging, #plasticsignmuseum, #signcollective, and #signgeeks. Please be sure to tag your Michigan sign shots #michiganplacesmatter!

Great commercial signage resources, which helped inform this post, include Martin Treu’s Signs, Streets, and Storefronts: A History of Architecture and Graphics along America’s Commercial Corridors (2012) and Lisa Mahar’s American Signs: Form and Meaning on Route 66 (2003). All images courtesy of April Bryan and Scott Slagor.


This entry was posted in #michiganplacesmatter, Art, buildings, Conference, Detroit, historic, historic preservation, Michigan, Michigan Places Matter, Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP), Preservation, signs, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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