Thursday, July 18, 2013

Show Card Writing, Part 1

If you were to walk into any store, pharmacy, or theater lobby 100 years ago, you would be see handmade advertising signs everywhere. These were called "show cards" and they were big business for commercial artists.
Shop window, Waterford, Ireland, 1926
Just as every town had work for a cobbler and a blacksmith, it also had a show card writer, sometimes many. 

Show card writers would tell you that theirs was a different profession from sign painting, engrossing, or calligraphy, with different tools, techniques, and workflow. They called themselves "writers" instead of "letterers" or "sign painters." William Hugh Gordon, one of the masters of this art, said that the lettering "is really written, so called because [it was] produced by the rapid single stroke method, much the same as writing, regardless of whether a brush, pen, or other device is used." 

The golden age of the show card was between about 1890 and 1920. Show card artists employed by the larger stores often had drawing and painting skills to add to the lettering.

Price tags, or "price tickets," as they were called then, were surrounded with border devices, which went in and out of favor. 

Although show cards were were ubiquitous, they were also ephemeral and disposable. Painted on cardboard, few of them survive today.

Happily, there has been a solid revival in show card writing. Upscale cafés and sandwich shops use hand lettering for their menus and specials; boutique grocers like Trader Joe's often have excellent hand lettered signs. Some of the great artistic cultures, such as Ireland, never lost the art. For the rest of us, rediscovering it, hand-made signage is becoming again what it once was: a mark of quality and distinction.  

Tomorrow we'll take a look at the tools and techniques of the show card writer.
Previously on GurneyJourney:
Read the whole series:
Show Card Writing, Part 1
Show Card Writing, Part 2 
Hand-Painted Signs (mostly North African).
There are several Flickr groups devoted to hand painted signage:
“Hand-Painted Signs of the World.”
“Folk Typography”
“Signpaintr,” dedicated to the lost art of hand-lettering
“Hand-Painted Signs of Cambodia.”


Dicing with Dragons said...

Marvelous! You can still see this in some places to some extent. There are lots of handmade signs all around town here in Homer, AK for example.

WJTury said...

Thank you for this timely topic. I have a keen interest in the history and techniques of "all things hand lettered", calligraphy, sign painting, show cards, airbrushing, chalkboards & pinstriping is also related.
In yesterdays blog you mentioned your sign painting past, how did you learn the skill?

David Teter said...

Very cool post James.
I have never heard the term showcard even though I have seen them many times. Now I know.
Your blog is always packed with entertainment, information, education your (and Jeanette's) work all done in your own style.

Steve Kohr Fine Art said...

Very interesting indeed....never knew they were called that. So, now I know what I saw down in San Diego in the Gas Lamp District not thaat long ago....a show card outside a bar!

Pyracantha said...

Thanks for mentioning Trader Joe's! I work there (Tysons Corner, Virginia) as a sign artist for that store and we are proud of our hand-done sign traditions.

Unknown said...

I have never perceived the term showcard even though I have glimpsed them numerous times. Now I understand. Your blog is habitually packed with information, education entertainment. Thank you for this timely theme.

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Craig Banholzer said...

It seems like only yesterday that supermarkets had hand lettered signs advertising specials taped to the insides of their windows, facing out. I never thought twice about them, or about who had painted them, although now it's probably been twenty years or more since I've seen one.

James Woods said...

Do you know where I can buy showcard paint, I have found suppliers for red sable lettering brushes for water based paint....?