Students of sign painting and show card writing.

Sign painting students try their hand at show card writing.

This post is an appreciation of one type of hand drawn signage: show card writing. Not Route 66 roadside signage, not painted shop signsgold 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.

SNAPPERS
“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.

Common beginner's mistakes

The woeful errors of novice sign painters. (Illustration from Principles and Practice of Show-card Writing by Lawrence E. Blair)

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).

Students at sign painting school

Studying curves at sign painting school.

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.

FURTHER READING

– 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.

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10 Comments

  1. Hilda
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:46 AM | Permalink

    Great article. My boyfriend loves fonts, particularly from the 80's and I just know he will enjoy reading about snappers.

    Thank you for such an fun and interesting post.

  2. Elizabeth Gage
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:56 AM | Permalink

    I missed being a snapper by "that" much (pinches thumb and forefinger together). I hand-lettered flip cards for the marketing department of Sunset Magazine, mainly using markers, but occasionally a brush. Always wanted to get better at it. Now I do some liquid chalk work, a la Starbucks and Whole Foods. Not the same, but the hand-lettered letter does live on.

  3. Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:59 AM | Permalink

    My goodness, thanks so much for sharing this! I am so fascinated and inspired by this article! Looking forward to coming across Hodgins' book someday when I least expect it…at a yard sale, vintage shop…I'll be keeping my eye out. I'll be checking out your links too. Thanks guys :)

  4. Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:22 PM | Permalink

    What a wonderful window into the glorious history of commercial typography!

  5. Posted December 11, 2011 at 7:06 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for the great article. Years ago showcard work was one of the more popular items that a sign painter would do.

    Having spent time on the road traveling and working as a "Snapper" my understanding of the term came from the fact that as a snapper you never stayied around long enough to let the paint dry so you couldn't wipe off your snap lines. It was ment as a darogatory term in regard to traveling sign painters that stole work from local sign painters.

    Thanks again for the great article

    Roderick

  6. Posted December 11, 2011 at 9:04 AM | Permalink

    Cool stuff.

    I am the sign painter that made the two modern cards/posters. I really have only done a few as there is nobody that sees the value in having them for their business. I have a good collection of books on show card writing and even a few old cards. The show cards of the past were done very fast yet incredibly readable, beautiful and composed just right. I would give anything to be on that level but thank you for posting my couple modern contributions!

  7. Posted February 18, 2012 at 7:05 AM | Permalink

    Hi, great article! I'm intrigued as I am a sign writer with a speciality for instore show card sign writing. My site is http://www.shopbling.net
    Any like minded practitioners ?

  8. Donna Kennedy Fry
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:36 AM | Permalink

    Hi there, I have just found this site and love it! I am trying to download the Lawerance E. Blair book and am wondering how to get access to it? Thanks for the great article, if you can help me in any way it would be appreciated.

  9. Gib Foster
    Posted July 29, 2013 at 1:47 AM | Permalink

    A great site, oh how I long for hand painted sign and show cards, a lost art that I hope continues.

  10. Posted April 7, 2015 at 8:37 PM | Permalink

    Awesome post.

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