01 - The Letter Wall


The Letter Wall 


The Letter Wall is a fantastic place to start a tour of the American Sign Museum, as it lays out the general timeline that you're going to be exploring today; going from the late 1800s all the way up through the 1970s. What really makes the Letter Wall a good place to start is that it does a good job of breaking down these hundred years into a few different eras that are easier to digest on their own. 


Starting all the way to the right of the wall you'll see the McClellan Brothers sign and the assorted letters underneath that sign. These are fantastic examples of our pre-electric era, which nearly everything made before 1900 falls into this era. These letters are hand-carved wooden letters that have been gilded. Gilded means they have actual gold on them, in the form of gold leaf, which was very trendy, especially here in the United States, in the late 1800s.


Following 1900 is the rise of electricity in the United States, and our next era, which is what the W and the “SIGN” letters represent. Given that this is when rise of the light bulb came about, it is very appropriate that this next era is called the “lightbulb era”. Light bulbs were typically found on the outside of signs, this is so they could both decorate and illuminate the signs. It also made changing the light bulbs much easier. However, if they were not outside of the sign, they could be found inside of the sign, typically Illuminating different forms of glass like the opal glass letters you'll find under the “SIGN” letters and on the Altman sign to the right. 


Following 1930 is the rise of, objectively, the coolest era in the museum, the neon era. Neon lights are actually a French invention and were first unveiled to the world at the Paris Motor Show of 1910. It took until 1923 for the first commercial neon sign to make its way over from France to the United States and it took until about 1930 neon to take off in general. So you will get to see the rise and unfortunate fall of neon from about 1930 into roughly the 1960s. There are two sales samples on the wall that each capture the novelty and creativity of the neon era. The pink glowing “R” is from the 1930s and demonstrates and edge-lit metallic letter. Nothing in this case is pink, the pink color is reflected off of the metallic surface of the “R” from the red and blue neon lights inside of the case. Above the "R" and to the left is a neon “N”. This is a 1950s sales sample showing reverse channel letters, with neon behind the letters casting a reverse shadow or highlighting effect on the surface behind the letter. 


With the decline of neon came the rise of our fourth and final era the plastics era. Plastic signs begin to show up a little after World War II, roughly around 1950. The museum lays out the evolution of the plastic sign from roughly 1950 all the way through the 1970s. The Sonoco sign and Burger King signs at the very top and bottom of the wall of are interesting examples of how plastic and neon worked together. Both of these signs feature neon illuminated plastic letters. And this was fairly common to find inside of plastic signs at least until the 1990s, and even then neon only starts to fade out once LEDs became cheaper and widely available. 


Now that we have the general timeline of the museum laid out, it may sound weird but it is best that we ignore it, for just a moment, and head on over to the big boy statue.