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.”

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