A sign-painter from the 1950’s would surely be baffled by the equipment and terminology of today’s sign-shops, just as many of today’s digital sign-makers would feel useless in a mid-century shop. The trade, here in Australia – as in other developed counties – has changed so drastically that it’s barely recognisable.
Linsi Braith was witness to all this. Today, as a semi-retired sign-painter, she volunteers her time and skills at Katoomba’s Paragon Cafe (the oldest cafe in Australia). Besides that, she loves to document the old handmade signs that can still be found in the streets and shops of the Blue Mountains area. In today’s post, Linsi reflects on the past and present of sign-making:
I was into lettering early. Colour TV and Hollywood had something to do with it. I remember being fascinated by fancy movie title lettering; Pirates, Robin Hood, Sinbad, Cowboys and Indians Disney movies and cartoons of course. There was also the occasional colourful Circus visiting our suburb and the annual Royal Easter Show. I remember the early paper sample-bags with tiny replica goods exactly like the real product in the shops. It wasn’t a family or school influence. An attraction to lettering was just always there. Can skill be in the DNA? There were some fine craftsmen amongst our ancestors.
When I was young, I loved doing school projects where I would put together the story of sugar, iron or The Great Barrier Reef. This was required to be a poster on a sheet of thin cardboard, purchased at the Newsagent. It required writing points of knowledge, drawing and colouring things and sticking on any paraphernalia I had gathered about the topic. I loved making things.
I also relished making my school exercise books neat, covering them accurately with paper and drawing ornate labels on them… Math, English, Science, Home Economics. I remember being taken to see the brand new Roselands Shopping Center and its tall Raindrop Fountain, also the new Bankstown Square at night with endless corridors of bright shops. I kept scrapbooks of illustrations cut from Mum’s magazines. I painted large posters copied from these and some 1960’s LP record covers in my older brothers growing collection.
I liked making things (Dad had a shed full of tools) but my drawing and construction talents were generally disregarded by adults in control and simply did not fit in with the streaming of most schoolgirls into a life of shop assistant, nurse, secretary, or bank clerk. If you were very bright, teaching might have been encouraged, but only work was discussed in my family, not University. That just wasn’t a family tradition or aspiration.
Fortunately in those days, one could get a job, rent a flat, choose from a wide variety of affordable evening classes at the local Tech, gain qualifications and so make one’s way into or through a career. I found a ‘Showcard- & Ticket-writing’ course at my nearby Technical College: 6pm to 9pm, two nights per week for three years, the final six months included screen-printing. It was in nearly every college across the state, a very popular course and I loved it too. I have a crystal clear memory of my teacher demonstrating Old English with nib and ink and putting a quick red shade on it. I think that particular moment was the dawning of an awareness that I could learn all of that wonderful fancy lettering I’d seen. I loved the ways of varying block lettering and putting decorative shading against it. I struggled with a flowing freestyle script because I had not learned a cursive handwriting at school. I only printed, and only in capitals.
I loved learning about colour, loved painting tint and shade charts and colour wheels. I still have most of my practice from that course. Other courses such as Fine Art and Graphic Art each had a shorter very good hand lettering subject at that time. Sign-writing was available in only a few colleges.
Before the three years were up I was working as a full-time Ticket-writer in one of Sydney’s large stores, and soon stepped up to an even better job with a team of ticket-writers in a department store. My showcard and ticket-writing course was immediately followed by the two-year part time sign-writing journeyman’s course at Sydney Technical College in Mary Anne Street, Ultimo. I was one of two females in the class, the other one dropped out and I was alone for a while but I think two or three females enrolled the following year and I was very pleased to see this happen.
In sign-writing, I loved the larger and more accurate drawing up of lettering and layouts. I loved the slower enamel paints, long hair brushes and working with a mahlstick. I learned to paint on glass, make a decal and use gold leaf. The department store had a large display section that included screen printing and ticket-writing. I was eventually doing a wide variety of hand work; small tickets, window showcards, large department signs, and finished artwork for the screen-printing section where stencils were hand cut from it. I still have some of that fine art work and guess it needs to be given to an archive one day! More type setting machines were purchased, other early price ticket printing processes were being investigated and computerisation occasionally got a mention. The ticket-writing team reduced and obviously I had caught just the tail end of that era.
There followed another step as I became a teacher of show-card and ticket-writing – a long journey that saw many changes to the industry of ticket-writing, window-dressing and sign-writing in New South Wales.
Apprenticeship enrollments in sign-writing plummeted as computer-aided sign production swept in, and franchised small businesses producing fast vinyl signage popped up. Education departments were demanded to show cost savings.
The style of education changed. ‘Modules’, ‘projects’ and ‘units of competency’ arrived. Vocational education course fees increased. Teaching sections were pressured to run very lean and even at a profit by offering ‘fee for service’ courses. ‘The Budget’ became the focus in vocational education and there were cascades of tedious meetings and discussions. Hand-lettering subjects vanished within the other art courses and any small or fading courses were targeted to be chopped out altogether. To reduce risk of losing the sign-writing course, the ticket-writing and sign-writing courses were merged and became ‘Sign Craft’, thus showing up as a larger body of students on the razor gang’s printout of state-wide statistics. It was high time for change anyway, so within this new Sign Craft course, computer signage was added. Also, the many topics of both old courses were carved up into new, separate, very thin slices, with precise delivery hours and a brutal ‘competent’ or ‘not competent’ marking system.
The sign industry demands came first in the carve-up, with some obvious struggle between the old and new guard. The fancy new equipment was slow to be obtained by colleges with a budget too tight to keep up with the evolving industry. ‘Sign Craft’ was a course of mix and match ‘units’. Employers and students could select what they needed and this was often not hand-drawing and painting of lettering. Eventually, when sign-painting fully gave way to computers, the course changed again and became ‘Signage’. A few of the old hand skills once learned and practiced over three years were now being attempted in a few hours and then ticked off the competency list. I think I experienced the tail end of another era. No doubt it will all change again and ‘signs’ will become only a single short unit amongst a broad range of mix-and-match ‘design’ training options.
What’s your connection with The Paragon Cafe, in Katoomba?
Firstly, I love old things and old places – the towns, buildings and shops, the awnings, windows, tiles, colour, the overall architecture – just the feel and look of old rather than new. Old is interesting and I don’t want to see it demolished and replaced by identical rows of chain stores, where you can hardly tell the difference between one suburb or one town and the next; same branding, same goods, same fast food, same-same-same-plastic-glass-concrete-metal and same awful large signage everywhere! There is too much sameness happening and – in my opinion – not enough protection or restoration of Australian heritage towns such as those through The Blue Mountains region of New South Wales.
For many years as I witnessed the ticket-writing and sign-painting industry vanish, I imagined that when I retired, I would try to find just one old nearby shop that needed an old hand like me and I would just volunteer to do as much as they wanted. Well, I retired slightly early due to hearing loss and sometime afterward received numerous hints that The Paragon Cafe in Katoomba needed me. I now help the owner with visual merchandising in general. In particular, I provide a variety of hand-painted things to boost the feel and awareness of the cafe’s history. I’m just helping by putting some good old fashioned lettering around.
The Paragon building is from 1909. The Paragon Cafe was opened in 1916 and has remained fairly unchanged since Zac Simos gave it a series of significant art deco makeovers, during the next three decades. As other old Greek cafes were modernized, (including the nearby Niagara unfortunately) the Paragon remained largely untouched inside and out. The Simos family sold it in 2000 and during the occupation by a couple of odd lessees, it’s contents and reputation severely shrank. A new owner since 2011 is putting the love back, The Paragon was recently described as ‘the quintessential Greek cafe’. Efforts to save and protect it are strengthening and it’s gaining fresh attention from the National Trust.
For those blog readers not familiar with your area, could you tell a bit about the Katoomba area?
Katoomba is surrounded by the spectacular landscape and forests of The Blue Mountains National Park which in turn sits high up along the Great Dividing Range in New South Wales. At 3,337 feet above sea level, snow often fell here in winters past. In the 1920’s and 30’s, it became a famous holiday destination for restorative clean healthy air, sightseeing and outdoor activity and a razzmatazz town night life.
It remains popular for the first two reasons. It is three hours west of Sydney by car and is probably best known for The Three Sisters rock formation that sits just south of the town. Some tourists often stay a night or two and explore the town as well as the surrounds, but bus loads of day tourists are funneled to Echo Point for the view, then to Scenic World nearby for a ride, and they don’t come into the town itself. Some town tourists have actually asked ‘Why is this place promoted as a tourist destination?’. I guess they see the lichen-spotted cracked facades, the faded peeling paint, empty shops, offbeat cafe fronts pasted with ragged notes and odd stickers…they see the general grubbiness and, of course, that everything shuts at 5:00 PM.
On the other hand, many people – both locals and tourists – see Katoomba as a vintage town that is quaint and I think that’s its future. That vintage quaintness should be worked on. If I had a magic wand, I would bestow Blue Mountains City Council with a debt write off, appropriate funds and much better influence over Katoomba’s landlords. I would bring a spectacular renaissance to Katoomba where its many art nouveau and art deco features were highlighted and the old style resort nature of the place was wonderfully polished up. I would create a new, dynamic night life with Theater, Music, Dance and Penny Arcades of course!
Recently, a new Blue Mountains Cultural Center was opened, but the sameness is arriving by way of Coles, Big W, Target, Liquorland, Dan Murphy’s, et cetera.
At least Katoomba Street has not been destroyed for such big shops, but McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC Gloria Jeans and Wendy’s are yet to infiltrate. There are a number of nearby villages that retain a charming ambiance. Blackheath is lovely, a little higher and colder than Katoomba. Leura sits just to the east of Katoomba and, in my opinion, has succumbed to tourist madness. The ‘sameness’ is inspected and purchased . The traditional street-scape is being ruined by those ugly digital prints along the awnings.
When did you start taking pictures of ghost-signs & vintage lettering?
I enjoy looking at old packaging, posters & signs and I purchase lots of books about them. I started taking photographs of hand-painted signs decades ago, partly because they are all so unique, with their own place and time and character. Knowing how to paint by hand myself, I would ponder the age, the thought, the time and effort behind the result. I would admire the workmanship and wonder about who painted it – things most people don’t pause and admire, because signs are just the background wallpaper as they move through their busy days. I am a pain to travel with!
As I saw vinyl and digital signs creeping in like a slow virus I also realized that ‘hand-painted’ was disappearing under a layer of sameness of fonts, colour and often awful layout design. I realized that many negative changes were happening.There was little effort to design traditional-looking signs, perhaps partly because layering and aligning vinyl is time-consuming and costly, perhaps partly because inexperienced people were diving into the business.
I saw large, raw-edged sheets of tin and aluminium being glued onto walls, the traditional shop verandah fascia obliterated with huge strips pop-riveted on…again often with bad choices of font and colour.
I didn’t realize I had some photos of ‘ghost-signs’ until the word and the worldwide enthusiasm for them emerged, and then I started to look more carefully for them while looking for ‘hand-painted’ in general. I became a bigger pain to travel with!
Are you in touch with any modern-day sign- or lettering-artists?
I haven’t connected with many like-minded lettering enthusiasts lately. There aren’t a lot nearby, but there are a few arts groups I could mix with if I tried. I’m often tempted to stimulate the local possibilities for young and old people to enjoy hand lettering skills together. It tugs at me because I know it’s such an enjoyable and rewarding skill. I’ve got the Certificate IV in Training and Assessment for when I do decide to start teaching. This quote by Gerard Siero is a favorite of mine: ‘There is a body experience to reading, writing, making and drawing that cannot be experienced via electronic media, no matter how good the programs. This body experience is an essential aspect of the learning experience and the development of the mind, skills and unique abilities of each person.’
I’m very happy to see a new growing interest in hand-lettering and sign-painting across the world. A close-by example is the workshops run at Pocket Design in Newcastle. The popularity of these courses clearly shows that people love sign painting. And of course ‘The Pre-Vinylite Society‘ and ‘The Sign Painters‘ book and movie! How fantastic! I do keep tabs on quite a few typography and lettering points on the web but hate that what feels like twenty minutes on the computer has really been one-hundred-and-twenty minutes of my precious time!
There are many anonymous artists who produced early Australian labels, packaging, logos and other commercial symbols. Just how many of them were sign painters? Their work presented the business, the brand became recognized and sometimes famous like ‘Arnott’s Biscuits’ or ‘Bushell’s Tea’, but the name of the specific person who actually made the design was lost. They inspire me. So firstly, I’ll honour them with a ‘Thankyou’!
For example, I only recently discovered that the person who painted the blue-and-gold signs on the front of the Paragon Cafe, was Richard Beresford Mills, (also known as ‘Berry Mills’) I then found his daughter and we talked. I value the knowledge of him, as here I am in 2014 respecting his work because it’s hand done, good, still right there on the shopfront and a very real part of The Paragon’s history and fame. His work has become precious and protected, his name needs to be included in the history of the place. Presently he is inspiring me. I am taking his design and colour into serious consideration as I paint a new under-awning sign.
There are many whom I admire. Most certainly the commercial artists who produced the beautiful Australian travel posters, like James Northfield and Percy Trompf. There’s Harold Freedman and Eileen Mayo, there are so many people! There are many famous painters whose work is inspirational: Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor, Grace Cossington Smith and most Australian artists who use very strong line and colour. I’ll add Reg Mombassa and Martin Sharp. Then I could swing to Mike Stevens, or ponder the beautiful legacy of J. C. Leyendecker and Patrick Nagel. My inspirational books include ‘Lettering Design’ by Eric Roberts, a couple by F.H. And G.W. Atkinson, ‘Symbols Signs Letters‘ by Martin Andersch, & the ‘Great Australian Book of Nostalgia‘ by John Larkins and Bruce Howard, to mention only a few.
Next? Well I’ll be lugging the camera everywhere as usual. I have numerous books of sign and typography ‘collections’ but making my own hasn’t tugged at me yet. I’ll continue to paint things for The Paragon Cafe, build my personal collection of signs just as a hobby and post a few things on Facebook that people might find interesting. I’m sometimes tempted to video as I work and upload the result to YouTube, but that would be time consuming. My friends encourage me to do more with my reproductions, other than decorate my home and give them away, but copyright law applies to some of them. So next is just continuing to love, enjoy and explore the art of lettering.
Here are a few more of Linsi’s photos:
And, yes, even some of our own handiwork has made it into the collection: