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Samson Maxwell Vancouver Store Sign

Store Signs of Vancouver Past

The art of creating store signs has been with us for some time. As long as there have been stores in Vancouver, or anywhere for that matter, there have been signs. Even in small-town outdoor central marketplaces of old, the table or plot of grass from which people sold fruits, vegetables, raw wool, and medicinal herbs was adorned with signs so people knew who you were, what you were selling and at what price. Those were, and still are, the basic elements of store signage. “Basic” because concepts like branding and leading with benefits were probably not foremost in the minds of hawkers. They just wanted to be seen and found amongst all the other sellers who journeyed from rural or farming communities to larger towns weekly or monthly to sell their products.

In this photo taken in the Yukon around 1890, a young retailing couple is standing outside their store tent. They seem to sell a bit of everything, and probably made their living outfitting the itinerant miners of the day with staple items. Although there is no “store sign” as such, there is a prominent sign advertising “Ice Cold Lemonade – 25 cents”. It may have been a popular item judging by the placement of the sign – right out front so foot traffic, and horse traffic, would see it. The perfect thing to slake the thirst, loosen the dust, and cure the hangover, of a miner passing by. The industrious young store owners also sell hammocks, saddles (one is hanging above the hammock) and boots (below the hammock in a row). The hammocks, boots, and saddles don’t have signs advertising pricing, possibly because they were haggled over, rather than having a set price. It’s hard to say what the small sign to the left of the woman’s head is, but it could very well be a menu. The point, and there is one, is that even the most makeshift of “stores” needs signage. If you are selling something, whether lemonade or used cars, there will be signs, regardless of whether your store is in a building, a tent, or the trunk of your car.

Store Signs Then vs. Store Signs Now:
The Same but Different

A store sign in front of tent store.

A store sign in front of tent store.

The goal of store signs in the old days is much as it is now: be seen by traffic and passersby. There are so many ways to get noticed on the street. Large business signs or banners that can be seen at a distance are helpful for catching passing motorists, and sandwich boards and windows signs are great for attracting sidewalk traffic or featuring sales, products and services. There is nothing new under the sun as they say, except that in the old days, some Vancouver storefront signage tended to scream with emphasis and frequently overemphasis – probably because it was a main point of advertising. There was no Internet and no company website. Retail store signs were vital to business, much more so than now.

Vancouver store sign on Granville. Circa 1935

Vancouver store sign on Granville. Circa 1935

One thing you may notice in these old store signs is how often signs on the same store compete with one another with no real central focus. Take these signs from a photo taken 1935 of the Wilson Products Co store at 2309 Granville Street, Vancouver (1 store south of South West corner of Granville and 7th).

Although “WILSON PRODUCTS CO.” is at the top, it is not as prominent as “Mighty-99 USES – THE FAMOUS HOUSEHOLD TREASURE”. If you were driving by this store it would take a moment to figure out what the company is and what they are selling. “Mighty 99” may refer to something or someone that was a household name in Vancouver at that time, but the advertisement seems to be for a cleanser, “Kleenwell” which is very small, lightly coloured and hard to read.

The “famous household treasure” referred to by the large sign may be “KLEENWELL Super Cleanser” advertised below it, but the relationship is not clear. This is not really a criticism, but an observation of trends in business sign styles. Large, bold, and screaming “Here we are!” was a design style and tactic that seemed to dominate these old stores. To store owners, everything seemed equally important, so everything was given emphasis. You still see this kind of overemphasis occasionally, and, we do still have to educate store owners that emphasizing everything in your business sign means nothing is emphasized. A strong central focus with judicious emphasis and a way to lead the eye around the various elements of store signs is an art worthy of a more lengthy post. Designing store signs is half art and half science, that leads to much debate and passion amongst sign makers.

Then and now. This same storefront still exists on Granville Street

Then and now. This same storefront still exists on Granville Street

As an interesting aside, this very storefront captured in this old Vancouver photo is still on Granville, one store south of Industrial Revolution as you can see from the comparison (above) of the old photo to a screen capture from Google Maps. The giveaway is the triangular finial atop the columns that flank the store. Aside from the bars on the windows and doors, the building and inset sign area above the entrance look much the same now as they did then.

Store and building signs in some ways haven't changed much.  Samson-Maxwell (around 1940)  looks much ike a modern-day storefront.

Store and building signs in some ways haven’t changed much. Samson-Maxwell (around 1940) looks much ike a modern-day storefront.

One thing that has not changed much in store signage is the combining of different types of signs for different purposes. It makes perfect sense that the company sign be on the building above the entrance and that products or services be advertised on windows. This Simson-Maxwell storefront (1931 W Georgia, Vancouver) photo taken in the early 1940s is an example of how much has remained the same. The building has 3D lettering of the company name and a stylized neon company sign with an ocean motif of waves and gulls. This store advertised one of their products prominently upon the store windows, much as stores do now. The only thing missing from this shot is a sandwich board, but then again, this photo was taken at night. It’s a safe bet that that if this were a day shot, we’d see a sandwich board on the sidewalk. This building no longer exists. The address would be located at roughly the entrance to Stanley Park.

It’s likely that signs of old and new will always share some commonalities. There are, after all, only so many places to put storefront signs: buildings, doors, windows, sidewalks, and awnings. The things that do differ are mostly a matter of style, current tastes, trends and materials. The intent was the same then as now: to attract business. Sign makers in old Vancouver probably struggled with the same things we contend with now. What are the best materials for the job? What is the sign trying to accomplish? We can learn a lot by looking at these old signage gems. What worked then probably still works now, with a few modern touches.

If you are interested in looking at old Vancouver business signs, Vancouver Public Library has a great public domain collection, which is where all of the photos in the post were taken from.