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Close up of street signs Vancouver's Stanley Park

Vancouver Signs from the City’s Early Days

It’s been awhile since we’ve posted old Vancouver signs, so here’s another tour down sign memory lane. It’s funny that, depending on your perspective, certain things stand out in old photos. Though we also notice the dirt roads, old brick and stone buildings, horses and horse-drawn buggies, being a Vancouver sign company we can’t help but admire the signage. Vancouver was, after all, a coastal frontier. The first permanent non-aboriginal settlement was a trading post on the Fraser River that was established in 1832 by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The first incarnation of what would eventually become Vancouver sprung from the community created around Gassy Jack Deighton’s saloon, where his potables quenched the thirst of the ever-dry mouths of mostly loggers and other labourers. In 1870, this community became the first incorporated settlement in Vancouver — known then as Granville.

It’s always remarkable to see what Vancouver was — and as it goes — where there is a community of people, there are signs.

Vancouver signs - City Grocer

1894 – City Grocer’s signage in Vancouver, on what is now Main Street at Pender, with a passing Chinese funeral procession.

The old City Grocer above is a classic example of the type of outdoor signs that persisted until formed metals, plastics, neon and other electric signage became widely available and more affordable. The large Dr. Price’s sign is hand-painted lettering — likely on canvas or some other fabric — and the store name and address are on painted wood, each letter painstakingly hand cut with a scroll saw or some other hand tool, since jig saws weren’t invented until the late 40s. Signs are craft, even now, but these old Vancouver signs were a labour of love, with an emphasis on labour. This interesting old photo is like a real-life sign sample case study, featuring cut wood, hand painted lettering (with a drop shadow lining in black), canvas awnings (likely lettered though the glare obscures it), banner signs carried by folks in the funeral procession, and a hand-painted “poster” leaning against the horse and buggy in front of the store.

1936 - The Chinese Street Arch at Pender Street for Vancouver's Golden Jubilee.

1936 – The Chinese Street Arch at Pender Street for Vancouver’s Golden Jubilee.

This old Vancouver banner sign is absolutely overwhelmed by the impressive, ornate gateway to Chinatown. Though the sign serves a purpose — announcing a grand opening (as banners often do), it seems so miniscule and out of place, dominated by the magnificence of the structure.

Entrance signs at Stanley Park bridge

Close up of street signs Vancouver's Stanley Park

1905 – The Stanley Park Bridge. The lower half of the first photo shows the Vancouver Yacht club in background.

This is the way old Vancouver signage was done. You made a sign with what was at hand. Nothing fancy here. Some old boards and white paint did the trick for this street signage warning people to walk their horses and that no heavy wagons are allowed to haul on the park road.

Entrance signs Vancouver's Stanley Park

Sign warning motorists - Vancouver

190? – Just inside the entrance to Stanley Park. Probably a typical weekend in Vancouver.

The “Automobiles not allowed” sign comes from a time when there was no separate pedestrian walkway and road for vehicles at the park entrance. Parents, children and vehicles would have had to share the road. Judging by the hats and parasols, this looks to have been a sunny day, perhaps spring or summer. The people look so formal in these old Vancouver photos — men and boys wearing hats and jackets and women in ankle length skirts, wearing bonnets and carrying parasols.

Vancouver road sign - danger!

Stanley Park in 190?
Another hand-painted road sign warning cyclists that the road is dangerous.

300 block Hastings - Vancouver store sign

Store signage turn of the century Vancouver

190? – 300 block of Vancouver’s Hastings Street with two colourfully dressed first nations women in the foreground.

As always, our attention immediately shifts to the signs in Vancouver photos.  In the background, you can see the following sidewalk sign advertising the services and products of Thomson Stationary.

This store sign not only advertised to passersby, but also seems to double as a bicycle rack. This was a sturdily built and heavy old sidewalk sign, judging by height and the thickness of the wood frame. It makes us wonder whether the metal wheeled wagon was for towing the sign around. They seem to be matched pair.

Hunting for old Vancouver signage is a lot of fun and connects us to sign makers who did what we do — only they did it 100 years ago using very basic methods. Though some of the craft and technology of sign making has changed, the basics remain the same. There will always be a need for store signs, street signs, sidewalk signs, banners and other forms of advertising signage. The aim then and now is the same: to clearly communicate. What is a sign anyway, but one of the oldest forms of mass communication? Eons ago, when people scored rock walls to depict the location of the best hunting grounds, they were making a sign.

All signs in this article are from the VPL Historical Photos flickr stream and in the public domain.

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