Street scenes allow us to catch a glimpse of how type and lettering lived in a town.
This is the intersection of Union and Purchase streets, 1870, in New Bedford, Massachusetts. (Photo courtesy of Spinner Publications.)
If we were to look east down Union street just after the civil war, we would see a similar scene. There are very few signs on the street. While more products are coming out of the factories in search of a buyer, and the first American advertising agency was established almost 30 years earlier, signs on the streets of New Bedford remain relatively small and flat against the building.
Why? Life is still pretty slow: it’s the time of the horse and buggy over cobblestone streets. And downtown buildings are still short — only one or two stories.
Both the speed of the pedestrian and the height of the buildings allow signs to remain legible, even when small and flat to the building.
One sign — for T.H. Ellis and Company Boots and Shoes — sticks out on an awning. It displays a mixture of sans serif and slab serif lettering.
1908: BIGGER TYPE
Almost forty years later, it’s 1908. It’s six years before World War I will start, and we’re at the same intersection — we’ve just turned 90 degrees to our left and are now looking North up Purchase street. (Image courtesy of D.R. Nelson and Company.)
Advertising on the street has taken off! Notice the assortment of decorative typefaces. Not as eclectic as the typefaces seen on broadsides pasted up almost 60 years earlier, but the scripts and serif faces are showy compared to the slab and sans serif faces we saw in 1870.
Plus, type is getting bigger!
Transportation is getting faster, buildings are getting taller. Type needs to be bigger in order to be read from a greater distance.
1945: ONE STORE, THREE SIGNS
Almost 40 years has later, World War II is coming to an end. We’re at the same intersection again, we’ve just turned 45 degrees, so we are looking at the north-west corner — at the façade of Lincoln’s department store. (Image courtesy of Waterfront Historic Action LeaguE.)
There are more people, more buildings, more businesses. Cars are getting faster, and there’s even a streetcar system. Lincoln’s department store won’t take chances. They have three signs to help customers find their store!
Lincoln’s uses a mix of upper and lower case sans serif letters. No ascenders or descenders in sight.
These kinds of letterforms are often associated with Art Deco, but may have also been influenced by a parallel movement called Streamline Moderne. Much like Art Deco, Streamline Moderne was influenced by manufacturing and streamlining techniques arising from science and mass production. While the Lincoln’s sign does not incorporate the aerodynamic bullet shape often associated with Streamline Moderne, the use of square-cornered counterforms within rounded-cornered letterforms references the elements of the bullet — and goes beyond the geometric forms often associated with Art Deco.
The main sign over the front door is affixed to the building. It’s difficult to say what the material is. It could be stone or metal, or even wood. But plastic wasn’t in use when the sign was made in 1938, so we’ll rule that out.
The other two signs are painted on the building itself, high above the hustle and bustle of the city’s busiest intersection, so people in cars can see the signs from a distance and have plenty of time to look for a parking space. The lettering isn’t a perfect match from one sign to the next. These playful irregularities are indicative of hand-painted signs. But you can see that the use of square cornered counterforms within rounded-cornered letterforms remains consistent.
2007: LESS TRAFFIC
Type and letters live in our environment. It’s important to remember it’s not just about the time period, but also about the use of a place. The images above were of busy street corners… during the heyday of downtown New Bedford. This picture is of the same building, But now it’s July 2007, and Lincoln’s is long gone.
The buildings are clean of signs, there is very little lettering and type to be seen. That’s because we’re looking at a primarily residential building, on a street that no longer hustles and bustles. The Haste (green) and Eddy (brick) buildings are two of the five buildings that now house the Union Street Lofts. Restored by WHALE and HallKeen shortly before the picture was taken in 2007, the Haste and Eddy buildings currently have one commercial tenant at street level, while the mixed-income lofts on the upper floors are fully occupied.
In the image below, we are still at Purchase and Union streets, and it’s still July 2007, but we’ve turned 90 degrees to our left and are looking at the south-west corner of the intersection.
The old Star Store building is now home to the New Bedford campus of the College of Visual and Performing Arts (UMass Dartmouth). Much like the awning we saw in 1870, CVPA’s signs are impermanent banners. But the type is computer generated.
CVPA is set in “Hard Times,” an experimental typeface created by Jeffery Keedy in 1991 — the year Fontographer 3.1 was released. An alteration of Times Roman in a process described by Paul Shaw (“The Digital Past: When Typefaces Were Experimental” AIGA Voice, May 19, 2005) as “hacking off and reassembling serifs and other parts,” Hard Times is indicative of Jeffery Keedy’s work.
Ellen Lupton writes in Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture, “Although several of Keedy’s own typefaces are based on historical sources, his fonts are ironic commentaries, not scholarly revivals. Keedy has argued that designers should search for the future rather than excavate the past.”
Adding an ironic twist to the story of the intersection of Purchase and Union Streets… in a city purposefully building its future by embracing and understanding its past.