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Memories of Life in an "Old Time" Sign Shop


For any web surfers who might have an interest in what it was like to work in sign painting companies of the 1940's and the 1950's, here is an excerpt of a family history describing Art Sign Company of Birmingham, Alabama during that period:


During all of this period, dad's business was growing. At different times, family members worked at the shop and learned how to sweep (there was a right way) or spray or brush paint or paint a border on the sign, or wash brushes, or perforate patterns. There was at all times, work for anyone who wanted it.

Tim Rocks opened his shop on the western edge of the downtown Birmingham business district in 1938. He was in the same building for 35 years and the same neighborhood for 50 years. In the center of the shop was an old oil burner heater that had been converted to gas. It had a large 4' tall rectangular metal grating on it. Every morning in winter, we would dip a long wooden stick into the brush tray nearby... to moisten it with mineral spirits on the end... light a match, put the flaming stick into the stove's door, and turn on the gas. It would make a shuddering "poof" sound as the initial combusted fumes shot to the top of the 12' pipe straight up and then across the ceiling where the pipe traced to the side wall and exited. No OSHA to worry about in those days. Dad kept peanuts roasting on top that stove all winter long, and realtors/customers would stop by the shop just to eat peanuts around the stove, throw shells on the floor and listen to some Irish wit. They bought signs too... lots of them.

Click on image to enlarge. Photo of Art Sign in the old days

Lunch at Art Sign Company was always eaten at an old wooden desk topped with a slab of marble. It would be years before I would realize that the table had sentimental value to my dad. During the depression of the 30's, dad's sister, Mary, made fudge on the same marble slab, and my grandfather, wearing a tie and carrying a woven basket, full of Mary's fudge, walked the south side of Birmingham (in the area that is now UAB) and in this fashion, sold the fudge, door to door, in order to survive and feed the family in which my dad was the oldest of seven siblings. It was in actions and deeds such as this... the ever present slab of marble... through which my dad revealed to me his personal sentiments as he was never prone to give voice to these feelings. So we shop employees ate at this marble table while dad always stood and walked around the shop eating his sandwich or cup of gumbo in winter. As he walked and ate, he was thinking about what job to delegate next, and he fired off instructions while we employees sat and ate. More enjoyable than these instructions were some of the conversations with some of the old-timer sign painters and helpers. Some of the helpers lived on "skid row" as part of 2nd avenue north was called at that time. On the days that this bunch ate lunch, it generally consisted of sardines smothered in mustard and served on a saltine cracker. Many a sardine was carved on the marble table top. Years later, I cut the marble into many pieces to commemorate our family heritage and gave blocks of it to family siblings, cousins, and their offspring. Many family members had also eaten on that table during summer stints at the shop.

Dad believed in advertising his business, and he put his Art Sign Company imprint on every sign that left the shop. He also invested in some advertising specialties, thermometers to put inside one's place of business. It told the inside temperature, and at the top was printed "Art Sign Company, etc." Dad would give these to his customers, but rather than wait for them to put it on their wall, he would say, "How about here... next to the cash register!" and before you could blink, he had it on the wall of almost every restaurant in Birmingham.

As the years went on and the interior of the shop filled up with signs plastering the 16' tall walls, customers would comment on the atmosphere of the shop. The walls were full of samples of show-card artists and original cartoons by sign painter/artists. As a helper at 10 years old, I would sweep the shop and observe my dad leading the customers around the shop and the whole time he was talking QUALITY to them... showing them work in progress... "Here's how we prime the metal... over here is the wood preserver going on the backside of the wood frame... over here we make a full pattern on the bank jobs or any other high-end work" Speaking of "bank" jobs, how many times did I hear dad verbally crack the whip and say, "Herbert" or "Howard" or "Dave" (as the case might be), "This isn't a bank job ya'know... the customer isn't going to pay that much for this. You better knock the rest of it out" Well, it was all quality work, but sometimes one just has to speed up the production.

For several decades or more, just about every traveling sign painter who came through Birmingham worked for dad at one time or another. Jumping ahead, in 1990 dad would retire, and I would step in behind him and modernize both the sign substrates and the tools... no more brush. I welcomed the opportunity to become more profitable utilizing the computer, but I will acknowledge that the business does not have the unique flavor that the tradesmen and customers enjoyed in dad's old time sign shop. The old heating stove is gone and there is not time to stand by the stove and eat peanuts and talk about other things and signs. And I do miss it. Though there will always be someone keeping their brush wet, my dad, Tim Rocks, and his original Art Sign Company were part of a bygone era, and I am glad I was there once... long ago. (Larry Rocks)

If you enjoyed this, don't miss our Sign Scrapbook (click here) featuring photos of signs from the early days of Art Sign Company.

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