John Downer: one-horse type
About-Face: Tramping the Tracks
Prior to “The Settling of the American West” came “The Settling of the American Midwest.” On the American prairies, white populations increased greatly with the expansion of railroads. In essence, railroads were the lifeblood of American farm towns in the late 1800s.
Early in the 19th century, Chicago became the largest city in the Midwest, but in fact, the first railroad out of Chicago was not intended for passenger travel. The Galena and Chicago Union Railroad was chartered in 1836, to connect Chicago with the lead mines at Galena Illinois, near present day Dubuque Iowa, a Mississippi River town. The Mississippi River, largest and longest in North America, had become the primary artery for the north-south travel of goods by water below the Great Lakes inland. Steamboats had been in service on the lower stretches of the Mississippi River since before 1820, and had become exceedingly common on the upper part of the river by the early 1830s. The first steam locomotive on the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad line arrived in Chicago in 1848, yet by 1850 only about one quarter of the track’s distance had been covered, reaching barely as far as Elgin Illinois, less than 50 miles from Chicago. Even under the best circumstances, track building was laborious, and needed to be approached with an exceptional amount of excavating experience and engineering know-how. The best-laid line followed a perfect course that was painstakingly constructed of earth, rock, and timber, to be straight and level.
Despite the slow progress of Chicago’s first westbound line, other railroads were pushing into the Mississippi River valley at the same time. Midway through the 19th century, at the tail end of the 1840s, and coincident with the Gold Rush in California, several lines had begun extending across Illinois. But gold was not the prize in the Mississippi River valley, nor in the expanse of frontier drained by its many western tributaries. The main attraction was land – and, in particular, farm land.
By the early 1850s, railroads were entering territories west of the Mississippi River. These territories, totaling more than 600 million acres (828,000 square miles), and encompassing most of the middle one-third of the continental United States, had been acquired in 1803 by the U.S. government in a deal with France known as the Louisiana Purchase.
Chicago was a principal point of departure for railway passengers heading west. Most riders would take the train as far west as possible, then travel by stagecoach the rest of the way. Stage roads in my state of Iowa were numerous, as the terrain is not mountainous, and the rivers are mostly slow and shallow: easy to ferry.
White settlers were coming by train to begin new lives and new ventures in new states such as Iowa. Thousands were arriving at Iowa City, (my adopted hometown), every month in the mid-1850s. Early springtime, ploughing time, was the peak season in terms of ridership. Statistics can be found in Parker’s Iowa Handbook, a charming piece of propaganda (literally, more than 180 pages of what could be called promotional prose) written in 1856 by a Clinton Iowa resident, Nathan H. Parker. Parker was an itinerate journalist/reporter, and part-time land agent. His mission was to lure people to Iowa to buy land, build farms, establish schools, and start businesses. He was definitely “pro-development” as we would say today. To serve his customers, he established additional land offices with partners in Sioux City Iowa and Minneapolis Minnesota as well.
Next, I offer three prime examples of population growth, as cited by Nathan H. Parker in 1856, a mere 5 years before the outbreak of the American Civil War.
“Burlington, the county seat of Des Moines county, is situated upon the Mississippi River, two hundred and thirty-five miles above St. Louis and two hundred and ten miles from Chicago, by railroad.”
“The Chicago and Burlington Railroad has been in operation a little over a year, and since its completion Burlington has increased fully one hundred percent in population, and from two to four hundred percent in business.”
“Her projected railways, east to Indianapolis and west to the Missouri River (each having a prospect of an early completion), will give Burlington advantages possessed by but few other cities on the Mississippi River.”
“The town of Lyons is situated on the Mississippi River, midway between Dubuque and Davenport. For several years this was but a small hamlet, a river-landing for residents of Clinton County, containing a few stores, a warehouse, a post office, etc. But within three years it has received a great impetus from the projection of a railroad into Iowa from this point, and the completion of the Dixon Air-line from Chicago to Fulton, on the opposite side of the river. At this time Lyons has a population of 2500 and is increasing very rapidly.”
“Clinton is located two miles below Lyons, on the Mississippi River. One year ago the town of Clinton was not known on any map of Iowa. It did not exist until August 1, 1855. To-day its population is 1000. The Iowa Land Company, in July, 1855, purchased a farm which was the site of this city, mowed down the corn fields, laid out the ground into city lots; and where, four months before, the corn-tassels had waved in the summer breeze, the largest hotel in Iowa reared its lofty front. This company, in laying out their town, have made liberal provisions for schools, churches, and libraries, by donating lots to each. They grade the avenues and streets, and plant shade trees along the walks.”
“A continuation westward of the Chicago, Dixon, and Fulton City Railroad, a line is being built from Clinton through central Iowa, under the name of the Chicago, Iowa, and Nebraska Railroad. The work on this road is progressing rapidly, and the locomotive is already on the track, making its way to Cedar Valley, which D. D. Owen, U.S. Geologist, says is the finest body of land in North America.”
It is clear from all accounts that in the 1850s real estate agents were given a big boost by the upsurge of passenger railways. This was particularly true in my town of Iowa City, where newcomers were literally flocking in the mid-1800s.
“Iowa City, the county seat of Johnson county, and the former seat of government of the State of Iowa, is fifty-five miles from Davenport, by The Mississippi and Missouri Railroad, and is the most western city in railroad connection with the east.”
“The town was laid out in 1839. In 1840 the number of inhabitants was 520; in 1845, 1000; in 1850, 1,585; in 1855, 5,000.”
The earliest signs painted on buildings in these railroad towns were largely for the purpose of identifying the enterprise within the structure, and often stated the name of the business owner or owners. Wall signs were, of course, painted on the fronts of buildings, but also on the backs and sides of buildings, if the line of sight was such that they could be seen, unobstructed, from the railroad tracks.
This consideration for exposure was constant in towns served by a railroad. The availability of land, and the booming business in real estate, gave land agents an incentive to locate their offices in a building in town that could be readily seen from the railroad tracks. Folks coming to town for the first time were sure to spot the land office immediately, and they didn’t need to get off the train to do it.
As the years passed, and parcels of land around towns got bought up, the very complexions of the towns changed. The towns became the banking and shopping and religious and social centers of their respective locales. Manufacturing and warehousing grew situated closest to the tracks, so that moving heavy commodities to and from freight cars covered but only the shortest distances possible. Naturally, the buildings nearest the tracks also provided the best surfaces for signage meant to be read by train riders.
When national advertising campaigns for consumer products began competing for wall space, the signs painted on the buildings became more colorful and more commercial in appearance. Moreover, advertising signs seldom had anything to do with the kind of business being conducted inside the buildings on which they were painted. Also, most national advertising had a look that one would not characterize as regional in style. It followed specifications normally handed down from headquarters.
Among surviving icons, the familiar Coca-Cola script lettering of the late 1800s, for example, never really looked locally produced. Its style wasn’t intended to look as if a local sign painter had created it, even though a local sign man may indeed have rendered it in paint to make it visible on a wall. In the minds of most readers, I suggest, the ubiquitous script lettering seen in the Coca-Cola design appeared to have originated elsewhere (some place other than where it was painted).
The same was true of ads designed for countless other products, from baking ingredients to smoking tobacco. In the Midwest, commercial products like household cleansers and laundry soaps were commonly advertised on the walls of buildings – walls that could be easily viewed from train cars. Passenger trains held a captive audience, in a sense.
There were, we can see, visual clues for viewers to differentiate the lettering on product ads from local generic lettering. For one thing, there was a marked difference, in both color schemes and lettering styles, between the signage promoting national products and the ordinary signage of the town. For another thing, the national ads were designed to follow the proportions of an official layout scheme, even if the substrates on which the ads were painted did not conform to the plan set forth by the home office. Windows and doorways presented problems. They were seen as obstacles, and they had to be dealt with in a creative manner.
Certain standard layouts often had to be modified – some, drastically – in order for the given message to be rendered as completely as possible. Occasionally, an entire letter had to be omitted from a word to make the word fit the space. Other times, spaces between the letters would need to be increased or decreased to accommodate an unwelcome feature of the architecture. The men who painted ads for products such as “Bull” Durham and Mail Pouch tobacco faced perhaps the widest array of layout challenges. Their signs went onto every sort of rural and city building imaginable: depots, hotels, barns, machine sheds, factories, warehouses, grain elevators, silos, etc. Each structure possessed its own separate configuration of doors, windows, and other nuisances to try to work around. Such space-fitting tasks are not unlike those facing a letterpress printer or a typographer.
In my younger days as a sign painter in Iowa, and earlier in the Pacific Northwest where I was raised, I had the opportunity to work with old timers who were men of my grandfather’s generation: born in the 1880s. These men had grown up in the sign trade, and had begun their apprenticeships as teenagers. By the time they reached manhood, they had learned the sign painting trade the way it had been practiced in America for decades. That is to say, they had learned sign painting as it was done before train travel became totally outmoded by automobile travel.
A few of the elderly fellows I met had worked for sign companies which had been contracted by big ad agencies to paint the outdoor advertising for product manufacturers whose products enjoyed national distribution. Working with these old fellows, I heard stories about how they went about their chores in the olden days, when they would go from town to town by train to paint advertising signs on buildings, including barns. These men were known in the sign trade as “wall dogs” and their particular training truly represented a specialized branch of the sign business.
When I was 22, fresh out of college, I worked for the better part of a year in Des Moines with a seasoned wall dog who was pushing 80 and still going strong. He got his start in the trade at a time when a team of draft horses would be harnessed to a wagon to haul ladders & planks for wall work. He was 16 when he began. A crew of sign men (with boys as helpers) would ride the train from one location to the next, then hire a team and a wagon after offloading their equipment. (Another fellow, an “advance man’ as he was known, would already have left word at the telegrapher’s office to direct the crew to the location of the building that was to be given a fresh sign. No telephones.)
Proceeding from the station, they would simply follow the directions left for them in a telegram or handwritten note. When extremely foul weather hit, the crew had to wait until it passed. Working outdoors presented unique challenges. Being forced to paint in lousy conditions could be both uncomfortable and inefficient. Sometimes, improvising was necessary when supplies ran low, and there was no paint store nearby. The painters had to know how to make their own paints from whatever was available: linseed oil, varnish, lampblack, oxide of lead, turpentine, and so on. The key to success was being resourceful when it counted.
Having had chances to work alongside a much older gentleman, I appreciate knowing how problems that are no longer common were tackled by the pros.
The sign trade was not nearly as easy to prosper at a century ago as it is today.
Late in his career, my elder colleague was able to afford a motor vehicle of his own, and he always had his ladders and planks loaded, ready for the next wall lettering or billboard job. It was fascinating to hear him tell stories about how the sign trade had been changed by intrusion of the automobile. Large freestanding roadside signs called bulletins were being erected in the early 1900s to be seen by motorists. The motorcar literally switched the position – the vantage point – of the traveling audience, and it turned many a wall dog into a highway billboard painter because it had altered the means by which the average person traveled. In so doing, it made an important venue for wall signs obsolete. The signs facing the railway tracks were simply abandoned because they had ceased to reach large daily audiences. Eventually, only freight trains made use of the rails.
By then, the automobile had made Main Street the hot spot for city signs. In short, the prime advertising space moved from the back of town to the front, as if the buildings had turned, about-face. As faded and flaking as they are, ‘ghost signs’ that once flanked the railroad tracks occupy a special place in a finite 80-90 year period of both outdoor advertising and passenger railway history.
These days, when I walk the places where trains once ran, I keep an eye out for ghost signs. Some of America’s abandoned railway levees have been converted into nature paths and bike trails. But even in forgotten places like dying little farm towns, where there are now neither train tracks nor bike trails in evidence, you can quite easily find a telltale stretch of straight and level ground where train tracks existed long ago. From there, cast your eyes toward the nearest buildings, if any still stand, and you are likely to discover what remains of that town’s oldest outdoor signage.
My old coworker in Des Moines died shortly after I left for Iowa City to attend grad school. In 3 years of grad school, I learned quite a lot about oil paints and artists’ brushes, and a little about type and printing – but not half as much as that fellow taught me about shaping letters with a wall dog’s fitch so they’d both look right and read well. He was a “nuts and bolts” sort of guy.
John Downer is a sign painter by trade, an artist by training, and a type designer by pure chance. His credentials include a BA degree in Fine Art from Washington State University, and both a MA degree and a MFA degree in Painting from the University of Iowa. He lives in Iowa City, and travels widely, lecturing and teaching.