The Personal Journey Behind creating Vintage Signs of America

For more than 15 years, I have been obsessively documenting buildings, signs, and statues for my website, During this quest, I have driven more than 400,000 miles throughout the United States with my pack of crazy Terriers. While my website has grown astronomically over the years to more than 2,400 pages and over 60,000 photos, I am far from done. I still have long lists of things left to shoot. Many things have also changed dramatically, for better or worse, and need to be photographed again.

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This sign in Los Angeles, California is an electric sign from 1924 with bulbs and backlit glass letters. Just as this book went to print, this animated sign was restored. (Vintage Signs of America, Amberley Publishing)

My first love was buildings: Streamline Modern buildings, gas stations, diners, Mid-century Modern architecture, fast food chain restaurants, theatres, bus stations, and buildings shaped like things. This quickly segued into my fascination with fiberglass statues and neon signs. I began taking pictures of these things and organizing them online solely for my own compulsive amusement. Search engines either did not exist yet or I was naively unaware that other people could see what I was doing. Once I realized that people were accessing my pages, I became exceedingly anxious to add more places and information.

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This supermarket sign in Okemos, Michigan was built in 1958. Soon after the store closed in the late 1980s, the sign was updated for a Barnes & Noble bookstore. The groceries in the shopping cart were replaced with books. The animated sign continues to be lit at night. The wheels appear to spin and the woman’s legs are lit separately to give the appearance of walking. (Vintage Signs of America, Amberley Publishing)

In these early years, I wondered just how many neon signs could be left around the country. Maybe a couple hundred? It couldn’t be that hard to shoot them all. Little did I know that there were thousands of signs and buildings from the 1920s through the 1970s that were worthy of shooting and researching. Despite calloused fingers from countless hours of internet searching, not a day goes by that I don’t find something to add to my to-shoot lists.

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This Dairy Queen sign is located in Hibbing, Minnesota. These five-foot-tall “Little Miss” rooftop signs were developed in 1961. While hundreds of them were made, there are only about seven left on public display. Plastic signs are more vulnerable to weather (hail, wind, and fading from the sun) than neon signs. Many have become brittle over time and fall apart during removal. Plastic signs do not have the status of older neon signs. Therefore, they often disappear not long after a business closes. Most of these Dairy Queen and other fast food signs have been replaced with updated signs with ever-changing logo rebranding. (Vintage Signs of America, Amberley Publishing)

My passion for signs was magnified in 2007 when I was tagged to write the features about signs for the Society for Commercial Archeology Journal. I boned up on sign history and leaned heavily on Tod Swormstedt, the founder of the American Sign Museum, for information and clarification. I was surprised to learn how much had NOT been written about signs. Most of the designers of vintage signs had either retired or passed on. Sign shops, when they still existed, had either lost or destroyed their old records. Often, city records and library files have turned up nothing that helps date the signs or credit their manufacturers. However, with enough digging and prodding, sometimes some of the puzzle pieces can be put together.

For each of the subjects in this book, I exhausted all sources for information. Speaking with owners, former owners, city agencies, and sign shops, sometimes leading to interesting or heart-warming anecdotes. At other times, I was left with nothing more than an educated guess as to when a sign was built.

Like most people, I was initially attracted to neon signs for their color, animation, unique cute imagery, and variety of font styles. However, over the years, I have become increasingly obsessed with the older electric signs due to their simplicity and rarity. Most of these signs were destroyed when businesses replaced them with neon signs to keep up with the Joneses.

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This 30 foot tall sign in Portland, Oregon was built in 1946. The sign is lit with 754 feet of neon tubing. The Water Heater King’s dancing feet are animated. (Vintage Signs of America, Amberley Publishing)

The past 15 years of documentation have been filled with joy and heartbreak. Many buildings were restored or miraculously saved and moved. A good number of signs have been lovingly and faithfully restored to their original condition. However, hundreds of incredible buildings, signs, and statues have been demolished. Sometimes, these signs have disappeared in the dead of the night leaving sign-lovers wondering if they went to the scrap heap or to a good home. Many signs have been disfigured beyond recognition for the new tenant of the space.

These signs are just beginning to be recognized as works of art and craftsmanship. They are both beautiful and fun. They are important connections to one’s personal history. They are community landmarks and tourist attractions. However, we continue to lose dozens of them every year. The final chapters of this book discuss the various threats that these vintage signs face and what can be done to preserve them. In your haste to see these signs before they disappear, don’t underestimate the importance of praising the shop owner for keeping the sign in place. That small gesture goes a long way.


Debra Jane Seltzer's new book Vintage Signs of America is available for purchase now.