Pittsburgh Signs Project: appreciation of the glorious signage of Pittsburgh

Earlier this summer, a nice group of people approached me at my signing at the CMU bookstore in Pittsburgh, PA and handed me a copy of Pittsburgh Signs Project, a photography book that features glorious photos of Pittsburgh's beautiful vintage signs. It turns out that two of the people giving me the book were among its editors, and they'd come by especially because I'd played an unwitting role in the project's genesis. Back in 2003, I blogged a set of photos of I'd snapped of Denver's signs (I'd been there for a conference and after a couple days I was so overwhelmed by the signs I kept seeing in passing that I jumped in my rental car and spent the afternoon shooting), and this, in turn, had inspired the founding of the Pittsburgh Signs Project, which invited the pittsburghese to send in their favorite images. Before long, they had a book's worth of astounding signs from many eras and of many genres, from every county in the area.

The editors -- Jennifer Baron, Greg Langel, Elizabeth Perry and Mark Stroup -- then gathered up their favorites and arranged them thematically, with brief essays and short snips of text from the photographers. But the words aren't the important bit, the photos are, and they're really something. The layout of the book hints at the lineage of the signs; of rival liquor store owners who duelled with typography; of peeling hand-painted ancestors from the dawn of commercial advertising; of careful, handmade steel typography over a metal-shop's awning. Put together, they make a sort of poetry.

I've always said that the way to make something beautiful is to make a million near-identical versions of it, let the ravages of time remove nearly all those versions, and put the remainder under glass (this is why we love Craftsman houses, Victorian row houses, old comic books, etc). Here's a great example of the phenomena: merely by withstanding time these totally quotidian objects have become evocative relics.

Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania (order book)

Pittsburgh Signs Project (website)


    1. Well, there are ~160 legally recognized Historic Districts within the city limits and that helps preserve signs that exist on building facades. We also are fortunate to have a wealth of old and independently owned businesses, which means more hand-painted, hand-made, and custom-designed signs! Many of the signs featured in the Flickr pool are things you’d likely see in other cities though.

      Also, Mr. Doctorow, a polite correction: Pittsburghese is the slang/language/dialect of the region; Pittsburghers are the folks. :)

  1. Ummm — so why is this $29.95 book appearing for $123+ on Amazon right now???? Here we go with another $1M+ book on flies ;-) Tho I think this is a wonderful project and would love to have a copy. Note there are some other ways to order it mentioned on the project’s web site.

  2. Some of us love Craftsman houses because they embody a set of aesthetic principles that we find appealing – how rare or how common they might be is irrelevant.  (Indeed, it would make us happy if they were far more common.)

    I confess I’ve long been puzzled at the idea that some old, rusty piece of commercial kitsch is ‘glorious’ just because it’s old and rusty and uncommon.  I dunno, maybe if you were raised in the sensory-deprivation chamber of a modern master-planned suburb where nothing’s more than 30 years old…

    There are quite a few signs in that set that are a long, long way from ‘glorious.’  Indeed, there are several there that could be used as examples of “How to Make Dull, Boring Commercial Signage” in a design class.  And seriously – An Arby’s hat? The Spaghetti Warehouse?  A faded CLOSED sign made of cheap stick-on block letters?  A Heinz Ketchup bottle?  A sloppily hand-painted 7-Up gimme sign from the ’70s?  The glorious, uniquely Pittsburghian STOP signs in glorious black and white?

  3. That Arby’s neon hat is one of the last of its kind in America, and that Heinz Ketchup bottle is definitely a Pittsburgh icon. 

    I’d say the “glory” here would come from a combination of things.  Style and design of the sign definitely plays a part, but so does the style of the photographer, and the design of the end product.  Couple this with the nostalgia, history, and meaning that these signs have to Pittsburghers (or anyone who comes from a similar place), and I think you definitely have something special.

  4. Though if you like vintage commercial signage, I highly recommend Flickr user Lord Jim’s work, tagged “signs”.  He’s an LA-based photographer, and most of his sign photos are from LA or Las Vegas.  He’s got a real eye for this sort of thing.  (He also has some great sets of street art.)

    Just kick on the slideshow full-screen and let it rip. :-)

  5. This is pretty cool. I’ve been thinking about doing the same thing here in San Jose, California.  We have lots of old signs hanging around, one of which is still standing over the new parking lot advertising a Pork Sausage shop that used to be there.  And over the weekend I just drove past the old Stage Stop on Monterey Road between SJ and Morgan Hill, haven’t seen it in years, surprised it’s still there.  And the Hart’s Department Store sign that’s painted on the side of a brick building.  And the deli downtown that isn’t there anymore.  And there are tons more.  Holy crap, I need to start snapping them before they go away, like the Hart’s sign, which is partially covered by graffiti covering paint.  Oh, and don’t forget the old Andy’s Pet Shop sign which was being preserved… Not sure where that is now.  Yep, there are lots around here!

  6. Thank you for the fantastic post, Cory! If anyone would like to see high-res images of the book, including its cover and contents, designed by Brett Yasko (http://brettyasko.com/), I have attached some here. Please note that the slide show features images from a Pittsburgh Signs Project night blitz event & from our online gallery, NOT from our book. Thank you all for noticing, looking & discussing! (Jennifer Baron, Pittsburgh Signs Project)

  7. With anti-sign gov. being an issue for installing new signage, we may be looking at the past.  Most local sign ordinances make it a challenge to have a nice legible unique sign.

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