School Me Saturday: The History of Sign Painting

Sign-painting is an ancient trade that dates back as early as 300 B.C. Merchants, pub owners, innkeepers and other business people have always needed to communicate what they are selling and why the passersby should take pause and step inside. Fast forward to the early 1900s where every store needed a quality sign painter and everyday, working class people with a knack for color, design and mechanics shaped city streets. The style was often specific to the culture of the place and dependent on the personality of the sign painter. Signs were “traditionally manufactured by resident village or city painter who had rarely been exposed to formal printing or compositional training…uninhibited with regard to the “correctness” of period type styles”, often resulting in signs with character, quality, and culture.

Restored former “ghost sign” of a Dr. Pepper ad on the side of Dee’s Place soda fountain and diner in Corsicana, Texas; Highsmith, Carol M., 1946-, photographer

Sign-painting includes building-sized messages, billboards, store fronts, windows, doors and menus. Remnants of the early sign-painting industry are known as ghost signs, old advertisements that are either left up out of apathy or nostalgia.

PurpleHousePhotos /

Over time there have been debates as to whether sign painting is a trade or an art. People within the community historically prefer the term mechanic. The act of sign-painting is extremely technical: ensuring that a design works for the space, getting the right equipment, adjusting the plan and strategy depending on the condition of the wall, inclement weather or tight timelines. 

Now, sign-painting is experiencing a renaissance, and we’ve got the supplies you need. Mack Sign Painting Brushes and accessories are on sale for 10% off and One Shot Lettering Enamel Paints are on sale for 5% off!

One Shot Lettering Enamels are oil-based, high gloss enamels for interior and exterior use on metals, wood and glass. Favored among pinstripers and sign painters, these enamels offer great flow characteristics, single stroke coverage and vibrant durability. Available in a variety of blendable colors and shades, ranging from fully opaque to translucent and transparent “candy” colors. Great for use with brush, spray or airbrush. It dries to the touch in 2 – 5 hours, can be handled in 8 – 12 hours and can be recoated after 12 – 16 hours.

If you’re considering taking classes, we highly recommend the Sign Graphics program at LA Trade Tech. Say hi to Doc for us!