Article by Debbie Adams

HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FASCINATED by signs. My great uncle made neon signs. My grandfather was a sign painter. As a child, I recall visiting his Nanaimo sign workshop in the dirt-floored basement of his house, watching him hand-letter signs. As early as 1978, I photographed the then plentiful neon signage in Vancouver for a school design project. From the pharmacy signs in Barcelona and warning pictograms on signage in Australia, to the abandoned neon signs of the American Southwest and defunct business signs in shrinking towns and cities in the Northeast, this form of collecting has become an integral part of my travels. I also design signs for a living.

Several years ago, while on a trip to Manhattan, I participated in a walking tour of neighbourhoods led by local typophile and author Paul Shaw, observing typography on old signage. Paul’s knowledge of typography, signs, and their stories was both impressive and entertaining, and it instilled in me a new appreciation for the sometimes arcane histories of city neighbourhoods. It also sparked an idea for a sabbatical project to place Toronto under the same lens to see if there existed a critical mass of interesting old signage worth documenting.

Armed with drinking water, sunscreen, a camera, and a bicycle, I began to spend countless hours roaming the streets with a forensic eye cast to the tops of buildings and thresholds of stores, trying to see my familiar routes with a fresh eye and exploring new neighbourhoods. My focus was signage that predated the 1960s. The seamless integration of signage into architecture had more or less disappeared by then, as plastics overtook the sign industry and the international style of architecture that permeated the mid-20th century showed preference for little or no signage.

Old signage is a bellwether of economic change. Toronto has enjoyed a remarkably healthy economic history since my arrival in the late 70s and, as a result, much of the signage from my early days here has disappeared. I have become acutely aware of the ephemeral nature of signage; frequently, I have returned to photograph a previously noted sign only to discover it has been removed, painted over, or covered up. I regret not starting this documentation more seriously years ago. My focus has been primarily in the area south from St. Clair Avenue to the lakeshore and west from Parliament Street to Roncesvalles Avenue. The majority of old signage is concentrated in what is left of Toronto’s heritage core and west of Yonge Street, although a foray along Kingston Road into Scarborough recently revealed some terrific finds, and there are pockets of interesting signs in other areas as well.

There were streets that I had imagined would be full of potential—for example, St. Clair Avenue and Parliament Street—that were almost devoid of anything of interest. King Street West, Queen Street West, College Street, and Dundas Street West, however, continue to yield new signs with each repeat visit. Categories of signs started to emerge—elaborate and decorative carved sandstone, neon, terrazzo thresholds, channel letters, tiled thresholds, painted brick, individual metal letters, cast concrete. The eras or dates of signs are often readable through material and font choices.

Queen Street and what remains of early industrial Toronto still display a wealth of faded, painted lettering on brick. Richmond and Adelaide Streets, between University and Spadina Avenues, celebrate our earlier manufacturing and garment trades with the names of the industrialist owners of these sturdy buildings carved into stone or concrete slabs over entrances. Some neon signs are brightly coloured and maintained with pride; some are faded, adorning businesses long gone; others have had their neon tubing removed and have been painted over and re-purposed. Carved and incised cornerstones abound on earlier buildings, as do dates, proudly cast in concrete or carved in stone and installed at the peaks of facades. Often, signs remain as remnants, truncated or interrupted by subsequent renova­tions with only a few letters visible, chipped away so that their original intent is lost or partially removed by the installation of new windows or doors. I have also observed a recent trend among independent businesses to choose not to sign new premises but rather to leave the signage of the original or previous occupants intact.

We move through our cities, often unaware of the signifiers of history surrounding us. Old signs are evidence of that past, often layering old upon new like ghosts of previous occupancies— representations of a time when permanence mattered and civic pride was tangible. What began as a sabbatical project has become an ongoing obsession—the documentation of an aspect of our ever-evolving history while those fragments still remain—and a record of another Toronto, more provincial, slower in pace, and, somehow, less ephemeral.

Excerpted from Fall/Winter 2013 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

Debbie Adams is a professor of Graphic Design and Typography at OCAD University. She is also principal of Adams + Associates Design Consultants Inc. in Toronto.

Photography by Debbie Adams