As a kid growing up in Florida, we’d visit my relatives in Wilmette, Illinois. On occasion, we’d all pile into the car, hit the Edens Expressway, and venture into the big city of Chicago.
Every time we made the drive I was glued to the window, eyes peeled on the lookout for one particular landmark: lips. Yes, lips – great BIG red ones in a bright illuminated sign along the highway. My favorite was seeing it lit up at night, but it was just as hypnotic by daylight with its deep red hue background. It was unforgettable and left me with a lasting imprint.
The sign belonged to a company called Magikist, a carpet cleaning service. So, why the lips? Magikist was the melding together of “magic” and “kissed,” with the catchy slogan, “The sweetest name in rug cleaning.” I loved the sign and I still love the story behind it.
Fast forward a few decades and I still love to come across compelling signs with character – signs that tell a story. I’ve traveled to many parts of the world and across the U.S. and yet, some the most intriguing, interesting signs I’ve come across are right here in the Midwest.
Signs are more than just showcasing the name of a business or logo. A great sign is an art form that expresses a brand’s uniqueness. Long before billboards or the digital age, these signs were the original advertisement giving you a look into what you might expect or experience at their establishment.
When a sign captures a brand’s identity, values, and customer experience… it’s just magical. And let me tell you, when it comes to signage, they just don’t make them like they used to. That’s probably why we’re seeing a vintage-style revival in almost everything.
What was once old is now new again – vintage is the new “new.” I like signs of all shapes, and sizes, but to me the most eye-catching are vintage. And not the fabricated new signs that are made to look vintage, but the authentic, real-deal, rust-stained works of yesteryear. Age, construction, design, and even the type of lighting gives vintage signs a level of character which is hard to replicate.
Have you noticed the trend of restaurant groups banking on retro style? Formento’s replicates an old-world Italian supper club. Dusek’s is speakeasy lounge-inspired. Ed Debevic’s mimics a 50’s diner. The Brass Monkey is a throwback to the 70’s, going so far as to include a TV dinner on the menu.
These retro trends are profitable and offer a sip of nostalgia, but they’re not the real deal. Imitation can’t quite give the full experience of an authentic establishment that’s existed for decades. I’m talking about the ones that have been around so long they’re part of the landscape. The times change but these places don’t.
Here are some of the authentic signs I’ve come across in my Midwestern travels that capture on the outside what a customer can expect on the inside:
The Diamond Grille in Akron, Ohio is a legendary restaurant amongst locals. Known for its big steaks, willie fries, and cocktails. It’s a place where only cash is accepted or you can leave your business card and they send you the bill. WHAT? Yes, that’s right. They’ll send you a bill for your meal via snail mail.
The green and white sign has glowed on the streets of Akron for 75 years. Passing through the unassuming door transports you to another era. The family-run restaurant withstood the test of time: The décor and the charm are original and the sign on the outside conveys the essence of the experience on the inside. Dining here turns back the clock in a fashion that can’t be imitated.
The Diamond Grille isn’t alone in its ability to suspend time. Balyeat’s Coffee Shop in the northwestern Ohio town of Van Wert was established in 1924 and the current owner has worked there for 51 years. They have no website, but the sign attracts visitors the way its history attracts locals.
The most intriguing aspect of the sign is the advertisement for “Young Fried Chicken Day & Night” which is still on their menu to this day. Walking through the doors is like stepping into Mayberry from the long counter to vinyl-covered stools to pies on display for $1.79 a slice to the long-time owner greeting everyone in his starched white shirt and black bow tie. Balyeat’s provides an escape from the hustle and bustle of 21st-century life and takes diners back to a simpler time.
My husband has a gift for finding hidden treasures wherever we travel. On a recent trip passing through Fort Wayne, IN we pulled up to The Oyster Bar. Now this 1888 establishment turned out to be quite a find. The kiosk sign was as hypnotic as its smaller neon companions on the façade touting “FINE FOOD” and “BEER WINE.”
Inside it’s a cozy restaurant filled with leather-wrapped chairs, wooden tables that have weathered many a meal, and a small bar in the back, just off the kitchen. We sat at the bar for dinner to absorb all the sights and sounds of this 19th-century find. The preservation of this restaurant was like no other. They even had an old wooden cold storage locker that had been converted to store their wine and beer.
I discovered another 19th-century treasure in Indiana, this one in downtown Indianapolis. Stout’s Shoes is an unmistakable landmark covering nearly a city block long of, you guessed it – shoes!
Today, they go by Stout’s Footwear, but the sign boasts their original claim to fame as the “Oldest shoe store in the U.S. Since 1886.” Stout’s Shoes has a long, long history well worth the read. In today’s world of big-box stores and online retailers, their story is something to be proud of.
Last, but not least, is a vintage sign I came across on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago where it stood prominently amongst all the newer buildings around it and a vacant lot that was once home to The Stars Motel. Before its 2006 demise, The Stars Motel occupied that slice of the city for four decades. Sadly, there’s no building to walk through to see if they preserved its original state, but the sign is worth noting for its authenticity and the story it tells.
The most remarkable thing is that even after the motel was demolished a decade ago, the sign remained, still advertising the long-gone desire for a “Switchboard & Free Television.” How many people have passed by there each day and may still remember the motel?
Next time you pass by an authentic vintage sign that catches your eye, stop. Take notice of the brand’s promise of a customer experience. Go inside the establishment and enjoy those few moments of what life in that time was like.
Until then, know that I’ll be keeping an eye out, capturing those moments on film. As of this writing, I just discovered a Cincinnati-based museum called the American Sign Museum that is home to more vintage signs than I could hope to see in a lifetime. They have gone to great lengths to salvage and preserve historic signs for others to enjoy. So many of these gems are lost to redevelopment and beautification in communities and it’s inspiring to see people making the preservation of this art form their life’s work. This is on my list to visit this summer!
Follow ish-productions on Instagram to view my ongoing collection of signs and other inspirational shares.
Michelle Mariola is founder & director of ISH-Productions, a Chicago-based branding and marketing company whose mission is to help emerging to mid-market companies develop their marketing strategies and brand identities.