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Privilege signs are fading away
October 16, 2013 10:30 AM   Subscribe

New York’s ever-changing streetscape usually transforms at a pace too slow to be discerned. All appears as it was the day before, until the day comes when you realize how long it has been since you’ve seen...a privilege sign.
posted by Chrysostom (36 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
My first thought is that many (most?) bars have sponsored signage from various beer makers. Everything from the actual external sign to pitchers and fancy tap heads. That seems to be a growth industry, though it's a lot less nostalgic.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:38 AM on October 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


I wonder if they'll be a crisp business in oh so retro-looking plastic box letters spelling out "eat.s.plaCe: tableplace" in the future.
posted by The Whelk at 10:38 AM on October 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


... though it's a lot less nostalgic.

Give it another 20 years.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:46 AM on October 16, 2013


My first thought is that many (most?) bars have sponsored signage from various beer makers. Everything from the actual external sign to pitchers and fancy tap heads. That seems to be a growth industry, though it's a lot less nostalgic.

There's a huge collector's market for this stuff. The brewery stuff goes back a lot further than the Coke stuff. Google: breweriana
posted by Thorzdad at 10:50 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fading away in New York City, maybe.
posted by Curious Artificer at 10:52 AM on October 16, 2013


Fortunately, New York is still retaining most of the signs of privilege....
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:53 AM on October 16, 2013 [9 favorites]


I love how so many of the Goldline signs don't even feature the business name, just "Luncheonette" or "Grocery."
posted by ogooglebar at 10:53 AM on October 16, 2013


They also transformed storefronts from hand-lettered works of idiosyncratic art into crisp, clean, stripped-down expressions of corporate uniformity.

This is an interesting aspect, now that professionally made custom signs are so affordable. The really fancy places have vintage-style hand-painted signs. To my eyes, the "privilege signs" look quaint, but also cheap compared to a well-done custom hand-painted sign.

Then again, vinyl "privilege signs" are still fairly common in rural communities in the US. Pepsi and Coke still sponsor signs for local markets, or at least did recently enough that the signs still look decently new.

Personally, I have come to love the hand-painted signs and murals, like the WhatEver Thrift Store, where someone clearly didn't block out the spaces for their letters and had to squish Store into a few linear feet, or the more professionally painted sign for Carniceria "El Torito", with a full mural on the top half of the building.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:57 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's an interesting one: Noodle Bar NYC (which I believe was founded in the mid 2000s) has hand-painted privilege signs (even on their website). Although this was apparently inspired by Hong Kong restaurants of the 1950s.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:59 AM on October 16, 2013


Wow, I never knew that there was a name for these kinds of signs.

While I haven't bought a privilege sign, earlier this spring I went to an auction and bid on this. We spent the summer rewiring it so the lighting and clock works again.
posted by Kitteh at 11:00 AM on October 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well, thank you, NYTimes, for now creating a collectors market for what was once a relatively inexpensive item, and guaranteeing that once we reach peak price on eBay, these will be stripped off every remaining storefront in America and turned into art pieces in the homes of wealthy Americans. Privilege sign indeed.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:04 AM on October 16, 2013 [16 favorites]


So, if you're a New York store owner, you need to check your privilege sign.

Unfortunately, many people deny the existence of white privilege signs.
posted by officer_fred at 11:06 AM on October 16, 2013


My first thought is that many (most?) bars have sponsored signage from various beer makers.

When I first moved to Chicago, I thought my neighborhood bar was named "Old Style."
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:27 AM on October 16, 2013 [10 favorites]


In the midwest the collectible sign market revolves around "tied-house beer signs" from when regional breweries sponsored taverns in nearby cities to gain market share. Lots of people pick bars based on whether they have a tied-house sign from a brewery that closed 30 years ago. SURE SIGN OF A GOOD DIVE BAR. Second-best is a beer that still exists, but your sign clearly predates WWII. Lots of bars have hardly any other signage.

Schlitz tied house with stonework. More Chicago tied houses, most not bars anymore. Rationale behind pre-prohibition and current tied houses.

My preferred bar has an absolutely ancient Old Style sign (that I think is supposed to light up, but doesn't) and almost no other signs, but I can't drink there right now because it's a Cards bar and BOOOOO. My second-favorite has a Bud Light sign but is a good dive bar nonetheless, partly because I had no idea what it was named until I'd been going there for three years, they just took the free Bud Light sign and spent no other money on signage.

(JINX, Metroid baby!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:27 AM on October 16, 2013 [13 favorites]


They speak of a time when store owners did not emphasize who they were as much as what they sold: fruits, vegetables, stationery, toys, candy and sandwiches.

I always just thought it was that Coke or Pepsi paid for the signs, saving store owners the expense. Did small markets really have a huge loyalty to a particular brand of cola, or did they just get a freebie from a distributor?
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:42 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


filthy light thief: This is an interesting aspect, now that professionally made custom signs are so affordable. The really fancy places have vintage-style hand-painted signs. To my eyes, the "privilege signs" look quaint, but also cheap compared to a well-done custom hand-painted sign.

I've heard that this is a known phenomenon: where signifiers of what used to be high-end vs. low-end become reversed in modern times. Like, in the olden days, only the rich could afford the heavily processed flour required to make light, fluffy bread while the poor had to make due with dense, brick-like loafs. Nowadays, Wonder Bread is for the poor while whole-grain, nut and seed loafs are for Whole Foods shoppers. Similarly, there's super-smooth, bright white paper vs. grainy, off-white artisanal paper. I wish I could remember the name of this phenomenon so I can go look up other examples.
posted by mhum at 12:20 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


What do the rich want? What the poor can't have.
posted by The Whelk at 12:26 PM on October 16, 2013


A good portion of the hot dog stands in Chicago have Vienna Beef signs
posted by nolnacs at 12:39 PM on October 16, 2013


This article has an error. The 2L bottle was not invented until 1970 and was only for Pepsi at the time.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 12:44 PM on October 16, 2013


Good riddance. Fewer Coca-Cola logos obscuring the cityscape can only be a good thing.

These signs are still extremely prominent in Toronto. Even brand new corner stores have Nestle or Dentyne or Pepsi logos taking up half their signage.
posted by 256 at 1:05 PM on October 16, 2013


I'll go there. Not everything that's disappearing is precious. And I question whether they're actually disappearing from anywhere but gentrified neighborhoods. There's enough of these around in some form or another to still be able access a reasonably objective reaction to their inherent aesthetics. I bought a hoagie today off a signboard with a boars head logo at either end of it. I don't remember enjoying the experience on any level beyond the chewy, crunchy bread that it produced for me. (Best hoagie in Philly: Kennedy Market, 19th and JFK).

I think we're celebrating these just because they've been around for a long time, but are disappearing where businesses can charge enough to afford to put up custom signage. A geography that's pretty tumblr infested.

I don't have any special knowledge but I'm going to guess that sponsored signage is going to be around forever, in contexts where the merchant doesn't have the means to do something custom or just doesn't want to think about it.

In fact, this post has given me the bright idea to go talk to coke and pepsi about getting my own free sign for a series of events I do in my town. So I'm not going to buy the coffee table book, but thanks for the post!
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:16 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Last year, I was on a bike ride and we stopped in Mellen, WI (pop. 731) where I counted no fewer than 4 places with Old Style signs.
posted by ckape at 1:28 PM on October 16, 2013


I get a small wave of nostalgia when I see one of those lighted signs that had alternating white and yellow lights inside.
posted by chimaera at 1:37 PM on October 16, 2013


“We’re surrounded by so much fake authenticity. You come across them and you’re, ‘Wow, that was when there was no irony behind store signs.'”

Jesus, they were cheap signs for people who were either too poor/cheap to buy a sign at full price, or too unskilled/lazy to make their own. In fifty years are they going to be romanticizing those stupid billboard trucks that clog traffic and waste gas for no damn reason? Apparently every generation thinks it invented inauthenticity.
posted by echo target at 2:13 PM on October 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's a store near my house that's had a "Schlitz" sign for at least 35 years. For a while there was no Schlitz, so it seemed a little weird but now that they're back I guess it's all right.
posted by Melismata at 2:20 PM on October 16, 2013


A bar near me has a huge 7-UP sign, which I've never understood. Nobody passing by would think "A 7-Up would be refreshing, I think I'll duck into this slightly scary-looking dive bar," would they?
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:04 PM on October 16, 2013


You may not even know that there is an industry term for the promotional signs installed by large corporations — usually soft-drink companies, most often Coca-Cola — on mom-and-pop storefronts.

I did not know this, but thanks to this great FPP now I do.
posted by three blind mice at 3:08 PM on October 16, 2013


A few years back I was driving through rural Wisconsin; on one street in a small town northwest of Rhinelander, I saw 5 or 6 bars in a row, all with identical Old Style signs. If you are picking the bar based on the tied house sign, how do you choose from 6 in a row? I think the bars themselves were also nearly identical in building style, to boot...
posted by caution live frogs at 3:55 PM on October 16, 2013


I've heard that this is a known phenomenon: where signifiers of what used to be high-end vs. low-end become reversed in modern times. Like, in the olden days, only the rich could afford the heavily processed flour required to make light, fluffy bread while the poor had to make due with dense, brick-like loafs. Nowadays, Wonder Bread is for the poor while whole-grain, nut and seed loafs are for Whole Foods shoppers. Similarly, there's super-smooth, bright white paper vs. grainy, off-white artisanal paper. I wish I could remember the name of this phenomenon so I can go look up other examples.

Sneetching!
posted by ActingTheGoat at 4:13 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Grew up barely noticing these things. I would certainly never have thought they were called "privilege signs" by anybody -- they sure as hell weren't carried by what you'd call privileged businesses. The businesses didn't even keep themselves to the product line by just selling Coke-branded products.

Although Coke was king where I grew up, I remember more Pepsi signs than Coke signs. My favorites are the ones where the Pepsi logo has bleached in the sun for so long that the red has turned yellow and the blue is gone. Somewhere between Yazoo City and Vicksburg there is (still I hope) a fantastic old 7UP sign with the faux-psychedelic logo they were trying in the '60s.

I always expected vacuum-molded plastic signs like these would last for thousands if not millions of years, in shape if not in color. In the future, they may end up as the equivalent of Greek vases among 19th-century Western collectors. I wonder if they, too, will be considered to have been a noble pure white.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:24 PM on October 16, 2013


Wow, those tied house links are FPP-worthy on their own. (The OP link is also interesting, but the tied house photos are fantastic.)
posted by immlass at 9:15 PM on October 16, 2013


Love these signs, and love to know their industry name. They're not only disappearing in NYC. Every city/town I've lived in has sloughed these in recent years, gradually. I tend to spot the Coke ones as I have a real soft spot for Cokeabilia: my grandfather had Coke machines and I used to go with him to restock them.

Well, thank you, NYTimes, for now creating a collectors market for what was once a relatively inexpensive item,...

This boat sailed a long time ago. I've been seeing them at Brimfield for a couple decades, and if you've ever watched an episode of American Pickers, you can see them start to sweat when they spot one.
posted by Miko at 9:33 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Weirdly, as far as I can tell, this is a residual tradition of a pre-prohibition trick that breweries and distillers did -- built their own bars, filled with their own merchandise, as a sort of huge advertisement for themselves, but generally owned by a (semi-)independent fellow. After prohibition it turned into liquor and beer companies giving bars huge amounts of swag, including building their signage for them, and I guess the soda companies (some of which were offshoots of the liquor business, or fronts for them during Prohibition) just borrowed the trick.

"Authentic" is a strange word for this phenomenon. It has a lot of nostalgia appeal, but it was gimmick upon gimmick, and I expect, given America's ambivalence about being advertised to, that when these corporate-sponsored bars, and later signs, started crowding out neighborhood bars and hand-made signs, a lot of people found them decidedly inauthentic.

What the hell, I'm a historian now. Let me see if I can find out.

Well, here's a story from Dallas Morning News from October 24, 1917, when Dallas County prohibited saloon signs as a civic beautification project; that was the result of Dallas going dry and wanting to erase any residual evidence that it once had 200 saloons, but it sure doesn't represent a community that finds such signs "authentic," except as authentic eyesores.

The Duluth News-Tribune on June 29, 1913, reports on Sioux Falls, ND, banning saloon signs for a more straightforward reason -- they hate them. "No longer will the brewers idea of art run riot and the electrician tap the till of the barman nor get an extra drink because he neglected the householder's lights and hastened down the street to be certain the beer sign was properly illuminated." The law insists the signs be hand-painted and may only bear the name of the business or proprietor plus the words "bar," "buffet," or "wines and liquors."

Going back a few years, Kalamazoo, Michigan passed a similar law, complained about by the Klamazoo Gazette on September 2, 1909. Saloon signs were then limited to the same of the proprietor, and locals take issue with the fact that brand names will no longer be displayed. The publication quotes an "old rounder": "How is a man going to tell what kind of liquid-entertainment parlor he is going into and what kind of drinkables are served on the inside, with all the signs down? Every man plays his favorite drink just as he plays his favorite nag during race week, and it is a sin and a shame to stand him up in front of a tub of suds that he can't bear to think about."

So not only is there evidence that non-rounders really didn't like this signs, but also evidence that old newspapers were hysterical.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:34 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Everything is nostalgic and valuable if it reminds you of your childhood, or possibly the childhood/adulthood you think would have had if you'd been born 50 years earlier. That's what keeps the collector market going.

Also, things that caused fear and hand-wringing when they were new because they portended the Cheapening of Our Aesthetic Taste (or whatever) aren't threatening when they are old/fading away. They instead become harmless and even charming.

All that to say these signs are pretty hideous, but I can see people liking them anyway.
posted by emjaybee at 9:03 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bunny Ultramod: Well, thank you, NYTimes, for now creating a collectors market for what was once a relatively inexpensive item, and guaranteeing that once we reach peak price on eBay, these will be stripped off every remaining storefront in America and turned into art pieces in the homes of wealthy Americans. Privilege sign indeed.

As Miko pointed out, the collectors market already exists, and "Cokeabilia" (and parallel scenes for other companies) is a huge industry unto itself. To be honest, it seems that there are plenty of old signs for all the collectors, as you can wander through just about any medium-sized old town and find such signs in one or two of the local "vintage" shops. Of course, a mint sign is worth more, but these aren't rarities. The rarities are the signs that are still installed, and by removing them, they lose that local value, becoming a more basic commodity (at least, that is how it seems to me).
posted by filthy light thief at 9:03 AM on October 17, 2013


In Costa Rica they are still how you know which shack on the side of the road is a bar.
posted by ElGuapo at 9:30 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


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