Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Salzman Sign Co.

Scattered around New York, a handful of old neon signs bear the maker’s mark of the Salzman Sign Co.   There is no way to know how many signs Salzman produced over the years – possibly thousands.  Today the company is gone, but not without a trace.  My research has turned up very little on Salzman, but from the work it left behind, it is clear that this was one of New York’s most important neon sign makers for much of the 20th century.

Manufacturer's plaques mark the work of the Salzman Sign Co.  (T. Rinaldi)

Nathan Salzman came to the United States from Russia just before the First World War, around the time of his 20th birthday.  He identified himself as a “sign writer” in the 1920 census.  By 1930 he had established his own shop.  He partnered briefly with Sam Langsner to form the La Salle Sign Corp. in the mid-1930s, but set off on his own again, opening the Salzman Sign Co. a few years later.  In 1940, Salzman advertised “over 25 years” in the sign business.  The company set up shop at 1001 Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn.  It remained listed in the yellow pages through the late 1970s. 

Salzman advertised as having been "in the sign business over 25 years" in this display ad placed in the Manhattan telephone directory in 1940.  (N-YHS)

Examples of the company’s work can be found in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens today.  The signs are made from durable materials – porcelain enamel and stainless steel, the sign industry’s sheet metals of choice before anodized aluminum became widely available in the 1960s.  The designer(s) of these signs demonstrated a talent for juxtaposing handsome letter styles.  Some of the signs have been dark for years.  But most will come aglow tonight, doing the work for which they were intended 50 or 60 years ago.
The oldest of Salzman’s surviving neon signs is likely that of Roebling Liquors, on Roebling St. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Records at New York’s Department of Buildings (DOB) indicate an installation date of 1945.  The sign sports inventive stainless steel details.  The store and its sign narrowly avoided being wiped off the map for the construction of the neighboring Williams Plaza houses in the early 1960s. 

Roebling Liquors on Roebling Street, just off the J-M-Z trains in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  (T.Rinaldi)

Vertical “prism” signs were very popular in New York in the 1950s and 60s, and at least three Salzman-made examples of these signs survive today.  One on Fulton Street in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn recalls a long-defunct business called Lincoln Credit (installed c.1950).   Over in Gravesend, another Salzman vertical sign (c. 1959) marks the spot of the Coney Island Bialy Bakery, still going strong at 2359 Coney Island Ave.  In Manhattan, a similar sign (c. 1953) hangs over the storefront of the Alleva Dairy on Mulberry Street in Little Italy. 
Three vertical signs by Salzman, in Brooklyn and Manhattan.  (T.Rinaldi)
Surviving fascia signs (parallel to the facade) by Salzman are more expressive.  On Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a ghost sign (c. 1950) advertises Auto-Lite “Sta-Ful” batteries.   On Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, another Salzman sign (c. 1952) heralds J. Josephs Sons Co., dealers in home furnishings and appliances.  This storefront is still very much alive and well.  The sign has lost its neon tubes, but its distinctive black and orange porcelain enamel face still looks almost as good as the day it was installed.  To the north, the fascia sign of Walter’s Hardware (c. 1955) on Broadway in Astoria, Queens, has also lost its neon tubes, but retains its stainless steel channel letters and trim.  Perhaps a good restoration lies in store.
Three fascia signs by Salzman, in Brooklyn and Queens.  (N-YHS)

One Salzman sign that has received a top quality restoration is that of Gringer’s Appliances (installed 1953), on First Avenue near Houston Street in Manhattan.  As the J. Josephs sign once did, Gringer’s sports a neon iteration (actually a pair) of General Electric’s signature logotype.  This sign was very nicely refurbished by Let There Be Neon in 2007.  
Gringer's neon sign has been a beacon of home appliance retailing for nearly sixty years.  (T.Rinaldi)

Salzman’s best known sign, and surely one of the most noteworthy installations of storefront neon ever created in New York, is the great wrap-around fascia display at Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island, installed c. 1960.    Boasting an array of fluorescent colors and appealing typefaces, this is Salzman’s tour-de-force.  Perish the thought of Surf Avenue without this sign: a finer specimen of vintage neon exists nowhere in the five boroughs today.

Nathan's Famous, on Surf Avenue in Coney Island.  (T.Rinaldi)
For all he left behind, questions remain about Mr. Salzman and his signs.  Did he design these installations himself?  Or are they the work of one or more layout men on his payroll?   Did he or his layout designers receive any formal training?  Or did they learn their craft by apprenticeship?  Like so many of New York’s great sign makers, Salzman’s lasting impact on the appearance of the city goes largely without attribution.
If you know anything about the Salzman Sign Co., please drop me a line!


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Postcards from Chinatown

With the recent disappearance of the pair of neon signs that once hung over the defunct Jade Mountain restaurant on Second Avenue, one of the great typologies of old neon – Chinese restaurant signs – is poised for complete extinction, at least within the five boroughs. 

Last of its kind: the old CHOW MEIN sign at Jade Mountain dated to 1960.  It was made by the Laster Neon Engineering Co.  (T. Rinaldi)

For whatever reason, proprietors of Chinese restaurants have had an especially intense love affair with electric signs going back even before the advent of neon.  A writer in 1922 commented on two chop suey restaurants on 42nd Street whose extravagant signs stirred impassioned cries for anti-sign ordinances.  Joseph Mitchell wrote of a “galaxy of neon signs” in Chinatown in 1940. 

Old Postcards show Chinatown alight in neon.  (T. Rinaldi)

By the 1920s, electric signs peddling CHOP SUEY and CHOW MEIN became fixtures of the urban landscape in New York and other American cities.  (These dishes each have interesting cultural histories of their own.)   Edward Hopper immortalized this phenomenon in his 1929 painting Chop Suey.  Historians often write of the “neon sign” in this painting; in fact Hopper depicts a sign lit by exposed incandescent bulbs.  At the time Hopper painted this, incandescent bulb signs were rapidly disappearing to make way for new neon signs.  An exposed bulb sign in 1929 would have represented something tired and obsolete, on the brink of extinction – perfectly in step with Hopper’s visual iconography.

Edward Hopper, Chop Suey, 1929. (Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth)

American sign painters developed distinctive letterforms for Chop Suey joints and other Chinese-themed enterprises, using Roman characters styled after different iterations of East Asian calligraphy.  This practice began in the days of simple hand-painted signs, and was adapted for electric signs by the 1920s.  In the following decade, neon proved particularly well suited for such stylized alphabets.  These letterforms also turned up in applications such as title sequence graphics and lobby cards for various Asian-themed films, from Charlie Chan serials to the 1947 film Singapore starring Ava Gardner and Fred MacMurray. (For the real low-down on this subject, see this superb essay by Paul Shaw.)

Sign design suggestions, from a booklet published c. 1923 by the Reynolds Electric Co. (Signs of the Times)

Sign painter extraordinaire Alf Becker created these alphabets styled after East Asian calligraphy.  “American Orient” (left) ran in the October, 1934 issue of Signs of the Times, and appeared in Becker’s One Hundred Alphabets, published in 1941.  “Oriental” ran in the July, 1953 issue of Signs of the Times. (Signs of the Times)

The special affinity for neon signs among proprietors of Chinese restaurants yielded some of New York’s most distinctive storefronts of the mid-century decades.  Sadly, virtually none of these survive today. Like other businesses, many Chinese restaurants turned away from neon signs after the 1960s, replacing them with back-lit acrylic panel signs and vinyl awnings.  Neon window signs remain common among these businesses, but the flamboyant and distinctive outdoor signs that were such a signature feature of these establishments before the 1960s have nearly all vanished.  Old CHOW MEIN and CHOP SUEY signs of the kind depicted by Hopper were mostly long-gone by the time 8-tracks came out. 


The Port Arthur, formerly on Mott Street in Chinatown.  (William Chu / jpgmag.com)

Until recently, an especially evocative relic sign remained in place on the façade of the old Harlem Renaissance Ballroom building, on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard at 138th Street.  The small, three-sided marquee dated to 1937.  Abandoned along with the rest of the ballroom complex for 30 years or more, it seems to have finally succumbed during the building’s partial demolition in 2010. 

An unknown sign company installed this painted sheet metal awning on the façade of Harlem’s Renaissance Ballroom in 1937.  (T. Rinaldi)
Two other signs survive in Brooklyn.  Like the Renaissance Ballroom marquee, both of these are relics, having long outlived the businesses they once advertised.  One recalls a vanished chop suey joint that once did business on Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  The other marks the spot of a defunct establishment called the Wu Han, on Pitkin Avenue in Brownsville. 

Relic signs from long vanished Chinese establishments on Nostrand Avenue (left; Royal Neon Sign Co., c. 1953) and on Pitkin Avenue (right; Cornell Neon Sign Co., c. 1950) are probably the last of their kind in New York. (T. Rinaldi)

With the disappearance of the Jade Mountain sign, these are possibly the last examples of mid-century Chinese-themed neon that remain in-situ in New York today.  Even in their forlorn state, both are museum quality treasures of commercial archeology.  But time is not on their side.  Hopefully a good home will find them before they go the way of untold hoards of signs like the one that caught Edward Hopper’s eye back in 1929, leaving only postcards from Chinatown to recall that they were ever here.


Sketch of Jade Mountain’s CHOW MEIN sign that accompanied the buildings department application for its installation in 1960. (NYC Dept. of Buildings)