Thursday, February 7, 2008


Located in the back of Lucky Lizard Curios and Gifts, the Museum of the Weird is a humorously tacky peek into the the world of traveling sideshows. Curator Steve Busti describes it as "an homage to the dime museums of American culture," which were made popular by P.T. Barnum in the late 19th century. The Museum's "ballyhoo" takes the form of a flamboyantly painted wooden sign next to the gift shop entrance. It is just as delightfully tacky as the museum itself.

I had observed this sign on several occasions prior to beginning this project, each encounter warranting a mental nod of approval. Although I had no typographic experience on which to base my judgement, everything about the sign just seemed somehow "right." So after experiencing first hand the challenge of communicating effectively with typography, I made it my assignment to figure out exactly what makes this sign such a masterwork.

Amidst the jumble of bars, nightclubs, and pizza joints that comprise 6th Street, this sign is surprisingly eye-catching. Lucky Lizard is by no means the only business to take the low-budget alternative of hand-painted signage, but in this case the unknown artist seems to have been exceptionally well-informed. He has expertly employed a mix of historical influences to evoke a simplified version of the circus sideshow aesthetic.

A key element in this aesthetic is the prominent use of the Tuscan Egyptian typeface. A revival of the popular wooden type fonts of the 19th century, like those of William Hamilton Page, this type of lettering has become associated with circus posters and the old west. The Tuscan style has a long, often overlooked history. Early examples have been traced back to ancient Rome, but most Italian connotations belonging to this letterform have long since disappeared. In the 19th century, foundries began releasing a variety of decorated ornamental letters based on the Tuscan letterform. They were so popular, they eventually came to represent the extravagance of Victorian design. The Egyptian fonts originated in late 18th-century sign painting, and also gained immense popularity. Egyptian letterforms came more naturally to the brush, and were more suitable than most letterforms to be cut in wood or cast for shop fronts.

(country store)

Another interesting letter style is the ghostly font that animates the word "weird." This lettering uses as its inspiration the poster typography that characterizes old horror films. It is the perfect choice to give a creepy intonation to the advertisement. The majority of this type of lettering was originally hand-painted, but today there are many standardized typefaces (ex: GateKeeper AOE) that employ this stylization.


After researching the typographical history of this sign, what most intrigues me is the idea that there exist certain archetypes in typography: certain aesthetic elements that have become associated with a particular use, time period, or emotion (a typeface with slab serifs and center spurs now embodies the spirit of the wild west, amusement parks, and circuses). This sign is an excellent example of the way we have developed a subconscious familiarity with these archetypes through our visual culture. It is for this reason that someone with no typographic training would immediately recognize the historical influences of this sign, or at least appreciate their effect.

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