Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Love, Death & Groceries - A Typography Mystery

Typography and history. Mutually exclusive fields, or lovely bedfellows? In an attempt to date the mural on 1211 San Bernard, the history and the process of gathering information about the typography proved to be equally as fascinating as the mysterious painting itself.

According to the sign, the building once housed an old grocery store that I assume to have existed and operated beginning in the 1920s and 1930s when most of the houses around it were built until its closure, then present state of disrepair which would have taken decades to reach. What complicated my research on the mural was the fact that not only were there no indications of address, historical markers, online anecdotes, or a name on the building, but that no one knew anything about the former grocery store - not even homeowners living in proximity to it. All anyone knew about it was gossip, that a couple had purchased the building and lot awhile back attempting to open their own deli/grocery, but a bitter and nasty breakup derailed their plans and the building remains boarded up and vacant.

An archivist friend of mine recommended the Austin History Museum to me. Without a name or an address, the librarians were left stumped until one of them pulled out a gargantuan book of intricate hand-drawn maps of streets and buildings from the early 1900s called The Sanborn Maps that the fire department had made for them for insurance purposes. From this we were able to find the address and then pour through stacks of phone books from the early part of the century.

My assumption was correct in the dating of the business. In the 1920s, the building housed a grocery store that was nameless, categorized by address under 'General Grocery Stores' in the phone book with the name 'Giese AF.’ The first instance of the listing changing was in 1932 when the wife was the sole name mentioned and her status as ‘widow to AF’ was actually listed in the phone book. The year 1942 was the first instance of an actual name for the grocery store, then called 'AF Giese Grocery'. My educated guess therefore places the painting of the generic 'GROCERY' mural between 1920 and 1942.

(An interesting aside… peoples professions used to be listed alongside their names. Some examples from the 1942 phone book include 'janitor JC Penny', 'maid', and 'Student U of T Littlefield dorm.')

If indeed this mural was created during this time, the designer of the mural did a good job of keeping up with the times. A number of sans-serif typefaces began to appear in the late 1800s and early 1900s including Akzidenz-Grotesk, Standard and Venus, coinciding with the explosion in advertising. Other sans-serif fonts like News Gothic and Franklin Gothic were also being systematically designed for newspapers. One characteristic the typography from the sign shared with its contemporaries is a supersized x-height which increased with advertising and its desire for legibility, and became increasingly proliferate in the digital era when screens demanded more legible lowercase letters. The designer of this advertisement/signage was also astute in his establishment of hierarchy by highlighting the fact that it was a grocery store in bold and all capitol bright white letters, then advertising its product in capitol and lowercase lettering, then in a much smaller size, describing the product's attributes.

With all hand-painted signs, it is uncertain whether the designer or painter based the typography on existing fonts or whether the type was artistically rendered. The closest font family I could find to match the top font reading “GROCERIES” is the Arial family, designed by Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders for Monotype Typography in 1982. In Arial’s OpenType version 3, the following description of the typeface is included:

"Contemporary sans serif design, Arial contains more humanist characteristics than many of its predecessors and as such is more in tune with the mood of the last decades of the twentieth century. The overall treatment of curves is softer and fuller than in most industrial style sans serif faces. Terminal strokes are cut on the diagonal which helps to give the face a less mechanical appearance. Arial is an extremely versatile family of typefaces which can be used with equal success for text setting in reports, presentations, magazines etc, and for display use in newspapers, advertising and promotions."

Compare Arial Black with the actual painting:

Note how the ‘R’ and the ‘E’ are repeated, yet inconsistent within the sign – particularly the the long upper arm of the first E. This seems to indicate the intentional or unintentional liberties the artist took in creating the analog sign. The individual letters are all a bit wider and the word itself seems to tracked wider. Arial is based on Monotype Grotesque, a realist typeface by Frank Hinman Pierpont which was released by Monotype foundry in 1926, making it timeline-wise, a contemporary of the sign. Below is the Monotype Grotesque alphabet.

As for the ‘Lemon Lime Soda’ font, the best match I surmised was Phenix American, designed by Morris Fuller Benton in 1935 and later made famous by the 'Got Milk' campaign. Notice the similarity in the following letters:

Again, with the date of the font creation contemporary to the date of the building, it’s incredible to see how up with the times the designer of the painting was. While a renovation of the sign today would diminish the historical and aesthetic attraction of the sign, I had to wonder what other typeface would appear appropriate and befitting, regardless of the graphics which are oddly absent minus silhouettes of the images (maybe a bottle and a bottle cap or a lemon?). The most becoming font that I found was Cooper Black, a big, juicy typeface that conveyed casual, neighborhood stop brimming with edible, delicious treats.

While the grocery ceased to exist by 1952 according to the directory, the sign advertising its lemon lime soda drink has survived through many wars and presidents, through the death of a husband, a death of true love, and as I eventually came to learn - the death of just about everyone else. When my research at the library left me with no personal accounts of the store, I hit the streets and started knocking on doors. A man at the nearby funeral parlor told me that if anyone knew about it, it would be Mrs. MacMurray, the oldest lady in the neighborhood. I went to her house and was greeted by her daughter who told me that Mrs. MacMurray had recently died. She invited me in and she showed me piles of beautiful black and white photographs from many years back, but mysteriously, there were none of the store. I asked her if she knew of anyone else that was still alive from that era and she told me that everyone had died. While someone out there may remember a story passed down or possess a picture in an old shoebox, it is quite possible sometimes that history doesn't get passed along through stories and generations, that history sometimes just unceremoniously ends, leaving behind only unexplained ephemera. Even with an absence of anecdotes, the iconic sign still stands and at this point, it's hard to imagine any new business (whatever business that may be) wanting to take down this enigmatic sign.


bgamm said...

It is of my opinion that typography and history are, in fact, bedfellows, although typography has been having an affair with the letter Q for some time now.

robby_p said...

Your conclusion is beautiful and really moving. Sartre-cum- typography. In the context of the East Side and its current metamorphosis you've made a powerful point about what history really thinks of each of us (not much). Who gets to have a legacy? Who doesn't? Regardless, it's a cold march to the grave for us all. Typography is heavy, man, heavy.

Teddy said...

I think you said it more elegantly than I did Rob. And points for being a non design student contributor.