Chester Martin Remembers A Nearly Lost Art - Hand Lettering

Sunday, January 10, 2016 - by Chester Martin

Although some people would use the "O"-word (for "old") to describe me I still like to keep up to date and follow modern happenings and events. So, back in January, 2008, I got my second cup of coffee of the morning and sat down to watch Mr. Obama's First Inauguration to the Presidency of the United States.

I was listening with half an ear when Poet Laureate Elizabeth Alexander took the podium and began reading her specially prepared poem composed for the occasion, titled, "Praise Song for the Day"; when she got to verse eleven I threw my coffee all over the ceiling in surprise! The verse went like this: "Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.

Praise song for EVERY HAND-LETTERED SIGN........".

Now, those are very dear words to someone of my background, and rare words to hear in any context. Who would ever expect to hear them in a Presidential Inauguration? They struck a nostalgic note in my ear, and I immediately perked up and started paying closer attention. Later in the day I went back to research Ms. Alexander's work to refresh my memory and ponder what she meant. Whoever would be lauding so mundane a thing as a hand-lettered sign?

In my working days - 20 and more years ago - it was common to find hand lettering in many places, such as department stores and grocery stores. Grocery stores usually had a man on hand who was good at hand lettering - who knew how to letter on glass - backwards - so the sign would read correctly from outside on the street. Some of these grocery men were really good at it, as were the more sophisticated show-card writers in department stores. All offices in the tall buildings of every city had hand-lettering on the doors, and when I worked at Crisman Hardware in high school, people would order mail boxes on which they wanted their names and addresses hand lettered. (When in the U.S. Air Force I even got out of many boring  duties, such as parades, by being able to hand letter special jobs in our squadron area!)

The computer has stopped all that, of course, and I recognize and acknowledge the need for modernization. Today's signage is most often generated by a moment's typing, and a few clicks of the mouse. The end results can be amazingly good, for sure, but they lack that "flick of the brush" which only the human hand can produce.

 There still remain small "niche" needs for hand-produced lettering, however. If you had  ever  thought about it at all, you would probably never have imagined that all the lettering on coins and medals of the U.S. Mint is still done by hand. Like the groceryman who lettered his window signs backward from the inside, so the numismatic artist - the Mint Engraver - cuts each letter by hand - backward - into the plaster negative - usually 10 times larger than the actual coin size. When a plaster positive is cast, then, (including the image which is to appear on the finished coin), the rough-cut letters can be cleaned up and mended to perfection. I know an English sculptor who was commissioned to do a medal for Queen Elizabeth, 2nd's, Coronation, and he got the "z" in "Elizabeth" backward! Not even the Royal Medal Panel had noticed the error until it was too late, yet the gracious new Queen allowed at least a photo of it to be printed; whether the "z" was corrected on the actual medal is not clear.

My Vocational School background, followed by years of on-the-job practice, make me keenly aware of the difference between machine-produced  and hand-produced lettering. There should definitely be a "Praise Song for every hand-lettered sign"!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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