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

Signal Mountain Genealogical Society Meets Nov. 6

The Signal Mountain Genealogical Society will meet at 1 p.m. on  Tuesday, Nov. 6 , at the Signal Mountain Public Library.  The speaker for the day will be Linda Mines, a well-known historian within the Chattanooga area and the official historian for Chattanooga and Hamilton County.  She is the First Vice-Regent of the Chief John Ross Chapter of the Daughters ... (click for more)

What Was That Stone Arch Halfway Up Lookout Mountain?

As a child in the early- to mid-70s the majority of our summer vacations were to Tennessee - a stop in Chattanooga then on to Gatlinburg.  We always visited the Incline, Ruby Falls and Rock City.    On the way up Lookout Mountain, I’m not sure of the road, there was a stone/cement type monument along the roadway with what looked to be a tongue sticking out ... (click for more)

WWTA Releases Timetable That Would Have Ooltewah Sewage Treatment Plant In Operation By 2025; Public Meetings Set At Central High

The Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority has released a timetable that would have a new sewage treatment in Ooltewah in operation by 2025.   A request for a site at Mahan Gap Road goes before the Planning Commission at Nov. 12 at 1 p.m. It goes to the County Commission Zoning Committee on Dec. 12 and the full commission on Dec. 19.    ... (click for more)

Downtown Post Office Finally Getting Handicap Ramp

Chattanooga's Downtown Post Office, after some lawsuits and numerous complaints over the years, is finally getting a handicap ramp. Federal Judge Sandy Mattice said the complaints had increased in recent months and the General Services Administration agreed to fund the project at the historic building on Georgia Avenue. The judge said, "It's a beautiful building, but it's ... (click for more)

Too Many Questions

First it was about 2,000, then we were told it’s up to 4,000. We have no way of knowing who’s coming or what their purpose is. NBC and CNN assure us they are seeking sanctuary but how can we know? Neither Honduras or our subjective media in America have been honest with us in the past. So, how do we know why that many people are marching across Central America?   ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Who Do You Trust?

About this time last month a 25-year-old kid with a fresh degree in “public policy” left me a phone call hoping to get my views. Joda Thongnopnua is the Democratic candidate for the State House in District 30 and he is like a load of other erstwhile politicians in my experience who I’ve never heard of but “really want to meet me” … this with less than a month before they “really” ... (click for more)