“Sign”: A display (such as a lettered board or a configuration of neon tubing) used to identify or advertise a place or product or viewpoint.
I love American signs and rise to praise them. I love the fact that they’re everywhere, even where they don’t belong. I love their astonishing variety, including their often pig-stomping vulgarity. I love the clamor and disorder of them. I love their incessant, usually unguided, syncretism. Most of all, I love the fact—well, at least it’s my firm conviction—that looking at our signs is looking at us.
In his famous essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Václav Havel invites us to consider the meaning of a shopkeeper in 1970s Communist-run Czechoslovakia putting up a sign in his store window saying, “Workers of the world, unite!” Havel asks: “What is he [the shopkeeper] trying to communicate to the world?” Does his sign reflect “any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses?” Havel doubts that it does. Instead, Havel concludes, the sign “contains a subliminal but very definite message” to his neighbors and his rulers:
I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore have the right to be left in peace.
In many unfree societies, signs put up by individuals serve this purpose, just as signs put up by the state serve the complementary purposes of glorifying rulers and reinforcing official ideology.
Not so much in the United States; indeed, more the opposite. American signs sing out eccentricity more than conformity, independence rather than obedience, and the right to engage all comers much more than the right to be left in peace. The subliminal message of American signs is not, “I know what I must do”; it’s rather, “Here’s what I have to say!”
America’s signs don’t aim to placate our rulers or even our garden-variety local politicians, but rather to entice and persuade and provoke and plead with each other. The main flow of the communication is not vertical, but horizontal. That’s why American signs are so insistent and also why they’re everywhere. Our signs are us, as a form of visual-speak that never closes up for the night or goes on holiday. Our national experience strongly suggests that putting up an astonishing landscape of signs—small and large, elegant and garish, addressing everything from suntan lotion to salvation—is what people do if they are free to do it.
This reality has deeply shaped how America looks and feels, for both better and worse. For starters, consider what most of the world views as our crass commercialism. When I was a child, driving down long stretches of Mississippi and Alabama highways with my parents and brother, I remember the endless parade of “Stuckey’s” billboards: Stuckey’s 100 miles! Stuckey’s 90 miles! Stuckey’s 80 miles! … and so on down the highway, almost trance-inducing, until we finally reached, well, Stuckey’s. I’ve never much cared for what Stuckey’s sold (“pecans candies gifts”) but to this day I’ll pull into a Stuckey’s any time, in memory of those signs, and just buy something else. Of course, as I look back, those yellow billboards also seem like a kind of unfolding roadside monstrosity—too big, too repetitive, maybe also too silly and wasteful.
But Americans tend to strive mightily for commercial success, so we accept and sometimes even admire brash, over-the-top salesmanship. We put up signs about everything, but by far the largest share concern buying and selling—and we make few if any apologies for it. Indeed, we seem to love the motto, reputed to be a Navy SEAL invention: “What’s worth doing is worth overdoing, and at great expense.” Many generations of foreign visitors, especially those from more settled and civilized societies, don’t see it that way. They have noted and often criticized this part of who we are, but there it is. Seventy miles!
Another identity-revealing aspect of American signage is its aesthetic. Basically, there is none. Or perhaps more accurately, there is every aesthetic in our signage. Many of our signs are modern, polished, and beautifully crafted. Yet many—I’d guess most—are not in that tradition, which for me is terrific. I adore American signs that are distressed, careworn, and nearly played out. I’m also a sucker for homemade, jerry-rigged, and inelegant signs, including those with awkward or unusual wording. One of my favorites, for example, posted on the door of a wonderful Japanese eatery, says “No Outside Foods Allowed In.”
Tom Wolfe once described Las Vegas, Nevada, as the only city in the world where buildings reflect the tastes of average citizens instead of sophisticated elites. The same is true regarding signage—but it’s true almost everywhere in America, not just in Las Vegas. As a result, American signs don’t shape us as much as they reveal and reflect us, especially at ground level and in our various aspects, warts and all. That’s why chastising our American signs for their ordinariness and crassness—looking down on them from the heaven of good taste—is a bit like chastising waiters for the food we ordered.
The same is true with respect to American signs about religion and worldview. See one you don’t agree with? Walk a little further down the street. As a child in Mississippi, in those years a state in which prohibitionist belief was as strong as bootlegging was a booming business, I grew up with signs on cars and elsewhere saying, “For the sake of my family, I’ll vote dry.” Just recently I saw a sign in front of a fast-food restaurant near Clinton, Mississippi, saying, “Bring in Last Sunday’s Church Bulletin for a 10 Percent Discount.” These signs don’t reflect my own way of making sense of the world. But I respect them, both on their own terms and as ways of understanding some of my fellow citizens.
And what about density? Is any nation on earth more densely signed that the United States? I doubt it. We paste signs on subway turnstiles. We put signs on our car bumpers and windows. We insinuate signs into airport baggage claim carousels, so we can watch them roll by along with our bags. We look up to the sky to notice airplane banners and blimps displaying signs. We put signs in our elevators and in our yards. Via teletron, they now dominate our sports stadiums. We festoon our highways with them, and often our streets and roads as well.
Myriad churches, gas stations, and one-off commercial roadside establishments have those rectangular displays—the ones with the plain black letters stuck on a white background—that change about weekly when weather permits, wanting to sell us not so much good stuff as good counsel: a verse from the Bible, a holy pun or perhaps a stern religious waring (“Christ or Chaos?”), a proverb (“Those Who Think They Can’t Are Usually Right”), or just a kind thought. It’s as though the folks who make up these signs want to talk to you personally but can’t, so the sign is their way of getting a message in edgewise as you go rolling through town.
When it pleases us, we promiscuously stack signs on top of each other and squish them together, as if any sign-free bit of space was at least in principle a wasted space. In America, it seems that anyone who owns or controls anything can put signs on it, and usually does. We like to speak out and be heard; quite often, it seems, we like to make a ruckus.
What unites us as Americans? Especially in this highly polarized era, in which our main feelings toward one another often seem to be anger and mistrust, what might we recognize as something we have in common? As modest and frail as this thought may seem—and I admit it’s both—I want to suggest that we Americans have together made millions of signs telling us that we’re a distinctive people.
The fundamental American idea is freedom. The fundamental way Americans aspire to live together, established at the founding and stated in our motto, is E pluribus unum—from many, one. But to comprehend this way of life you don’t have to read the history books or memorize the sacred civic phrases. You just have to look around. Every day you’ll see millions of us, in great variety and discord, brashly singing out to one another in our signs, as free American citizens.
All photos are from David Blankenhorn’s “American Signs” collection.
For older and much better photos of American signs, see Walker Evans, Signs (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1998).