Top 25 Early Sign Making Books (and booklet sets)

by Mike Jackson, Golden Era Studios

This group was configured in two groups of 10, with the remaining five as booklet groups or series. The first group of ten are not necessarily in order of rarity or quality, but my top ten favorites from which I would probably look for inspiration first. The second set of ten are also good books and might have some sort of historical or stepping stone merit. The last group consists of smaller pieces that add up to a single element of worthiness.

1. Atkinson: Art of Sign Painting. 1909, 1915, 1929, 1937, 1983, 1985, 1991. Probably the single most influential sign making book of its time. The beginning of the book worked as a textbook for learning the sign trade while the remaining section is loaded with outstanding period artwork and alphabets. Frank was responsible for most of the illustrations and alphabets but it is also interlaced with layouts designed by other outstanding designers of the time. Frank Atkinson also produced a variety of additional books on sign painting—all good— but this one stands out of the group. Later editions also included a section of billboard designs.

2. Strong: Strong’s Book of Designs. 1910, 1917, 1982.
C.J. Strong was very influential in the sign world following the turn of the century. This book has been reprinted several times, however all the early editions were spattered with wonderful color plates. Strong was also responsible for the Detroit School of Lettering at this time. Original copies of this book are usually some of the most guarded in a collector’s bookshelf. While fairly hard to find now, they seemed to be quite popular with sign makers of the day. The book has very little text, concentrating on strong graphics and alphabets.

3. Henderson: Henderson Sign Painter. 1906, 1991.
Another of the sought after period books; originals are fairly scarce. R. Henderson seemed to be the person responsible for compiling the book of plates by various noteworthy sign designers of the time. The Denver artist, John Ohnimus, stands out among the group with striking images, lettering, and layouts. Original editions were printed with numerous color plates, however the 1991 edition printed by Signs of the Times was printed only in black and white. That version also included plates from another Henderson book called “The Signtist” (1905).

4. Imelli: Alphabets and Layouts. 1922.
Al Imelli’s book, produced about the same time as the above list, was equally loaded with unique alphabets, ornaments, and layouts. Printed by Signs of the Times, it was readily available and advertised within the magazine. Even with that exposure, it is very difficult to find now. Plate by plate, it is probably not as strong as the previous three but still very noteworthy.

5. Knopf: Coast Manual of Lettering and Designs. 1907.
Fred Knopf and J. M. Mahaffey compiled a wonderful book of layouts, designs, and alphabets using some of their own material and a “who’s-who” list of outstanding sign designers of the period. This book rivals the best of Atkinson, Strong and the artists showcased in the Henderson books. This book is possibly the most rare of the top ten group and could be the best of the bunch. At this high of a level, it is still hard to pick a favorite.

6. Halsted: Modern Ornament & Design. 1927, 1985.
An original of this little jewel is very hard to find. With no alphabets, J.N. Halsted concentrated on illustrations, ornaments and graphic design. It covers a lot of ground with remnants of the Nouveau, Craftsman, and beginnings of Deco simplicity. Numerous plates have a noticeable oriental flavoring. While the book is heavily focused on ornament and design, Halsted did target it towards the sign industry with several plates containing sign panels, ribbons, and layouts. Signs of the Timesreprinted this book in 1985 but I am told those copies are now out-of-print.

7. Matthews: Sign Painting Course. 1954 (1958).
E.C. Matthews was probably one of the more prolific authors of his time with between 15-20 different titles known. Besides being an outstanding sign writer, he was also an accomplished artist and illustrator. This book is heavily illustrated with his layouts, letterstyles, and ornaments but the text which covers about half of each page is equally informative. It is hard to call this book a beginning to end course on how to paint signs, but he did fill the pages with core day-to-day information that many sign designers and painters might need to know.

8. David: David’s Practical Letterer. 1903.
This book was published by Thaddeus Davids Company but was compiled by Sidney Hackes and was illustrated by Arnold Binger. The first half of the book is fairly generic with basic instructions on brush and pen lettering. The last half is spiced up with some outstanding scrolls, panels, and nifty showcard layouts. This book probably doesn’t make some people’s Top Ten, but then again, it is fairly obscure.

9. Wagner: Blueprint Textbook of Sign & Showcard Lettering. 1926.
A sentimental favorite and quite interesting. Charles Wagner operated the Wagner School of Sign Arts in Boston and this book was used as the textbook. It was commonly used and probably had a lot to do with the “Boston” style: Many sign makers taking the course over the years. The book is probably loaded with about 70% text and the remaining 30% blueprint style plates. Of those plates, most are filled with varieties of alphabets with groupings of core alphabets and their variations. While it might not be loaded with inspirational designs, it probably merits a place in the Top Ten based on its influence on the trade.

10. Koller: Artistic Showcards-How to Design and Make Them. 1924.
E.L. Koller was the Director of Art Schools for the International Correspondence Schools and it appears it was mostly his artwork used in those textbooks. Information and illustrations were recombined in a variety of form throughout dozens of textbooks. Aside from the ICS textbooks, Koller also produced three or four stand alone books of which Artistic Showcards is one. Others in this stand alone series include: Artistic Signs and also Artistic Alphabets also printed in 1924. Presented in textbook form, this series covers a lot of ground starting with the basics right through journeyman quality pieces and examples. This book includes layouts, letterstyles, color schemes and ornamentation. Similar to the Wagner book, Koller’s influence on the sign trade was probably easily observed for many years.

11. Martin: 1000 Showcard Layouts. 1928, 1930, 1984.
An amazing book if only from the realization of the effort it took to produce it! H.C. Martin, a frequent contributor to Signs of the TimesMagazine, was commissioned to produce a book of 1000 showcard layouts specifically to be used in a book. He had a very large following of readers and fans at the time and this book filled their needs and expectations. While each layout might not be earth-shattering, they show a keen understanding of balance, dominance, and rhythm popular with the showcard craft.

12. Welo: Studio Handbook. 1927 (1935).
Samuel Welo seemed to have picked up where Martin left off. Actually this book would have been produced about the same time and they share similar styles of lettering and layout. This book features numerous hand-lettered alphabets and several pages of ornaments, dingbats, and panel layouts.

13. Herberling: Basic Lettering. 1922.
W.A. Heberling was the Instructor of Sign, Scene, and Pictorial Painting at the Mooseheart Vocational Institute in Mooseheart, IL. This book was also used as a textbook, taking beginners through the basics right up to painted pictorial billboards. In several places, this books resembles illustrations in the Imelli book, but not quite as high of quality across the board. It is probably not as common as books from some of the larger trade schools.

14. Kelly: The Expert Sign Painter. 1910 (1922).
Probably the least illustrated of all the books in this list. Ashmun Kelly wrote this book for the technical side of the sign trade audience. He explains some of the most complex elements and techniques of the trade including gilding, mirroring, frosting, and embossing. For a contemporary sign maker curious as to how things were done almost 100 years ago, this book is a must.

15. LeBlanc: Gold Leaf Techniques. 1961 (plus numerous reprints).
Raymond J. LeBlanc wrote the quintessential book on working with goldleaf of the time. With a few revisions to allow for updated materials, most of the techniques described in his first book are still being used today. This book would have been found in almost every sign kit of any gilder since that period. While there are some very interesting photographs of LeBlanc’s work in the book, the technical writing places it as a must have book and probably most read of any book in this list.

16. Sturdivant: Modern Showcard and Theatrical Lettering. 1948.
Don Sturdivant produced this book at a time when showcards were still commonplace from department stores to theaters. By that time, showcard writing was a fairly specialized part of the sign industry even though the same theories of layout and design applied across the board. This book from first glance is fairly unassuming. The alphabets are not too flashy and the layouts are solid, but not overpowering-but still solid. Mike Stevens was greatly influenced by this book; Sturdivant’s theories were echoed and refined for his book “Mastering Layout”. That book has left a permanent mark on the sign trade of today.

17. Boley: Basiks of Lettering. 1952.
Still in the showcard era, this book set a new standard for hand lettering with a brush. Bill Boley’s general script look was quickly adopted by many of the handlettering artists of the day. While there are only a half dozen different alphabets shown, each of them are broken down into the most basic brush strokes necessary to produce the entire alphabets.

18. Becker: One Hundred Alphabets. 1941.
Alf Becker produced this book for Signs of the Times Publishing Company and who advertised it in their magazines for quite a few years. There were numerous other titles touting a collection of alphabets, but this one seems to have been the most popular even though finding an original is still tough. Possibly contributing to the difficulty is the fact that Signs of the Timesshowed one of the plates per month for many years and many signpainters simply clipped the page out of the magazine each month. Still, the quality and variety of the alphabets is very good and those letterstyles can be seen in numerous signs during that time.

19. Wellington: Theory and Practice of Poster Art. 1934, 1986.
This book is heavily illustrated and photographed and could easily be on many collector’s top ten list. Duke Wellington worked in some of the finest poster and card shops of the time and many of the projects in the book have a strong movie theme. While there are several color plates, the majority of the book consists of black and white photos of his cards and numerous pages of Deco style images and layouts. As the name implies, the book is also devoted to the theory and practice of making poster art, along with nuts and bolts techniques. The book was reprinted by Signs of the Timesin 1986.

20. Bergling: Art Alphabets and Lettering. 1918.
J.M. Bergling produced four books of merit which were considered technical art books. They were produced for architects, craftsmen, engrossers, engravers, lettering specialists and commercial artists and were reprinted numerous times throughout the century. The latest known editions were printed in 1980. Other titles in the Bergling series include “Art Monograms and Lettering”, “Ornamental Designs and Illustrations” and “Heraldic Designs and Engravings”. Each book is profusely illustrated.

21. George: Speedball Lettering Books. 1923-1952.
Current editions of the “Speedball Lettering Books” are at #21. #7 was produced in 1923 and a new edition was produced about every four or five years. It is difficult to say which one of the group is the best as elements of one book migrated into newer books over the years. Still, as a group, they contain some outstanding artwork and design ideas. Due to their accessibility, many signpainters acquired the books and used them constantly.

22. ITC & ICS- Correspondence School Textbooks. 1924-1935.
During this period, the International Textbook Company and International Correspondence School produced dozens of sign-related books. Actually these were textbooks usually sharing some of the same chapters. E.L. Koller is credited with much of the text and illustrations used in the textbooks and he did produce a similar set of stand alone books with much of the same information. However, the ITC and ICS group of books are still common and must have been used often by signmakers. Besides the books dedicated specifically to signs and showcards, many were also available on the subjects of wallpaper, tile, stained glass and other crafts and were usually well illustrated.

23. Martin: Martin’s Idea Books 1-4. 1935-1937.
H.C. Martin produced his “1000 Showcard Layouts” in 1928. This group of four “Speedball” sized booklets showcased Martin’s later work with even more zest and eye appeal than the original book. #4 was produced in 1937. The entire group was reported to have been combined into one single book sometime after that. The group of four are fairly hard to find but are a real source of design inspiration.

24. Strong: Detroit School of Lettering 1-10. 1905.
C.J. Strong owned and operated the Detroit School of Lettering along with a mail order supply department. This group of ten booklets are about the same size as a normal “Speedball” lettering book, but slightly thinner. It seems that C.J. himself wrote the text and did the illustrations for the booklets. The first four booklets deal with the “Rudiments of Lettering”, the second group of two are on “Showcard Writing” and the last four on “Theory and Practice”. When viewed as a group, they do make up a very impressive “book”. A full set of ten of these booklets would be a rare find.

25. Campana: The Artist and Decorator. 1925.
D.M. Campana produced a large number of books related to the graphic arts between 1920 and 1948. Other titles include “Decorative Design 1-4″ and “The Teacher of Monograms and Lettering”. “The Artist and Decorator” is leans heavily towards the Art Nouveau period with notable influence of Alphonse Mucha. Each plate is beautifully illustrated in grayscale. His books probably weren’t mainstream sign books, but would have been welcome additions to any sign maker’s collection of the time.