A signpainter’s story: Chicago in the late 1930s

By Denice Ryan Martin

Posted on Friday, April 9th, 2021

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“Sign painting? Well, today it ain’t an occupation, it’s an occupational disease.”

—Philip Marcus, Chicago sign painter, 1939

Recently, I happened upon a slice of sign painting history that gave me pause. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the life of Philip Marcus, a union sign painter from Chicago, who managed to eke out a living right after the Great Depression.

Abe Aaron, a writer employed with the Illinois Writer’s Project, recorded Marcus’s story. The Illinois Writer’s Project was one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and operated from 1936–1940. Besides putting unemployed writers to work, the project’s aim was to preserve the folklore and histories of industrial workers. Its compilation is a touching homage to those men and women who labored long hours in deplorable working conditions for little pay—all to keep their loved ones fed and the great city breathing.

As the project writers interviewed the industrial workers, they purposefully recorded their words as spoken. They called the pieces “life sketches” and took pains not to misconstrue the real views and words of the workers.

To help put Marcus’s words into historical perspective, I talked to Dominic Pacyga, professor of history at Columbia College in Chicago. He explained that in the mid-to-late-1930s, Chicago was a city under severe stress.

“Chicago took a hard hit in the Depression,” Pacyga said. “It was a city reeling under an economic crunch. Working class neighborhoods hadn’t had a lot of investment since the 1920s. There was not much optimism.” He describes it as a time when class, social and racial tensions were high and sit-down labor strikes were frequent.

Marcus’s story reflects the mood of the time and the poverty he had endured since childhood. The personal history form that accompanied Aaron’s article revealed that Marcus had a sixth grade education and lived on the streets as a child, selling newspapers and sleeping in burlesque houses and pool rooms. Before he entered the sign trade at 19, he worked odd jobs, including two years spent as a migrant laborer in the wheat fields.

At the time of the interview, Marcus was 39 years old and married with two adopted children. He professed a love for, and a good knowledge of, Shakespeare. Marcus considered himself a good craftsman, calling himself a “made painter, not a natural.”

Marcus’s tale is a blunt and sometimes coarse illustration of the trade, infused with a workingman’s humor. Interestingly, some of his occupational gripes still resound in the trade today. In that respect, it’s a keen reminder that no matter how things change, some things stay the same.

So here you have it: One sign painter’s story as told to interviewer Abe Aaron in the spring of 1939*, illustrated with photos provided by Local 830:

Well, I’ll tell you. There aren’t very many of us—maybe seven or eight hundred altogether in the city. About seven hundred fifty in the union, I guess.

No, everybody ain’t in the union. But we got things pretty well tied up. The others snap a job on the sly once in a while, but it don’t amount to much. The good ones? Yeah, practically all of them are signed up. What the others get don’t amount to much.

I’ll tell you one thing about Chicago, though. Detroit’s tops when it comes to bulletins, and so’s Los Angeles, I guess—that’s what they tell us anyway—but for all around sign work you won’t find any town that beats Chicago. We got good men here. Sure, we have palookas too, who ain’t worth a s***, but not very many.

The scale? Fifteen smackeroos. But if we get ten, we’re lucky. Sure, the book calls for fifteen, and if anyone asks, we’re getting fifteen. See; only damn few get it. I get it sometimes. Depends on who I work for.

We lose too g**d*** much time. I figure, the year ‘round we average maybe eight hundred to a thousand bucks a year. The sign game’s just about done. Too much neon work for one thing. But that’s about reached its limit, too. What keeps us going now are these beer joints. They fold up so g**d*** fast, you wonder why anyone also starts up. The breweries pay for the sign work, so the saloonkeepers want a lot of it. They think they’re getting something for nothing. There ain’t no one harder to work for.

You’re right, there’s something for you, the way the people look at us. Now take the average, I’d say it’s with admiration. How do we react? Well, J****! We’re normal, aren’t we? We feed it to ‘em.

Like the time I was doin’ a bulletin out south on Halsted. Some guys are standin’ around watchin’ us. Ever notice how a guy’s mouth comes open sometime when he forgets himself watchin’ something? Well, they’re gapin’ like a bunch of kids when the old lady’s about through makin’ the candy, and out of them pipes up with, “Say, that’s a pretty big sign you guys are painting, aint it?”

So we get to jibber-jabberin’, an’ you know me, old Annanias himself, I say, “You guys ain’t seen nothin’. You remember that big one we did outside the New York airport for the airplane passengers to read, don’t you, Lou?” Lou was the helper on that job. He’s a pretty good man. But he’s too mechanical, his work doesn’t have any swing. [Note from interviewer: The word “swing” is not taken from the current musical craze. It refers to style and individuality in work. A sign painter can walk about the streets, look at signs, tell who did the work, what shop and what man. This applies particularly to gold leaf jobs.] So most of the time he’s a helper. He says, “You mean the one where we used a washtub of black for the eyelashes?” “Hell, no,” I said. “That was a small one. Don’t you remember that job where we used ten tons of lead just for the period?” I couldn’t keep from laughing, the way they ate it up.

The sign painters are always grousing. No work, some guys are too good and too hungry at the same time, like S____ who works for A_____. That b****** will work till maybe two o’clock and finish a job and then call up all the shops in town trying to get in an extra two hours so’s he’ll get a full day. But you can’t take anything away from him, he’s tops, and not only that, he’s fast. Me, I’m better than average, if I do say so myself, but compared to S_____ I’m just another punk trying to get along. Aren’t we all?

The Union? Sure it’s against the rules. No, he’s not supposed to do it, and if anyone reported it, he wouldn’t get away with it. Every trade has someone who’s known as tops, I guess. And every trade has someone who’s got a rep for being hungry for do-ra-me. We’ve got both in one man. And J**** is he dumb when it comes to anything else but painting signs.

He’s as dumb as the guy who was looking over my shoulder one day when I was working in R’s shops, last winter. You know how we lay out with chalk without measurin’ or anything? I guess it looks pretty good to someone who doesn’t do it himself. Well, this guy’s lookin’ over my shoulder, I’m paintin’ away, an’ pretty soon I come to the end of the sign an’ I’ve got everything worked in, good as if I’d laid every letter out with a rule before starting. That jerk looks and says, “Gee, you’re lucky.” “Yeah?” I says. I notice his mouth is open and he’s admirin’ as hell. He nods his head. “You sure was lucky,” he says, “that sign was just long enough.” It was a pretty big sign. I had to lay it on the floor to work on it. I just about busted a gut. R. says, “Some folks sure do things funny…”

But you take R., now, just as an example. He’s got him a shop, a few guys workin’ for him when he’s got the work, and for all he knows he’ll be out on his a** tomorrow or the day after. I lost my shop in 1932. That was my own fault, though. The nice thing about having a shop, though, is that you’re your own boss. That’s why I contract most of my work; I get along about as good as average. Sign painting? Well, today, it ain’t an occupation, it’s an occupational disease. That’s what I call it.

No, I don’t want to be tied up to any one shop. Because I’ve got contacts and accounts from the time I had my own shop. Snapping like this, I make more than if I only worked for someone else. Of course, a job like one with the Daily News, say, would be regular and you’d make more out of it, day in and day out. But then you do the same sign over and over again, all day, every day, and you lose your touch and can’t do anything else. Workin’ with General Outdoor has its gripe, too; first sign of slack and out you go. Me, one day I’ll be working on a bulletin, the next on a wall, then the next on a window, the next on a truck, or on showcards, or what the hell.

We don’t have any stories about guys from other towns, not that I can think of right now anyway, except maybe about the guy from Los Angeles.
You know, those fellows out on the coast get big ideas, because maybe they think they come from Hollywood or something like that; they like to plan crazy layouts and think we don’t know what the score is. We have fellows in this town that have more and better ideas than they ever heard of, at least when it comes to sign painting. Except on bulletins maybe, that’s all.

Well, this guy, he comes in from Los Angeles an’ talks himself into a job. Not with a shop; he snapped one. But he forgot to get a transfer. Maybe he wasn’t even in the union out there, I don’t know. So the business agent pulls him off the job. Then he tries to get half the guys in town to finish the job for him. It’d mean a fine for any union man who touched it. We went out to look at it. It wasn’t a bad layout, nothing extra, though; but it was the lousiest g**d*** work you ever saw. That was about the size of his big ideas. For quality, the Chicago work is good; yes, I’d say it’s a lot better than average. And I’ve been around.

To check out other stories in the Federal Writers Project collection, visit the Library of Congress’s Web site at www.loc.gov and search for American Life Histories.

*Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection

Union sign painters, Chicago, circa 1939

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Denice Ryan Martin is a freelance writer in West Allis, Wisconsin.