Signs From The Gilded Age

 

Closeup of the signature on the Sassafras Market sign, 3rd and Race | Photo: Peter Woodall

Detail of the signature on the Sassafras Market sign, 3rd and Race | Photo: Peter Woodall

“People used to have a sense of permanence. Nowadays they don’t believe that,” says Rob Barrish, owner of Baker the Sign Man at 1125 Race Street. Running strong after nearly 150 years, the sign company whose product ranges from the “old world craftsmanship” of hand-painting and gold leaf lettering to computer generated and “high impact electrical” installations has no intentions hanging a “closed” sign its own permanence. Word of mouth continues to bring in new work from designers, architects, and corporations. Says Barrish, “we don’t advertise.”

Nacine Supinsky, Sign Painter & Glass Gilder with maulstick and paint brush | Photo (Photoshopped): Courtesy of Baker The Sign Man

Nacine Supinsky, Sign Painter & Glass Gilder with maulstick and paint brush | Photo courtesy of Baker the Sign Man

Regardless of which end of Baker’s contrasting spectrum of products customers need, Barrish says, “so much is driven by economics.” The exacting technique of glass gilding is exquisite to behold. But such hand labor is costly and extremely rare. Nacine Supinsky, one of six on staff at Baker, is Barrish’s business partner and co-owner. A former painting major from University of the Arts, she is now the lone hand-painted sign maker and trained glass gilder at Baker. There was a time when as many as eleven sign painters churned out work there.

Supinsky apprenticed for many years in the venerable glass gilding trade. Although it was always seen as a craft to be passed on to succeeding generations, fewer people migrate toward it these days. To Supinsky, the skill she would impart above all others would have to be patience—the single most important thing she’s learned. And with so much to learn in gilding, Supinsky stills sees herself as an apprentice.

Glass gilding has faded away in Philadelphia’s budget conscious sign market; apparently there are more monied gold lettering clients in New York City. The national picture is somewhat different with people beginning to talk about a renaissance in sign painting. “There are young people all over [taking up the trade],” Supinsky says. Perhaps they are drawn to the sense of authorship and meticulous craftsmanship that a finished, hand-painted sign proclaims.

Wait for the late afternoon light to watch the familiar sign at Rouge flicker a golden glimmer | Photo: Bradley Maule

Wait for the late afternoon light to watch the familiar sign at Rouge flicker a golden glimmer | Photo: Bradley Maule

It used to be you could look around town and identify specific sign painters by the look or style of their work. Their lettering took on the distinctive qualities of a personal signature. “I challenge myself with each job,” Supinsky explains. “I get to know the client and give them ‘a piece of myself’ that will last forever. That flavor, that passion, doesn’t translate into computer lettering.”

When one has the need and the means, Supinsky can deliver the undeniable beauty of shiny, 23-karat gold leaf lettering. To her trained, professional eye (and even to that of a layperson, she contends), there’s no comparison between a “fake foil” or gold vinyl letter considered “good enough” and the genuine article. Supinsky proudly cites the quality of Baker’s sign affixed to Rouge, the popular restaurant opposite Rittenhouse Square. That sign is made of fine ground black glass, gold leaf, and redwood. “We were definitely thinking of permanence,” says Barrish of the sign that has since become a Philadelphia icon.

Inevitably, onlookers gather when the glass gilder performs her fascinating, intimately arcane craft in the field. At street level or up on a lift, Supinsky enjoys her enthralled audiences. She has even contemplated a book, a series of photographs of the curious people she sees through gilded glass.

Hand made roast pork sandwiches, served under the hand made sign at Dinic's in Reading Terminal | Photo: Peter Woodall

Hand made roast pork sandwiches, served under the hand made sign at Dinic’s in Reading Terminal | Photo: Peter Woodall

Impossibly thin sheets of fluttering gold leaf are deftly applied to letters outlined on the reverse of the glass facing the street as protection from the elements. The work is so consuming that glass gilders don’t focus on letters, words or sentences. Just shapes. According to Supinsky, “You could have worked on a sign for two weeks and not even remember what it said. You’re always on the edge of hell with gilding. You can spend days getting every little detail right and then it all washes off.”

A finishing swipe with a soft, damp cloth is enough to ruin the entire job if it turns out the glass wasn’t clean enough or the temperature at application wasn’t ideal. Yet backing the gold letters with delicately brushed final coats of paint and marine spar varnish yields a bright sign that may last a hundred years or more. Caution: Skip the Windex. Ammonia is a paint remover and will destroy a gilder’s masterpiece.

Supinsky says, “If you decide to do a gold job with a passionate, talented sign painter put it in their hands and trust them. They see it as ‘their’ work. The client pays for it but they put their heart and soul into it.”

* * *

Baker the Sign Man has called Philadelphia home since 1870. As technology has advanced the sign industry, so too has it advanced the evolution of this local company. And from their low profile, you wouldn’t even know you just might be looking at one of their signs, whether the hand-painted gold leaf of the late, great Brasserie Perrier, the cast bronze plaque of Osteria, or the custom, laser-cut metal sign at Holt’s Cigars. Below are some of the signs you might recognize, made here in Philadelphia, the way they have been for 144 years.

Sassafras Market, 3rd and Race | Photo: Peter Woodall

Sassafras Market, 3rd and Race | Photo: Peter Woodall

Three Vetri restaurants on North Broad Street feature three Baker signs: Vetri's hand-painted sign, Osteria's cast plaque, and seen here, Alla Spina's electric sign | Photo: Bradley Maule

Three Vetri restaurants on North Broad Street feature three Baker signs: Vetri’s hand-painted sign, Osteria’s cast plaque, and seen here, Alla Spina’s electric sign | Photo: Bradley Maule

Front door of Fork, Market Street between 3rd and 4th Street | Photo: Peter Woodall

Front door of Fork, Market Street between 3rd and 4th Street | Photo: Peter Woodall

The cast bronze plaque at the Curtis Center, 6th and Walnut | Photo: Peter Woodall

The cast bronze plaque at the Curtis Center, 6th and Walnut | Photo: Peter Woodall

Helpful tips at Reading Terminal | Photo: Peter Woodall

Helpful tips at Reading Terminal | Photo: Peter Woodall

About the author

Joseph G. Brin is an architect, photographer and writer based in Philadelphia. He has covered Philadelphia architecture, design and culture for Metropolis Magazine. His residential architecture website can be seen HERE. His photography website can be seen HERE Brin is currently shooting a film, "SHIVTEI: Enduring Spirit -- A Family of Stories" (project made possible with training and equipment from WHYY Education)



2 Comments


  1. Good article, lots of net info, thank you.

  2. Vickie M. Feldman

    I always appreciate seeing an article on *real* sign work and real sign makers, as my dad, Joseph Feldman, was one of the best-known sign men in Philadelphia. Among his most familiar signs were the Pat’s “King of Steaks” sign (including a crown with “jewels”) and the hot-dog-shaped Levis’ Hot Dogs sign.

    It’s good to know that Baker the Sign Man is still around, and that high-quality, detailed sign work is still being done in Philadelphia.

    For those who are interested, two Philadelphians, Mr. Joel Spivak and Mr. Len Davidson, restore signs (at least I think that they still do). I think that they also make new signs — Mr. Davidson does neon work.

    Thanks for running this piece. If I write for Hidden City again, perhaps I should do an article on my dad’s work!

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