Getting Our Kicks
After a couple hours of driving south out of Chicago we were ready for a break, and I suggested we go into Pontiac, IL. I remembered a quaint town square surrounding the courthouse, and that the town promised a pleasant, nostalgic atmosphere. What I didn’t know was that Pontiac has a wonderful Route 66 Museum.
Steinbeck’s fabled “Mother Road” is celebrated in fine form in this exceptional, and free, museum. The main floor is taken up with a large, and quality, collection of Route 66 memorabilia. Every highway culture artifact is found, procured from gas stations, motels, restaurants, road-side stands, movie theaters, drive-ins, doughnut huts, ice cream parlors, poured concrete wigwams, faux trading posts, rest stops, and on and on and on.
All this is courtesy of the Route 66 Association of Illinois, and they have done a great job.
Wall Art and Walldogs
The Route 66 Museum is three museums in one. There is a Military Museum, a Civil War Music Museum, and a Wall Art Museum. There is a fourth Pontiac Automobile Museum about a block away. It features Pontiac cars, since it’s located in Pontiac, IL (not Pontiac, MI, mind you).
What drew my attention was the Wall Art Museum upstairs from the main Route 66 collection. The sign leading into it focused on an animal called a Walldog. Unfamiliar with the breed, we climbed the half flight of steps into two rooms dedicated to walldogs and their art.
A walldog (perhaps you knew) was a traveling sign painter. Not just shingles and small signs in a window, but building side signs. Everything from barn roofs, barn sides, store fronts, store sides and such.
Walldogs were a fraternity of sorts, traveling in small groups, spending months away from homes and families as they fulfilled their commissions. Sharing trade secrets and techniques, they developed into quite extraordinary artists in their own right.
Look at Me!
Stripped to bare essentials, a sign is a pretty straight forward thing. A few words, offering a service, product, or conveying information, would, to some extent, get the job done. Think Garage Sale sign taped to a telephone pole.
Gladly, a few words scrawled with a Sharpie really doesn’t suffice. Well, okay, it’s fine for your yard sale, but not for your highway trading post, confectionary, or roadside motel. Route 66 was lined with all varieties of traveling conveniences competing for your business and a sign was no after thought for savvy proprietors. It was of upmost importance.
I say gladly, because the need to grab attention has given us some of the coolest artifacts of the 20th century.
At least in my opinion.
I’m a nostalgic kind of guy, and I love old advertising art. I realize that even in its time it was considered a blight on the landscape. I get that, but as an artist myself, I must admit I love the aesthetic of the sign painter’s art. It was skillfully painted, and got our attention.
And it was fun.
Don’t take / a curve / at 60 per. / We hate to lose / a customer / Burma-Shave
Shaving brushes / You’ll soon see ’em / On the shelf / In some / Museum / Burma-Shave
Does your husband / Misbehave / Grunt and grumble / Rant and rave / Shoot the brute some / Burma-Shave
From 1926 to 1963 the Burma-Shave company advertised their shaving cream with whimsical poetry broken down into a series of signs. While the signs lacked illustrations, they displayed good hand-lettering. Of course these signs went far beyond Route 66, but that highway would have been lined with a large number of them.
For all its charm, the original Route 66 could be a treacherous drive. It was a two lane road, with curves a plenty, cutting through some pretty harrowing landscape. A lot of the Burma-Shave signs focused on driving safely. Of course how safely were you driving if you were reading a series of signs off to the right of the highway?
That aside, they were fun, and usually well done.
Art and Craft
I was going to get all philosophical about advertising art, and signage. After a few sentences of that, I reconsidered. Someone with a better grasp the merit or demerit of dotting (cluttering) the landscape and town squares, can tackle that. I enjoyed our visit to a fine museum, and developed an greater appreciation for those skilled artists who plied their craft in a winsome way.
All photos were taken by me at The Route 66 Association of Illinois Museum in Pontiac, IL. If you find yourself on I55 between Chicago and Bloomington, take time to see this pretty town and it’s fun museums. http://www.il66assoc.org.