By Jerome Curley
Looking through old photographs of Salem prior to urban renewal, one cannot help but notice the number and placement of billboards throughout the city.
In those days there appeared to be few if any limits on where they were placed.
I’ve been told that at one point Salem had almost 200 billboards scattered throughout the city. This, along with the development of store signage throughout the first half of the 20th century, led to all kinds of signs, including neon signs, competing with each other on just about every commercial street.
Billboards themselves grew out of outdoor advertising that began in the mid 1800s and were often used to announce a coming circus or wild west show. As advertising took hold, ads were painted on the sides of buildings. A number of these faded signs can still be seen in Salem, as I’ve written about in the past.
The first large billboards were used at the Paris Exposition in 1889 and later at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Billboards started appearing in cities shortly thereafter. As the American culture became more car-oriented, the use of billboards with their few words became a major marketing strategy. Starting with the Burma Shave ads that used a series of signs along highways, others followed suit. This continued until the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 that forced some standards on states if they wanted to share in federal highway funds.
The Story in Salem
In Salem it appears that the explosion of billboards occurred throughout the first half of the 20th century when any building within sight lines of major roads was a possible site. There were several billboards along Canal Street, then several more on rooftops along Washington Street, as well as scattered throughout the city.
Along with the billboards, business signs started vying for attention. These signs, such as the large Camera Craft sign on Central Street or the shiny black sign for National House Furniture on Washington Street, bring back many memories of past days. While we recall memories, we also realize that the competing signs led to a chaotic look to the city, like unrestrained pop ups taking over on today’s computer pages.
An outgrowth in the shift from urban renewal to urban restoration in the early 1970s was the city coming up with new signage regulations that put limits on what could or could not be done in the city. The limits varied depending on where in the city the signs would go. In the urban renewal zones, which pretty much incorporated most of downtown, signs were reviewed by Salem Redevelopment Authority in addition to the building inspector. In the historic districts there was further review by the Salem Historical Commission. With this series of reviews the tone of advertising changed in Salem.
In 1979, the SRA published a booklet replete with examples of good and bad signage to help businesses as they thought about signs. The booklet is a fascinating record of the city, showing the changes one set of regulations can make on its character. This change, paired with restoration efforts that saw the removal of many ‘modern’ storefronts, has done much to recapture the Salem of yester years. With signs that are focused on pedestrian traffic rather than windshield views, the driving city is transformed into a walking city.
The three questions the booklet spoke of were:
- Does the sign identify the business clearly and attractively?
- Does the sign enhance the building?
- Does the sign’s position contribute to the street and neighborhood?
Over a span of very few years the billboards that adorned so many buildings disappeared, and the downtown area that looked like any big city, with its cacophony of lights and signs, quieted down. Although we may fondly remember those intense memories colored by neon lights and sounds of the downtown shopping areas during Salem’s strong commercial days, it was a chaotic time for signs.
While downtown is tightly regulated, there are other areas where we see the vestiges of less regulation. Along Canal Street there are still three billboards in a row, as well as a series of competing business signs geared for drivers. Canal Street is one of those streets developed with the automobile in mind. Large signs, set-back businesses with parking lots on the street for the ease of the driver are the norm.
This street, along with Highland Avenue where there are several billboards, give us glimpses of later development that was more car-oriented, where signage is geared for the driver. While there are regulations that focus on the entrance corridors that require Planning Board review, it still seems such streets could be more in harmony with the city.