Polk St., Troy

Uneeda Buscuit was the first brand created by advertising.

It was promoted everywhere, primarily through billboards painted on the sides of buildings. At least eight recognizable examples survive in New York’s Capital Region alone.

Most are in rough shape. Which is not unexpected, as they’ve been exposed to the elements for 100 years or more. Yet, despite their age, through a combination of bare essentialism and bold typography, they come off as strikingly modern.

It’s an illusion.

When freshly painted, the typical Uneeda Biscuit sign featured a garish, two-tone green background, a red and white Nabisco logo and a dark drop shadow under the brand name. Only as the decorative elements washed away, leaving behind a basic sans-serif font chemically tattooed into the bricks below, did they evolve.

With their letterform quirks obscured, and with the color drained and the drop shadow gone, these ghost signs look more like modern Helvetica-based campaigns than turn-of-the-century relics, with a few of the over-painted double exposures fading to Dada-esque typographic experiments.

Sans-serif fonts are a relatively modern development (by historical standards). The first commercially available sans-serif, Caslon, didn’t appear until 1816, and it wasn’t until the later 19th century, when circus promoters started deploying big block letters on large format lithographed posters, that fonts with no serifs started to look normal … modern. Even then, the fonts were often buried in color and decoration, not allowed to tell a story on their own.

Which makes me ask the question, was weather a factor in sculpting our modern typographic sensibilities?

UPDATE
Sadly, on April 7th, 2017, the Nicholaus Block was declared unstable and demolished. According to press reports, the city engineer warned of immanent collapse after a crack opened near the tower. A tragedy, as the well-preserved Uneeda brickface was scheduled to be covered by the abutting wall of a new apartment block. Although hidden, this historic fragment would have survived, perhaps longer than any other example nationally.

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