Excerpt from Fading Ads of New York City (History Press, 2011)
Seely Shoulder Shapes
Incorporated from November 17, 1953 through December 15, 1959.
According to the Manhattan Ghost Signs Digital Collection , an attractively designed new website created by Queens College Graduates Otto Luna and Dana Rubin to catalogue the fading ads of the Garment District (using the extensive photo-archive of Walter Grutchfield), Seely Shoulder Shapes was originally called Seely Shoulder Pad Corp., located at 263/5 W. 40th St. from 1945 until 1956. Shoulder shapes or pads are still produced today for the fashion industry, but no longer at this address.
In a New York Times article in which I was featured and provided the front page image, David W. Dunlap stated the following about the fate of this sign: “Another vintage sign that is not destined to last much longer trumpets Seely Shoulder Shapes, a garment business from the 1950’s. Painted byArtkraft Strauss, which is still in operation, the mural is at 265 West 40th Street, on the site where The New York Times is planning its new headquarters.” After the New-York Historical show came down, I tried to sell the collection. One of my benefactors is the lovely Tama Starr, President of the Artkraft-Strauss outdoor advertising company whom I had the pleasure of spending an hour or more talking about the sign painting industry. Starr was very encouraging of the campaign and gave me a copy of her seminal book about advertising Signs & Wonders, The Spectacular Marketing of America.
In Starr’s book, she speaks primarily on the illuminated sign industry although she does touch upon the origins of advertising and the innate ability of humans to create signs and symbols. In a section she calls “From Cave Artists to Wall Dogs,” Starr addresses questions about which I’ve always speculated, like what was the first advertisement and who invented the wall ad? Starr writes:
The story of outdoor advertising traditionally begins with the first symbolic marketers, the cave dwellers during the Upper Paleolithic period, starting about 40,000 years ago. At Lascaux, France, and elsewhere, elaborate action murals depicting a variety of animals and lively hunting scenes portray the dynamic relationship between hunters and the migratory beasts who represented fundamental economic forces: food and clothing, the entire constellation of blessings that Nature could either bestow or withhold.
Anthropologists identify these Stone Age rendering – the first wall-mounted messages – as the earliest examples of both art and writing. They speculate that, like modern media, the messages were intended to influence as well as reflect the viewer’s life. Like advertisements, they depict dreams fulfilled – the animals rushing into the hunters’ traps – and urge specific, concrete action – Hunt! Be hunted! – on both parties to the economic transaction.
All known cultures use signs, in one form or another, to convey straightforward messages with immediacy. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu defines a sign as a “concrete denoter” with an inherent, specific meaning: “This is it; do something about it!” He points out the essentially human character of signs by noting that while many types of animals respond to signals – interruptions in an energy field for the purpose of communicating – only a few intelligent and highly trained animals can understand even the simplest signs.
History’s first known poster bulletin was a notice of a reward for a runaway slave posted on a wall in the Egyptian city of Thebes more than 3,000 years ago. Egyptian merchants of the same periods chiseled sales messages into tall, square stone obelisks and roadside stone tablets called stelae, and painted them in bright colors to attract the attention of passersby.
In Pompeii, billboard-like walls covered with advertisements were preserved in the lava that engulfed them when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79. Excavations there have revealed wall messages on the shady side of the marketplace too, offering enticing invitations along the lines of “For a Good Time, See Cora.” And even earlier, in ancient Greece, innovative practitioners of what may arguably be the world’s second-oldest profession (symbol-making being necessarily precedent) expanded their out-of-home client base by carving the message “ΕΠΟϒ ΜΟΙ,” “Follow Me,” in the bottoms of their leather sandals, leaving an impression in the clay pavement as well as in the imaginations of potential customers. The connection between the two ancient occupations was not limited to amateurs, however. Modern visitors to Kuşadasi in Turkey are shown magnificent Byzantine mosaics that once served as on-premises business signs for houses of pleasure.
The Romans brought the use of whitewashed walls with painted ads on them on their conquests throughout Europe. They also developed artful on-premise business signs specially designed for the illiterate, such as a friendly-looking bush denoting a tavern. Some ancient trade symbols – such as the three golden balls of the pawnshop, the giant key of the locksmith, the big shoe of the shoemaker, and the red and white stripes of the barber – have remained in use for a thousand years and more.
Tama Starr loved the image of Seely Shoulder Shapes and bought it. As I signed the photo for her she signed her book for me:
Frank Jump! It’s always a good sign to meet a new friend. Best wishes always, Tama Starr 7/14/00
I believe this image still hangs in Tama Starr’s office.