For Seattleites, signs for the Elephant Car Wash, Pike Place Market, or Dick’s Drive-In are just as iconic as the Space Needle.
Signs can do more than tell you the name of a business. They can wedge their way into the culture, trigger nostalgia, and tell a story. Seattle’s National Sign Corporation has been designing and fabricating some of the city’s most iconic signs for more than 100 years.
“We started in 1915 and at that time it was called Acme Sign Company,” said National Sign President Tim Zamberlin. “In the late ’20s, when neon came along, we changed the name to Neon Acme. Then we got the name National Sign in the early ’60s when my father and uncle went and started their own company. They left their dad and they competed against him and were located over in Ballard.”
Zamberlin’s grandfather started the company. An immigrant from Croatia, he came to America via Ellis Island and eventually made his way to the West Coast where he started out hand-painted signs, including many in Pike Place Market.
“We’ve done almost all of the signs along the piers on the waterfront,” Zamberlin said. “So Anthony’s, The Crab Pot, Miner’s Landing. We also did a lot of work in Chinatown, so all the neon signs in Chinatown. Most of them are all gone but if you went there in the ’30s and ’40s it was lit up at night. We’ve done 13 Coins. We did the Dick’s Drive-In, which is still here, and of course, we did the Sunset Bowl and Leilani Lanes.”
National Sign Corporation
They don’t just make the signs. Zamberlin says they’re primarily a design and marketing firm, often coming up with logos for companies and bringing them to life in 3D. But to actually make the signs takes many years of practice.
“We do have apprentice programs in electrical work, we do apprenticeships in fabrication,” Zamberlin said. “Also, with the neon, there is definitely an apprentice program for that. You cannot become a good neon glass blower unless you’ve started out the first year or two just learning the trade. There are less people who put the time and energy into being craftsman. To get people to stay for a long time is becoming harder and harder. Most younger people, their horizons are sometimes two to three years. To be a craftsman in this industry you really need to be in it ten to 20 years.”
Zamberlin says one of most lit up parts of town, with the coolest signs, was in what is now called the International District in the 1930s and 1940s. But city regulations changed that.
“Now if you look at the codes, you can put up a very small sign,” Zomberlin said. “A lot of the time, not even illuminated. If you go back to the ’30s and ’40s, because they had so many great entrepreneurs come in, trying to be part of the American dream, they created some really vibrant and unique places. People would go there. It was a very exciting part of the city.”
“Sometimes … people don’t understand what gets people to want to go out of their communities to other places and have a night of entertainment or go shopping,” he said. “They don’t have enough experience to know what to do, yet they’re setting the rules for the businesses. And that becomes problematic because, for instance, if you’re a restaurant and you can’t put a sign up at night that lights, how many people do you think are going to come to your business at night?”
As businesses close and old buildings come down, and new ones go up, a lot of these illuminated, iconic pieces of art history are taken down and never seen again. But I suppose you can think of it as a retirement for these signs, after decades of working around the clock.
“Twenty-four-seven advertising! That’s the thing about signs that is different from anything else,” Zamberlin said. “Even on Christmas, that sign is working!