The Sot-Weed Factor

Tobacco Road once came through St. Louis and vicinity. These five sign walls, featuring four smoking brands, were signposts along the way. See also Weisert Tobacco Co. for more local tobacco lore.

Gibbons Grocery  / Mail Pouch Tobacco
St. Elmo, IL 1987

“Treat Yourself To The Best.” While barns got the most attention, the Helme Tobacco Company, makers of Mail Pouch, targeted walls in small towns as well. The advertising was so successful that to this day, someone who might not even know a tobacco chewer is still aware of Mail Pouch. Famed Mail Pouch signpainter Harley Warrick likely did this job.


Wetmore Best Tobacco
South Jefferson – South St. Louis 1979

A plug chewing tobacco made by the American Tobacco Company, this sign was found on the side of an old building. The sign and the building are long gone.


Bull Durham Tobacco
Collinsville, IL  1983

In 2003, thirty years after I took this picture, this sign had become embroiled in controversy. By then, Collinsville residents had come to appreciate and feel protective of their charming, old sign gracing the side of a building at 111 E. Main Street. To be sure, it was a key element in its commercial environment. So, when word got out that signpainter Lonnie Tettaton had been hired to  “freshen up” the fading ad, well, some preservation-minded citizens were up in arms. To repaint the bull was tantamount to desecration. Judy DeMoisy, of Downtown Collinsvile, a non-profit group that promotes preservation and revitalization, was perhaps the most vehement opponent to touching up the sign. She noted that there are only a few unaltered Bull Durham signs left in the country, and to alter this one from its original state was “like painting over the Mona Lisa.” But John Kroot, manager of the Carl I. Brown Mortgage Company, which occupies the building, was unmoved. The decision had been made.  “We just thought if it was going to be there, it should look good,” he told the local reporter.

So it was that Tettaton rolled up with his brushes and paints and scaffolding and went to work;  a week later, the job was done. The letters in Bull Durham are a brighter yellow, the grass in the background is a more verdant green, and the bull is brown again. The words “Smoking Tobacco” are easily readable along a fence railing, which conveniently covers the bull’s loins. This “modesty fence,” as it has been dubbed, appears on Bull Durham signboards dating from 1909 and later.

A signpainter once informed that the term “bullpen” originated from the fact that Bull Durham signboards were strategically placed in ball parks over the area where the pitchers worked out, thereby getting maximum attention.


Bull Durham Tobacco – Madison, IL 2014

Another large, bold Bull Durham sign on Collinsville Ave in Madison, IL just over the river from St. Louis. Though the wall is south-facing, taking on plenty of sunlight and subject to faster fading, the bull is plainly visible in the lower right corner. It is obvious that the window and door have been installed after the sign was painted. The door leads to nowhere, a possible explanation being that there had been another structure there, one which had been razed in the not too distant past. This would account for the parking lot next to the sign wall and the fact that I have been exploring the East Side for more than 30 years and never saw this beauty until this year.

Star Tobacco Leading Brand of the Worlds FairS. St. Louis 2011 Photo -  Wm. Stage

Chew Star Tobacco – Near Southside St. Louis 2011

A two-story, west-facing sign on Folsom Ave exhorts the passerby to Chew Star Tobacco, flagship product of the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company which operated for decades just a few blocks to the east. A slogan near the bottom of the sign, and partially obscured by sheet metal and other stuff in someone’s backyard, reads “Leading Brand Of The World.”

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