“They were extremely fast with these big walls, but then many did nothing but walls. They had tricks the younger people hadn’t picked up.”
—Gus Holthaus, signpainter, Cincinnati
They were a rugged, resourceful lot with a dedication to the craft bordering on monomania They painted signs on walls, great and small, and they worked like dogs. So they were called wall dogs. As a group they embodied an eclectic mix of skills often associated with the draftsman, the chemist, the artist and even the acrobat.
In the first half of the 20th century wall dogs were legion. Probably the majority were employed by the major sign companies of the day—General Outdoor Advertising Co., the Thomas Cusack Co., the P.H. Morton Co., and the O. J. Gude Co. One contingent worked the brick-walled cities, while another ranged the countryside in search of virgin barns and prime walls in small towns.
The late Art Hunn was a veteran of many excursions into the American hinterland of the 1920s, when he made a living painting wall signs and bulletins. In 1983, I spoke with Art Hunn, then 82 and an administrator with the Painter’s District Council No. 2 here in St. Louis. His recollection of life as a signpainter stretched back seven decades to that day in 1916 when he signed on as an apprentice with the Thomas Cusask Co.
“Each spring as many as fifteen two-man crews would go out on the road three or four months at a time,” Art began. “We’d go into a town, and back then the Williams Company had lots of gas and oil signs leased, so we’d paint bulletins on filling station lots.” By 1924, Hunn and his partner were driving around Illinois, Missouri and Iowa in an “old broken-down Dodge,” punctuating scenic vistas with signs of the times—Bull Durham Tobacco, Pillsbury Flour, and Coca-Cola. Each crew, said Art, was expected to complete a sign a day.
And pay? It wasn’t enough, said Art. But there was always moonlighting. “A few of us,” he offered, would pick up a little extra money doing what we called snaps, just a custom job on our own time. It was usually something like painting the name of a town on a water tank.”
While their brethren roamed the countryside, the city wall dogs worked the endless canvas of their domain. Some of these earlier freewheeling painters established a reputation as a colorful lot—literally an figuratively. Active signpainters were easily distinguished by their apparel, daubed with colorful paints, leftovers from the days’ work. I’ve heard that some outdoor men, before boarding the streetcar for home, would coat their paint-splattered shoes with black paint. A man’s got to have some pride.
Then there was drink. Libation of the alcoholic sort. Maybe it was from mixing paint using turpentine and lacquers, spirits in their own right, or maybe the painters were justly parched from an honest days’ labor, but somehow the signpainter came to be regarded as a tippler. There is the stereotypic notion of the signpainter on a scaffold, a fitch in his hand and a pint in his back pocket. For every sign man who says this is hogwash, there is another who will slyly wink.
While on assignment for Signs of the Times in 1983, I tracked down a handful of wall dogs, some retired and some still at it. I visited the Foster & Kleiser Company in South Chicago, at the time the largest outdoor advertising company in the country. There I met journeyman Tom Cavanaugh, Ed Litwin and Jim Chicouris. I was allowed to watch them work, but the actual story-telling came after they clocked out, at a nearby diner.
“We are very hardworking,” allowed Chicouris,. “Once we had a time consultant follow us around and he couldn’t believe how fast and efficient we worked. We would go to the [Chicago] Loop on Sundays, four to six of us on a crew. Sundays there were no pedestrians or traffic to worry about. We’d finish a he wall in a day.”
With the typical wall job measuring about 400 square feet [20 by 20] and involving letters six to eight feet tall, the sign men had to be fast. If they weren’t they were sacked. Said Ed Litwin, then a 25-year veteran of the trade, “There was always a lot of slappin’—slapping the paint on. The sign companies wanted fast work. It was always push, push, go, go.”
The guys joked about Slappy Hooper, the signpainter’s version of Paul Bunyan. Slappy once had a wall job so big that it took a gallon of paint just to dot the “i.” And Slappy used skyhooks to hold up his scaffold so he could paint ads on clouds. But of all the living, breathing bigger-than-life signpainters I heard of, Bat Smith of Chicago was the most colorful. Bat was the epitome of a wall dog—crusty in appearance, salty in his language. Like any normal painter, Bat swore vehemently when things went wrong, as they often did. But those curses and epithets didn’t offend too many ears, because most of the time Bat worked so high that nobody heard him anyway.
Both of Bat’s legs had been broken, leaving him with a sort of waddling gait. Still, he worked the high scaffold, where for eight hours a day he was Lord of the Realm Below. However, Bat treated his subjects with disdain, for Bat chewed tobacco and, whether he was on the street or 20 stories above it, Bat spat as he pleased. One of Bat’s stunts was to slide apeman-fashion down the ropes and falls, either from the roof of a building to the scaffold below or from scaffold to street level. This was known as a “roof swing” and at one time was common practice among wall dogs.
Some companies paid higher wages for hazardous duty, working above, say, 100 feet and higher. High work could be safe or dangerous, depending on equipment or weather conditions. City streets with tall buildings can become wind tunnels and strong gusts caused scaffolds on high to pitch, sending uncovered paint all over the street below, raining on cars and pedestrians alike, and forcing the wall dog to cling for dear life. For the true wall dog, however, the higher he was, the better he liked it. “Some fellas just like to be up there with the birds,” Tom Cavanaugh put in. “That’s where they find peace of mind.”
Men such as Art Hunn and Tom Cavanaugh are members of an old school of sign painting, a school of hard knocks which awarded countless diplomas but whose alumni are increasingly harder to locate. Here in St. Louis, in the year 2012, I was able to speak to two former wall dogs, Jim Kargus and Lonnie Tettaton. Both were active signpainters from the 1950s forward, painting not just brick walls but billboards and barges,water towers and smokestacks, fences and barns; you-name-it, they painted a sign on it.
JIM KARGUS, WALLDOG
Jim “Korky” Kargus painted signs of all kinds in St. Louis for 42 years. Starting in 1949, while in high school, he began working for the family business, C. Kargus Signs. Both Jim and his older brother Bob learned the business from their father, Casper, a well-known sign artist in St. Louis. The brothers both served in the armed services, Jim in the Coast Guard and Bob in the Army, where he was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. Upon discharge, both returned to St. Louis and to Kargus Signs and became partners when their father died. The company flourished for years, but when work slowed in the early 1960s Jim went to Piros Sign Company, where his talents with large-scale pictorial painting and lettering got him assigned to the high work and he became a bona fide walldog until his retirement in 1991. Piros Sign is still in operation today. Meanwhile, brother Bob kept Kargus Signs going until the early 1990s.
The C. Kargus Sign Company began in 1883 when Jim’s grandfather, Casper, opened a shop at 1541 S. Broadway. From there the shop moved to 10th Street and Allen Avenue, in Soulard, where the Kargus family also lived. At this time, in the 1920s, Kargus Signs kept their hand in virtually any kind of outdoor work, from wall signs to gold leaf window-lettering to house painting to tuckpointing. When Casper Sr. died, the running of the business fell to two brothers: Casper Jr., Jim’s dad, and Albert Kargus. Albert went into the house painting-tuckpointing end of it, while Casper Jr. honed in on signs. In 1933, with Prohibition behind and the breweries once again turning out the suds, Kargus Signs got the lucrative Anheuser-Busch account which kept them busy for years to come. Other major accounts included Quality Dairy, Clover Farms and City Ice & Fuel.
Today, Jim Kargus, 83, lives in South County and enjoys a retirement punctuated by frequent visits from his many children and grandchildren. Like his mother, father and grandfather before him, and like many of the best pictorial signpainters of yore, Jim has always been drawn to art for art’s sake. To be sure, having studied art at Washington University helped him in the practical business of making signs, but when not doing the commercial job he brings out the canvas to render landscapes and still lifes. He walks with the help of a cane and a leg brace due to a job-related fall on a river barge, an injury that nags but did not hinder his productivity. Jim still keeps his old, wooden, paint-splattered kit handy for lettering the occasional sign or show card as the need arises, parish festivals for example. I caught up with Jim on a cool, cloudy afternoon in November, 2012. He expressed surprise that after all these years anyone would care to interview him about his career as a signpainter.
“I was in high school when I started working with dad,” Jim recalled. “We got along real well. He’d have me clean brushes and other small jobs around the shop, and sometimes he’d take me out on jobs. A lot of them [employees] couldn’t do art, the picture work. Dad saw that I had some artistic talent and one day he said, ‘How about you drawing the AB Eagle?’ After that, I worked on the Budwesier flying eagle. As time went on we did Busch and Michelob signs, too. One day I was painting a beer bottle on side of tavern and making it look like there was sweat [condensation] on it. August [Busch] the Third stopped by and watched me work. Finally, he said, ‘I see where you made a mistake—you got a runner.’ A runner is a drip that gets between the cracks of the brick and runs down where it shouldn’t be. So I fixed it then and there, and he got back in his car and drove off.”
The future wall dog became accustomed to heights at a tender age.
“Downtown, near what is now the Poplar Street Bridge, used to be what they called the French Market. This place had a lot of large buildings, ten–twelve stories, which had various businesses, but mostly sewing and manufacturing, shirts and trousers and blouses—each floor was different. And the advertisements were on the brick between each floor. Dad was there a lot. One particular time, dad forgot his lunch. I told mom I could take it to him. So I went down there, dad was way up high on a stage, painting away. I crawled up the fire escape, went over to an open window, leaned out and gave him his lunch. And he said, ‘You want to sit here with me?’ I was just a kid, I said, ‘Heck, yeah!’ So he pulled me through the window and we sat on the stage together had lunch. Then he had to go back to work so I went back through the window, down the fire escape, and back home.”
Enough work to go around, but then…
“My older brother, Bob, went in the service in 1944 and fought in the Battle of the Bulge [Dec 1944 – Jan 1945] where he was wounded pretty badly. One hand was all wired together, and there was shrapnel in his side. He was a mess when he came back. Bob couldn’t do much lettering, but he did the decal work and he did the books while I would take care of the men, order materials, keep the trucks running and so forth. Dad would design the layouts. We had two wall crews and two window crews. There was a journeyman and a helper on each truck and we would send one truck up north and one down south, or west depending on where the jobs were. It didn’t matter what truck I was on because I could do walls, windows, fences, pretty much everything. That was when the breweries were going great guns with advertising. We did the whole St. Louis area for Anheuser-Busch. Gray Sign had Griesedieck Beer and I think Simon Signs had Falstaff. At the time, my wife worked for Stag Brewery and we ended up doing some of that account—wall signs, fences, glass work, show cards, a lot of decal work. But then the work dwindled. Falstaff moved out, Stag moved to Illinois, Black Label went out East and then next thing you know there were only four of us. It got to the point where it wasn’t paying for Bob and I to be together. Dad had said to me before he died, ‘If anything happens with the shop where you can’t go on together, you give it to Bob. You’ve got four good limbs, your brother doesn’t.’ So I packed up.
“I went to Piros Sign in 1963. Lou Brand and Larry Bumb were the owners. Larry once said if you ever need a job come on out. I took him up on that offer and I worked there until I retired, in 1991. Up until then, much of their work was sign erection. I started doing the wall work—walldog, that’s what they called me—and the pictorials that went on those walls and billboards. That’s what Larry wanted me for, to paint hamburgers, cars, bottles of beer.”
Piros Signs did a brisk trade in maintaining billboards along the Interstates. There was a lot to do even before they started painting.
“We worked halfway between here and Kansas City, doing 8 by10s and 10 by 20s, the old wooden billboards, for King Motels, Zephyr Petroleum, Fina Petroleum and Falstaff beer. We painted on site. Those old trucks were pretty sturdy and we’d go off the road and into where the signs were. First we’d take an ax and weed whackers and clear the brush away just to be able to get to the sign. And poison ivy was terrible out there, we caught that all the time. We had a system going, you had to if you want to make time. The first day we’d prep two or three, scrape them, add a prime coat, get them ready. Next day, get the finishes [finishing coat of paint] up, bring your pattern work up and then start lettering, do pictures, whatever you had to do. You get done with one, you jump to the next one. If it was a large job you’d leave your stage and scaffolding there overnight so you can come back the next morning and keep working. We were usually gone two days, maybe three, staying in motels and eating in greasy spoons along the way. It was interesting you got to meet different people and see different things along the way.”
The Highway Beautification Act was enacted in 1966. This mandated that billboards will stand no closer than 660 feet from the highway. More than two football fields distant. How did this affect the business?
“Well the signs just got bigger and bigger and higher and higher. We ended up working, I’d say over 100 feet, high enough to go over the bushes and trees and the signs themselves would span, oh, 20 by 40 to 20 by 60. And you would just use fewer words because when you’re moving at 60-70 miles per hour you don’t have time to read. It’s got to be a flash in your eye and it hits your brain, and that’s it.”
Things were changing in the sign business. Lead-based paint discontinued, signs more distant, obligatory safety precautions. OSHA came along and mandated the use of harnesses.
“Many years we worked the high walls without harnesses. You always had to make sure you walked on the outside edges of the scaffolding while you were up there working otherwise it would tip. And you usually had one maybe two ropes that dropped down from the top that you’d hold on to when you were crossing back and forth from one another, and out in the center you usually had an extra rope hanging there, so that in case you lost your balance you had something to grab real quick. You always had to have a pipe or hook from the opposite side of the building that you tied to so that all your ropes had an extra safety line in case a fire wall pulled out or something. That way we’d just fall maybe a foot or two before we’d catch. You’ve got to have some means of keeping you from falling off completely. And if you did fall, well, you just had to make sure you knew how to bounce [laughs].”
Still, accidents do happen.
“The only time I got hurt working was on a barge in the Mississippi River. We were over on the Illinois side, lettering a 4 by 40-foot sign on the side of this barge, and I was going to get more paint. I was going from one level to another when suddenly another barge pulled up and bumped us. I tripped over a guideline, fell eight feet, and landed on my back. I was out for 20 days, and eventually had to have two disks removed from my back. They also fitted me for a leg brace. The first one cracked and then they fitted me for a different one that was heavier so when I stood on the rungs of the ladder it wouldn’t break. I climbed ladders and did all that work for 10 years after my injury.”
The buddy system worked well as long as you could find the right buddy.
“At Piros there was a guy named Johnny Phillip. I would not go on a job without him. He was knowledgeable, a hard worker, he would never tire. We had to pull all our rigging up by hand and when we worked high he would check everything beforehand—our ropes to make sure they weren’t cut or worn, make sure the block and tackles were intact. Johnny would check all the equipment and so would I, after him, and never once did he say, ‘Don’t you trust me?’ I was thrilled to death he checked and it got done twice, because you never know when you’re going to make a mistake.”
Piros Signs also specialized in lettering water towers and oil tanks. What was it like, being in such a lofty perch?
“Oh we’d look out on the horizon and remark on how far we could see or maybe we’d laugh about something the kids did at home, but I would say that up there your mind is never that far off. When you get up 75 feet to 100 feet or higher there’s an updraft which lifts the scaffolding, and you’re constantly looking over to make sure nothing got loose. Likewise, paint pots, we’d tie them off so as not to spill in the wind and a lot of times you’d hook smaller pots of paint on your belt, one color here and one there so you could paint with both hands. Johnny and I did the Pittsburgh Paint water tower down in Festus [a town south of St. Louis]. That structure was 230 feet top to bottom. We brought binoculars along. You get up on top of it at lunchtime, you’d see the tip of the Gateway Arch, the light blinking, had to be at least 30 miles away … every time we worked over 100 feet we got extra pay. And it was a risk, it was dangerous, but I had seven at the table.”
Certainly you got some satisfaction from doing work that would be highly visible.
“When you look at a sketch the artist drew and you look up and the finished sign looks just like that sketch, you know you did your job right. And by the same token, you knew when you made a mistake.”
Were there many you had to redo?
“There were maybe two and those were spelling mistakes. You had a name like ‘Dinning’ and maybe you got distracted and forgot that second ‘ I ‘. So you’ve got to go back up there and coat out the NG and put the I in where it belongs. When that happened you got docked for your time, the additional time it took to correct the mistake. The helpers, most of them couldn’t letter, they used to complain when they got docked [for the time it took to correct a mistake]. If it’s not their mistake I understand why, but when you send two men out it’s a team and if the journeyman makes a mistake they both are responsible. On the other hand, some of these helpers were experts at goofing off. We get a half-hour for lunch, these guys’d take an hour or they’d go across the street to the tavern and meantime you’re up there on the scaffolding waiting to get the job done. Sometimes we needed extra help and Larry, my boss, he’d call the [union] hall to round up a couple guys and the hall would pick some guy that was already on my list. And I’d say, ‘No, don’t send him. He’s no good, he’s going to goof off.’ And you could hear the reaction on the other end of the phone—’Damn that Kargus!’”
Do you feel that as a walldog you got extra respect?
“Well, yeah, they used to say, ‘Are you the guy that paints the big signs?’ Once in a while they’d give you an extra drink when you’re having lunch or something like that. They’d smile at you and kind of laugh and say that you’re nuts for climbing around out there [laughs].”
How about the other signpainters—what did they think?
“Well, they weren’t prone to flattery. As far as the climbing part of it, they’d just shake their head and say, ‘You’ll never find me up there with the birds.’ Actually the people that got the most respect were the men who did the glass work, because it was a delicate and precise exercise and the lettering had to be done backwards on glass so that it could be read properly. That was top of the trade, those men were looked up to more than wall men were.”