It’s the early 1900s and folks newly exposed to automobiles and highway systems set out on cross-country journeys; some in search of a better life, others a wild adventure. You’re a shop owner or restaurateur hoping these folks will choose your goods above everyone else. Your advertising needs to be seen from highways and entice road-trippers to stop on their journey. What do you do? You build the most outrageous thing you can think of and you build it big. Enter the advent of Roadside Architecture.
Throughout the 20th Century, small businesses helped shape the visibility of marketing via road systems during a new era of exploration across the US. Some of these practices are utilized today. On a recent jaunt through New England, we drove by a giant triangle and Number 2 Pencil. Of course I slammed on the breaks and pulled a u-turn. Nevermind that it was across four lanes. It was early and no other cars were on the road. I hunted for an entrance to Papergraphics, a commercial printing and design company, which I found behind a storage facility. The company was closed, but we ran down a hill and got up close and personal with the metal-formed logo.
Not all roadside architecture is vintage. Located in Merrimack, NH, Papergraphics was founded in 1982, and carried on the unique tradition of structural advertising, which dotted state and federal roads for the better part of the century. My favorite part of this Roadsight was the writing on the pencil: Classic No. 2. Ah, memories. Fill in the circle completely and make your mark dark…
Continuing on our journey, we came across American Optical in Southbridge, MA. A sculpture by designer and blacksmith Michael J. Saari, entitled “Spectacular AO,” was installed in 2010 across from the AO Factory. It sits in a lovely park near a large gazebo.
American Optical began in 1833 and supplies the military and public eyewear shops with aviator glasses and contemporary designs.
Sometimes the Roadsights we visit are commemorative, many are designed to draw business, and still others are simply a statement to the weirder side of life. No matter the reason, our journey is to seek out the stories behind the structures. We strive to meet the owners and builders whenever possible, hoping to capture the relics and preserve that slice of history that began nearly a century ago and continues to influence our country’s landscape today.