Signs of the times

New exhibit highlights promotions through Lake Placid’s history

Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society Collections Manager Courtney Bastian poses before a Howard Johnson’s neon sign from the late 1950s. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

LAKE PLACID — They were created by hand, the result of hours of labor by a local craftsman and accented by unique flourishes.

At the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society, a new exhibit is on display now showcasing a business staple that’s existed for centuries: signs.

The exhibit, titled “Sign/Design,” features more than 20 signs — some that date back to the 1900s, others that are more recent, from the 2000s. The spread shows the evolution of sign making and how local business owners have changed how they advertise over the years.


Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society Collections Manager Courtney Bastian views a 1909 sign from the Hotel Albert — including a directory of hand-letters signs for local businesses — on display at the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society throughout 2020. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

In the early 1900s, hand-lettering was popular, according to collections manager Courtney Bastian. Messages were simple. One of the keystone pieces in the exhibit that exemplifies this style is a Tablelands Farm milk wagon from the 1900s. Tablelands Farm was one of the farms owned by the exclusive Lake Placid Club, a resort around which the modern village of Lake Placid was built. The wagon is painted a plain white, accented with bold, graphic black lettering.

“You’re able to tell the sign painter’s format in his artistry because everybody had a specific style, much like we have our own handwriting,” Bastian said.

“After the hand-lettering signs, we move into more of the carved signs, which are still present and popular in the Adirondacks,” she added. “It’s a very Adirondack style, because it’s an abundance of resources we have up here with the wood.”

From hand-carved and sand-blasted signs, the style evolved into a more manufactured style in the 1950s and 1960s.

“As technology increases and world events are changing, we enter the machine age, where people love the neon, love the metal and the 3-D,” Bastian said, pointing to a large neon sign that was posted outside of Lake Placid’s Howard Johnson’s for years. The sign has few words, instead featuring the image of a chef holding a hamburger with a little boy and his dog.

“That would’ve been something totally new at the time, and just flashy,” she said.

More recent examples of signs, in the 2000s, are mostly flat — and all designed on a computer.

As part of “Sign/Design,” the museum also has photos on display of Main Street throughout the years.

“Because businesses are changing so rapidly, we thought it’d be a great exhibit to showcase some of these businesses that may not still be present on Main Street, but a lot of locals still remember it, especially those during the 1980s and the ’50s, when a lot of our community members were in their youth,” Bastian said. Other businesses — like local real estate agency Merrill L. Thomas and clothing shop Ruthie’s Run — have remained on Main Street for years.

When to go

The “Sign/Design” exhibit will be on display through 2021. The museum is open Thursday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Face masks are required to enter, and the capacity will be limited to 15 people at a time. Admission costs $5 for adults, $2 for students and seniors, and free for members and children under 12 years old.

The historical society is still planning to host its biggest fundraiser of the season, the Heritage Fair, on Aug. 15 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The format will be pared down to ensure it’s safe, but it is still set to feature a silent auction, used book sale and family-fun events like a scavenger hunt. Book donations, white elephant sale donations and silent auction items are being accepted now. The historical society can be reached at info@lakeplacidhistory.com or 518-523-3830.