Century-old sign company has true grit
They’ve been through the Great Depression and the Steel Crisis: COVID-19 is next.
Photo: Warren Jones, the great-grandson of Albert Eastwood Jones Sr., founder of A.E. Jones Sign Co., holds up the popular golden numbers with black outlines that are often showcased on windows in the Northside to display a house’s address. In its 123-year history, the company has weathered economic collapses, new technologies, and changing consumer tastes. By Janine Faust
By Janine Faust
This article won an “Excellence in Written Journalism – History/Culture” award at the Press Club of Western PA 2021 Golden Quill Awards. (Updated 11/3/2021)
Warren Jones stretches across a laminator and pulls a layer of ultraviolet-resistant plastic over a dozen freshly printed tabletop displays for Happy Day Dessert Factory. It’s a gray day in late February, and the ice cream parlor in Allegheny West needs signage for its upcoming grand opening.
“I get my exercise,” he jokes, making sure the laminate is pressed down evenly. “Thank God I have Pappy’s long arms.”
Warren runs the printed images through a laminator, using a foot pedal to keep the machine moving so his hands are free to smooth the laminate. He explains some of his tricks of the trade while printing out the Happy Day Dessert Factory displays: Usually, he keeps one fingernail a little long, he says, to make peeling extra laminate off easier.
These days, Warren is the sole employee of the A.E. Jones Sign Co., founded by Warren’s great-grandfather, Albert Eastwood Jones Sr., in 1897. The company is located at 507 Tripoli St. in Historic Deutschtown, tucked away in a modest garage storefront made of brick and white paint. While it’s moved locations several times, it has operated solely in the Northside for 123 years, and always by a member of Warren’s family.
A history of resilience
A.E. Jones Sign Co. has had hundreds of customers throughout its history, but most of Warren’s current business comes from three industries in particular, popular among modern consumers.
“We have a joke in the sign industry: it’s pets, hair, pizza. Those are the big three,” he says.
Of course, not many new businesses in those industries, or any industries, really, are opening right now. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has put all non-essential business on pause, while some businesses deemed essential have had to lay off workers or outright close as consumers stay home for their health and safety.
The U.S. economy lost more than 700,000 jobs in March of this year alone, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The International Sign Association, which advocates for the sign, graphics, and visual communications industry, says it is currently working to ensure that the sign industry is recognized as providing an essential service in every state.
Warren says he’s uncertain if Pennsylvania counts his sign shop as an essential business, though he has made the decision to close anyway following the shutdown. Besides being unsure about how much business he could get, he also wants to be careful when it comes to people’s health.
“The first and main thing is the safety of everyone,” he says. “I don’t want people running in and out of [the shop] like it’s a beehive and being exposed.”
This isn’t the first time A.E. Jones Sign Co. has had to weather a major economic downturn. The company survived the Great Depression, and in the 1970s and 80s, Warren and his father, William, the son of A.E. Jones Sr., saw the family’s business through the Steel Crisis. As mills began shutting down and laying off hundreds of thousands of people, other industries dependent on steel, such as railroads and canal transportation, also suffered.
With more commercial businesses closing rather than opening at that time, the A.E. Jones Sign Co. had to lay off most of their workers. William was able to keep the shop afloat by channeling its resources into real estate signage.
“Everything was going up for sale,” Warren says. “Every realtor wanted ‘For Sale’ signs.”
Warren says he considers the circumstances of the current shutdown to be different from the Steel Crisis in one significant respect. Instead of just slowing down, everything’s come to a standstill.
“Back then it was slow, but you could go out and scratch around,” he says.
Still, Warren is confident A.E. Jones Sign Co. will be able to pick up right where it left off when the COVID-19 shutdown ends. He continues to get orders from entrepreneurs, for example, who are using their newfound free time to see what needs sprucing up.
“They’re saying, ‘Well, when you’re ready to go, this, that needs done,’” he says.
Workshop made of memories
Warren, a cordial, graying North Hills resident who likes to keep his hands occupied, has worked by himself for years now. He’s able to finish most projects in only a few hours using the modern-day machinery arranged in his spacious, cluttered workshop.
The workshop takes up most of the company’s space on Tripoli, but there’s also parking and storage areas. Warren spends most of his time here.
“Within one or two days I can be backed up [with] four or five days of work,” he says. “I’ve eliminated a website because I can’t keep up with the work I’m getting.”
Warren’s process starts at the computers near the entrance of his workshop. Customers typically send Warren their own art for their sign. Using Adobe software, he rasterizes the image, which converts it into pixels and tells the printers where to place colors. He determines how many times he wants the printer to “pass” over the image for saturation.
Some sign companies print their sign graphics directly to substrate, meaning a surface such as plastic, metal, or vinyl. Warren, though, “prints to roll,” meaning the graphics go through a special laminator meant to protect the material from ultraviolet rays before he mounts them to a substrate.
He also has a special printer for vinyl letters that he uses to make wraps for trucks or windows — including the golden house numbers with black outlines often seen glinting in transom windows in the Northside.
“When I get a minute I’ll make a couple dozen,” Warren says, peeling a golden number “2” from its vinyl substrate and holding it up against a backlight. “In the summer people come in by the hoard to buy them.”
A.E. Jones Sign Co. has been making the transom numbers since the 1970s, when it was hired to lay them in gold leaf on recently renovated row houses in Manchester. In the 1980s, its employees started hand cutting them in vinyl for general sales.
These numbers, along with banners, decals, yard signs, wraps, and almost every other type of lettered sign possible, lay heaped amongst the tools and work tables in Warren’s workshop. Family mementos and trinkets line the shelves and decorate the walls. Materials used by the shop in the early 20th century, such as booklets of gold leaf and squirrel and horse hair striper brushes, used to create elongated vertical or horizontal lines, are stored beneath the work tables.
The sign maker as artist
Tod Swormstedt, founder of the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati and an acquaintance of Warren’s, recalled how Warren once gave him a free bag of blue smaltz — coarse, colored glass that is crushed or powdered — to use in making vintage signs for the museum.
“It was like gold,” Swormstedt says in a phone interview. “That stuff is not made anymore, it’s treasured by sign painters who are into old signs.”
Being a sign maker, he says, was once equated with being a skilled artist. He described how there has always been a fine line between fine art and commercial art, and that plenty of fine artists got their start in sign painting. He cited Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol, who had learned about designing fonts and graphics while screen printing billboards.
“[If] you’re a visual person, sign painting was a great outlet,” Swormstedt says. “Either honed in school or homespun.”
At the turn of the century, signs for advertisements and businesses, Warren explains, were painted directly onto the sides of buildings. Workers hung out of windows, slid up and down walls on pulleys, and scrambled up ladders to paint 18-foot letters in specific fonts and colors. A.E. Jones Sign Co. painted for everyone in Pittsburgh, from U.S. Steel mills to small local businesses.
“We were walldogs,” Warren says. “Every building had lettering between the second and third floor and sometimes a band on top of the buildings.”
Warren is the fourth person in his family to own the shop. Its roots trace back to his great-grandfather, artist, entrepreneur, and namesake Albert Eastwood Jones Sr.
Warren and his cousin, Mark Jones — who, like most Jones family members, helped out in the sign shop as an adolescent — recalled what their relatives passed on to them about their great-grandfather.
“A.E. Jones was an artist, he had artistic abilities… he could do the work himself when he first started,” Mark says in a phone interview. “He saw the niche to paint signs obviously with all the growth happening at the turn of the century.”
When he began the A.E. Jones Sign Co. in 1897, “somewhere in the North Shore area” according to Warren, there were two parts to it — house painting and sign painting.
Warren and Mark both described their great-grandfather as a hands-on entrepreneur who remained involved in the sign painting process even as his company started employing other people.
Besides owning the sign company, Albert Sr. also operated two nickelodeons in the Northside for a time. The small, simple theaters, which charged five cents for admission, got their start in Pittsburgh in 1905 — around the same time the sign company relocated to East North Avenue following a fire — and experienced a brief boom in popularity before larger, more modern movie theaters came along in the 1910s.
Warren recalls being told that Albert Sr. was “very professional” and always wore a suit with a bowtie, even when making signs. Some of his bowties are still stored in the shop, along with sales ledgers written in ink.
“[He was] one of the first to have a car… in the family, in the area,” Warren says.
Albert Sr. died before Warren or Mark could meet him, though both knew their grandfather and the company’s second owner, Albert Ellis Jones Jr., or “Pappy Jones”— the one with the long arms — when they were young. The eldest son of Albert Sr., he took over in the 1940s and ran a tight ship, often fretting about finances and work output.
“He was the patriarch of the family; it was his way or the highway,” Warren says. “I wouldn’t want to be [in the shop] if someone was found sitting down.”
Despite his grandfather’s stern demeanor, Warren says he also placed a large emphasis on family. Most of Warren’s cousins all worked at the shop at some point.
“The shop was like the center of the family,” Warren says.
Warren and Mark also described their grandfather as a community fixture who knew the plumber and the florist by name and, like Albert Sr., would barter with fellow tradesmen for jobs.
“Whenever you had an issue in one of the trades, Pap knew the right guy,” Mark says.
Sticking to tradition in times of change
In 1930, the A.E. Jones Company had grown too big for its site on East North Avenue and moved to a larger space on 1313 Federal Street. Pittsburgh was still at the center of the U.S. steel industry at this time, and Mark described the shop’s years on Federal Street as its “peak.”
“My dad swears we had a sign on every building between the 16th Street Bridge and down where the West End Bridge is,” Warren says.“All the buildings facing the river, we had signs on all of them.”
In time, neon tubes, fluorescent tubes, and plastic signs all emerged on the market and became fairly popular, but Warren says the Jones family was determined to stick to traditional methods. Besides, they lacked the space and materials for making electric signs, and painting was what they knew.
“The sign business is like the automotive business: Some people do mufflers and breaks, some people do auto body, some people do tires,” Warren says. “We stuck with the hand lettering, the silkscreening part of it.”
While A.E. Jones Sign Co. was sticking to familiar patterns, much around them was changing. Citywide urban renewal efforts, fueled by the Housing Act of 1949, led to the destruction of many old buildings and homes across Pittsburgh. While certain Northside neighborhoods such as the Mexican War Streets were spared due to historical significance, others, like Allegheny Center, were not.
In the case of the A.E. Jones Sign Co., Warren says Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority paid Albert Sr. to move his business out of 1313 Federal Street to make way for a fire station. The shop then moved to its current location.
Just as Albert Sr. had groomed Albert Jr. to take over the sign shop, Albert Jr. expected Warren’s father, William, to take over when he retired. William began working full-time under his father after coming home from the Korean War in the late 1950s. In 1968, Albert Jr. had a heart attack and went into retirement, leaving William to take over.
About ten people worked in the garage in the 1970s, including a secretary, sign painters, installers, and house painters. A.E. Jones Sign Co. continued doing jobs for local commercial outlets while also taking on bigger projects, such as lettering for the former Three Rivers Stadium. Gas stations like Gulf Oil and Boron ranked among their biggest clients.
Warren remembered his work for the company starting as a summer job when he was 14, before transitioning to full-time under his father, William, at age 17 in 1977. He learned about different strokes from old books in the shop that traced back to his great-grandfather’s time, which his family nicknamed “morgues,” and became acquainted with the company’s signature look for lettering: a standard block font cut at a 45-degree angle.
Back in those days, the shop would often create original artwork for sign orders, whereas now, companies tend to employ graphic designers separately.
“Today I say we’re spoon fed because everyone comes in with their logo and we reproduce,” Warren says.
Business remained steady up until the late 1970s, when the Steel Crisis hit. The sudden loss of economic activity took a toll on the A.E. Jones Sign Co.
According to Swormstedt, the loss was to be expected.
“Signs as commercial products are going to rise and fall with the economy,” he says.
It was during this unexpectedly turbulent time that William needed heart surgery, after which he took a less stressful job as a caretaker. Warren, the youngest of three brothers, officially took over the sign shop in 1982. His two siblings ran the painting division.
“I was 22 and I had nothing to lose,” Warren says. “When you’re young, you’re fearless. I had a good work ethic; I put my nose to the grindstone.”
Warren says he stuck to real estate the first few years and sought out people who were recently unemployed and starting new small businesses. By 1985, he was able to buy the deed to the garage, which was in his grandfather’s name. Warren cited the strong family ties to the shop as the reason why he still wanted to run it despite the risk.
But besides being young and struggling through an economic crisis, he also had to deal with advances in technology.
The sign industry goes digital
Swormstedt explains that in the 80s, signmaking became “computerized.” New machines such as plotters, which could draw and cut out shapes in vinyl, were invented. Fonts and shapes could be saved and stored on discs, instead of hand-drawn and painted individually. This, Swormstedt says, changed the industry.
“Guys could get into the sign industry with no knowledge of fonts or how to hand letter. There were a lot of poorly done but high-tech signs made, which detracted from the more bread-and-butter type signs.”
Suddenly, the Jones’ sole adherence to traditional hand lettering and silkscreening was no longer feasible. Still, Warren was determined to keep the shop going and threw himself into learning these new methods.
“It was a whole new learning curve,” Warren says. “Like someone put your hands behind your back and said, ‘Go ahead and make a sign.’”
Since the 1980s, the process of making a sign has become more and more automated, Warren says. While he still does a bit of hand lettering for awnings, he’s more likely to be found hunched over a vinyl printer than a wooden board. The A.E. Jones Sign Co. almost exclusively deals in printing instead of painting now — which is not uncommon for sign shops today, Swormstedt says. In the past 10 years, modern signmaking has gone completely digital, from design to lamination.
As Pittsburgh began to recover from the Steel Crisis, Warren found that computers made handling orders much easier work. There was no need to hire people to help him in the shop again, save a couple of part-timers. Now, he simply does all the work by himself.
“I can do it in a real fast turnaround,” Warren says. “It’s a little less moving parts. More productive.”
He prints all sorts of signs, including wraps for vehicles, real estate sale signs, yard signs for local universities, and common road signs such as stop signs and yield signs, on coroplast — a type of corrugated plastic — and vinyl. When a new business opens, he might have a range of sign requests in one order, including ones for the front door lettering, window graphics, and storefront.
“The benefit of being here a long time is I have almost all repeat business. I don’t go out selling and trying to market, which, if you’re a young company, you have to do that—be on social media, the whole nine yards,” Warren says. “I’m trying to take care of what I have coming in. In business, that’s a good place to be.”
What comes next for A.E. Jones
Warren’s climbing days are over — he contracts with outside sources for help installing the signs if necessary — and so far, Warren’s kept the A.E. Jones Sign Co. running steadily on his own. The painting division, which his older brother Glen ran separately until last year, is “now in limbo” following Glen’s retirement.
Swormstedt says fewer mom-and-pop sign companies like A.E. Jones Co. exist these days, though appreciation for hand-lettered signs and those who know how to make them is coming back as part of the Maker Movement.
“Even department stores sell handmade sweaters from Peru,” Swormstedt says. “There is more respect and appreciation for things handmade.”
Warren says he’d like to keep the company in the family, but believes he’ll be the last Jones to ever run the shop. Most of his cousins have careers in other industries or have moved outside of Pittsburgh, and he can’t think of anyone younger who is willing to take over when he retires.
“There’s a better survival rate if I sell it to someone in the industry who knows what they’re doing,” he says.
Warren’s certain that whoever ends up running A.E. Jones Sign Co. after him will find it to be a lucrative enterprise.
“All the stuff [in] the North Shore and all the new local businesses… I sometimes feel I’m holding [the company] back ‘cause I’m limited here in what I can do,” he says. “We’re in the heart of it, and there’s so much growth here.”