The Art of Crafting a Sign

Advertising has changed significantly over the last century, and hand painted signage  has become something of a relic.  But when Harry Hopffgarten arrived in Boise in 1904 he found plenty of work painting window signs for businesses all over the growing city.

Trained at an early age in the art of etching and typography, Hopffgarten grew to specialize in applying gold leaf; thin sheets of gold that is pounded out to just 1/250,000ths of an inch thick and then applied, very carefully, to a treated surface.  This was, in fact,  the man who applied the gold leaf to the statue of George Washington that resides in the capitol building to this day.  His son, Bill, once stated that after his very first job at Eiler’s Piano House at the corner of 9th and Bannock, his work with gold leaf did all the advertising he needed.

Soon after the job was completed he was inundated with inquiries and requests by businesses all over downtown.  His company, Hopffgarten Advertising Sign Company, was established and he was able to move beyond window paintings to billboards and murals.

Hopffgarten was an artist as well as a craftsman, and did not limit his work to just commercial advertising.  Much of his business came from the local theaters.  He found a decent supply of work painting pastoral scenery for Boise theaters like The Strand, The Pinney, The Rialto, and The Majestic.  In addition to scenic backgrounds, Hopffgarten incorporated advertisements into his back drops; a move the theaters found popular among local merchants trying to reach as wide an audience as possible.  His work evolved with the times and Hopffgarten Advertising Sign Company learned to work with electric glass signs, neon, steel, and plastics.

For centuries there have been only three basic styles of lettering from which all fonts have originated; Gothic, or “Egyptian Stroke”, Thick and Thin, and Script or Casual.  To adhere to these strict guidelines required such skill some say “rivaled painting, sculpture, and architecture” [1]. Typography has always been a skill in which a painter could express a particular mastery and precision, but during the commercial revolution of the twentieth century, the sign painters craft transformed from a basic means of advertising goods and services and has turned towards the modern form of visual communication known as commercial art.  Today Graphic designers utilize new mediums, new styles, and an array of materials to express a number of meanings and interpretations, but they are still practicing a form of visual communication whose spatial conventions and type forms remain fundamentally the same.

For more information on the Hopffgarten industry here in Boise visit Boise State University Special Collections at the Albertson’s Library, where much of his works have been donated by his surviving family to be preserved.  There is also a large photo collection of Hopffgarten billboards available at the Idaho State Historical Society, some of which can be previewed online.

Coffee Billboard | Electric Toasters | Boise’s Best Beer | Vogan’s Chocolates

| Hopffgarten Sign Company |

Some of Hopffgarten’s artistic work remains to this day at the El Korah Shriner’s Temple in downtown Boise.  He was an active member of the Shriner community, and they have dutifully preserved his murals that he painted back in 1921.

J.H. Hopffgarten, 1921

Special thanks to Bob Finney, Recorder for the El Korah Shriners, for providing biographical information on J.H. Hopffgarten, and for giving us the chance to see his murals at the El Korah Temple.

Have a question about Boise’s history? Ask a Historian.

1. Tschichold, p. 8


Idaho Daily Statesman November 4, 1962 p. 10

Finney, Robert D. an excerpt on J.H. Hopffgarten from the Scottish Rite Courier, vol. 44 no. 8 (October 1975)

Ross, Jeanette. “Hopffgarten Scenic Studio of Boise” Northwest Theater Review vol. 2 (1994) pp. 31-35

Tettaton, Lonnie. Sign Painting and Graphics Course (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981)

Tschichold, Jan. Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering: A Source Book of the Best Letter Forms of Past and Present for Sign Painters, Graphic Artists, Commercial Artists, Typographers, Printers, Sculptors, Architects, and Schools of Art and Design (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1952)

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One Response to The Art of Crafting a Sign

  1. Angie says:

    I found some beautiful lettering out there on the webs, thought I’d share it here. :)
    The Lost Art of Hand Lettering