Cruising on Main Street and 16th Street in Downtown Merced, one will notice the old 7-Up sign and the Branding Iron Restaurant sign.
These two historic signs that once anchored the business district now appear outdated in comparison to Razzari Ford's digital sign off Highway 99. However, these gigantic billboards and electrical signs were the choice for advertising before the coming of digital age.
They began to dominate the outdoor advertising industry in the mid-20th century, replacing the painted brick-wall advertising signs.
Painted brick-wall advertising is one of the earliest outdoor advertising mediums. It became popular in the mid-19th century and exploded in the early 20th century with the arrival of the automobile.
Capturing motorists' attention in a couple of seconds was critical to turning them into consumers. These brick-wall signs served this purpose well.
Skillful sign painters combined art and craftsmanship to create attractive messages on brick-building walls to promote businesses or products. The sign painters were often called "wall dogs." Some of the well-known Merced sign painters were Clarence Zirker and Eugene "Gene" Hendricks.
What sparked my interest in this subject was my recent discovery of an old photo. It showed shapes that looked like giant numbers on the brick wall of an old building.
It was the G&O Building on the northeast corner of 16th and Canal streets. It was torn down in the early 1960s as part of an urban renewal project. I assumed the shapes on the wall were numbers. More specifically, the five shapes in the picture look like "11711." My initial research ruled out the possibility that this was a street address.
Unable to solve this number mystery, I posted the picture on our museum Facebook page and asked for assistance. Our fans were very helpful with suggestions, such as 1-17-11 or 11-17-11 to commemorate the construction date of the building or as a mail stop or as a mile marker or railroad stop.
I was interested in solving this mystery and researched these different ideas, but each time came up empty-handed.
Here is the history of the O&G Building. It was a two-story structure built by business partners Andrew Olcese and Giacomo Garibaldi. The first floor housed a general merchandise and grocery store. The second floor was used as a society or lodge hall for various groups.
Built in 1874, it was one of the earliest brick buildings erected in the new town of Merced. Merced was officially plotted out in February 1872 when the Central Pacific Railroad laid its tracks here. So there goes the commemoration of the construction date as the year of 1911.
However, I kept playing with 1911, thinking of important events nationally and locally that were worthy of public display.
If not a judgment day, a war declaration day, or a presidential election day, then what? I suddenly realized something. 1911 was an important election year for California and Merced as women were granted the right to vote in the state for the first time and Nov. 7 was a Tuesday, an election day.
Since Merced had a very strong women's suffrage movement, I was sure that the "11-7-11" on the wall was to commemorate and celebrate the victory of that movement. I realized my speculation was wrong when I found out the election date of the referendum was October 10, 1911. So the mystery continued.
One day when I was compiling photos for the 2013 Historical Society calendar, I stumbled onto a photo that finally explains the writings on the wall.
The shapes were not numbers; they were banners with writings such as "Tinware, Crockery, Farm Implements, Flour, Grain."
Because the text had faded, the banners looked like numbers. So there you go, the mysterious so-called "numbers" were an old-fashioned advertisement painted on the brick wall by the Garibaldi Brothers Co.
Today, you can still see at least one painted brick-wall sign in Merced. At 339 W. 16th Street, the "Caterpillar Tractors" painted on the east side of this brick building remains.
According to Merced's Polk Directory 1930-31, this building housed Valley Tractors and Equipment. This may indicate when the sign was painted.
Are there similar signs in Merced? You can post info on other signs on our museum's Facebook page.
For more information about the history of Merced County, please visit the Courthouse Museum. Currently on display is the "Merced College: 50 Years of Educational Excellence" exhibit.