By Josephine Johnson & Camille Myers Breeze
At Museum Textile Services, we do not often work on artifacts that have machinery, but a recent project has all sorts of motors and lights and grease: an unusual advertising sign that belonged to the Union Railroad Station in Portland, Maine.
The sign is a early form of moving message display.
A label on the lid of the sign identifies the manufacturer as Salescaster Inc. of Forest Hills, NY. Salescaster was one of the first sign companies to use LED programmable displays and has always been a sign pioneer.
The function of this electronic sign was to broadcast a moving, illuminated message to travelers. A loop of perforated canvas passed between a fluorescent light bulb and the front glass by means of a series of spools driven by a motor.
The sign reads, "THE 'BUSINESSMAN' – DELUXE HIGHLINER TRAIN – WEEKDAYS LV PORTLAND 3:30 AR BOSTON 5:35 PM DST – FAST – AIR – CONDITIONED – – –." The sign would have been installed at Union Station at a time when highways were turning the United States into a car culture, making rail travel almost obsolete. Passenger service ended in 1960 at the Portland station and it was demolished a year later, meaning this sign came from a pivotal moment in Portland's history.
The moving sign was brought to MTS because the message tape had ripped, but otherwise the sign is still functional. We cleaned the object and patched the tear and other weak areas in the message tape so the sign can run again. The most difficult part of this treatment was keeping track of how the tape fit into the box. With careful photo documentation, we were able to return the tape to the box so that it is now a fully functioning moving message sign!
It works! When the owner came to pick up his Salescaster sign on April 2, 2014, he turned it on for us. Although we were nervous to have this fragile antique machine running, we were also delighted by how well it still works. You can see a video of the sign running below, and hear the owner talking about the history of the Union Station sign.