Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Post No Bills

Everyone in New York sees them every day.

As long as the city’s real estate boom goes on, new construction sites are popping in every neighborhood, surrounded by rough plywood fences painted blue or dark green. On these walls, every dozen feet or so, there is the inevitable sign: POST NO BILLS. In my own neighborhood, the Lower East Side, hundreds of these stenciled messages appeared seemingly overnight, as construction of the mega-project on Essex Street picked up steam. Finally, I paid attention.

Curiously, this everyday insignia is perhaps the last piece of history remaining on redeveloped city sites. The language itself says it all: to most people today, “bills” mean electrical or phone bills, not advertisements. “Posting” means writing something on one’s blog, not affixing anything on the wall. Where does this expression come from? I spent some time on the Internet, but failed to determine the origin of the sign. One thing is clear: it is old. There was a short silent film, made in 1896, called Post No Bills, where two street urchins squabble over pasting their bills over a wall, only to be chased by a policeman – a quite contemporary situation.

What interests me most, however, is the “design” of the stencil. There are variations, but they mostly follow the same arrangement: three words stacked up in a roughly square format. There must be someone, generations ago, who came up with this layout, which continues today all around the Unites States with little or no change. The stencils for making these signs are offered for sale by several manufacturers online (at a steep $40-$50 apiece). Surely, no royalties are paid to anyone. One unknown designer, like Milton Glazer of a bygone era, remains responsible for an icon that handily outlived his own time.

Everything that has been designed, could be re-designed. I keep wondering when some stencil-making company commissions Stefan Sagmeister – or even Pentagram – to come up with an alternative POST NO BILLS look, the one they’d consider more fitting for upscale neighborhoods of Chelsea or Upper East Side.