Click main image below to view enlargements and captions.

Advertising Art, Illustration, Diamonds, New York City Electric Street Sign, Antique Watercolor, c. 1910s


H.C. Williamson
New York: c. 1910-1918
Pen and ink and gouache on paper
Signed lower center: “HC Williamson/ New-York 15”
8.5 x 11 inches

Design for a diamond seller’s electric street sign by illustrator H.C. Williamson. The sign has a gold-colored frame flanked by classical columns. The frame is topped by a clock in the shape of a pocket watch. A merman and a mermaid flank the clock, each with one arm draped over the top and the other hand holding an outsized diamond ring below. Within a royal blue border of the frame, the word “Diamonds” is spelled out in Gothic lettering against a black background. The letters contain numerous red light bulbs that would be lit when the sign was in use. The design shows the sign attached by brackets to a brick wall on the right.


Since in the early decades of the 20th century some municipalities only permitted a sign to extend over a sidewalk if it also provided electrical illumination after dark. In the first half of the century it was common to add numerous bulbs to capture the attention of passersby day and night.

This design is from a large collection of sign illustrations drawn by Williamson discovered several years ago in Maine, done for a broad range of businesses including pharmacies, dentists and clothing stores. Williamson worked for the Federal Sign System Electric Company, located on West 43rd Street in New York City, where he designed some of New York’s first electric light signs. These typically incorporated rows of light bulbs within the lettering or outlining forms.

Federal Sign System Electric Company was formed as an offshoot of Commonwealth Edison in 1900 in Chicago, and held a patent on a clamp socket to hold the bulbs. By 1906 there were 75,000 electric signs in use in the United States.

Condition: Generally very good with usual light overall toning and wear. Recently professionally deacidified, few marginal chips restored, laid on supporting mulberry paper.


“A Brief History of the Sign Industry.” Signs of the Times. September 1976. pp. 62-66A, 95. Online at American Sign Museum: 24 June 2016.

Smith, Roberta. “Decorative Tradition, Laced With Bursts of Eccentricity.” New York Times. 19 January 2007. (24 June 2016).

Additional information


20th Century