A subtle decal can be found pasted inconspicuously onto the sheet metal faces of many old neon signs in New York. It is a small rectangle, maybe one inch across and three inches high, bearing the letters “U-M” with a tiny numeral in between. Photographing the signs at night, I didn’t notice these little guys at first. Even once they caught my eye, the U-M stickers didn’t really grab my curiosity. Finally it dawned on me that there might be something to these. I began to ask around.
This maker of this fantastic relic sign on 6th Avenue in Manhattan can be identified only as "union sign shop no. 14." (T. Rinaldi)
Remarkably, everyone I talked to in the neon business was as mystified as I was as to the meaning of these decals. Even second generation veterans of the New York sign business just shrugged their shoulders. It took months before I finally found someone who confirmed what I had begun to suspect: U-M = "Union Made" or "Union Manufactured." Not all sign shops used the stickers, but they can be found on many signs made from the late 1940s up through the 1970s. But what about the little numeric code between the letters? It took a while longer to get an answer for that one.
"Union Made" decals on old neon signs around New York. (T. Rinaldi)
Labor unions have played a prominent role in New York’s electric sign business since at least the 1930s. Just about every neon shop of any size in the city employed union labor by the postwar years. And the staff at a typical New York shop would include members of not one, not two but three unions: Local 230 of the the Sign Pictorial & Display Union, Local 137 of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association and Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Display advertisements from old Manhattan telephone directories. (N-YHS)
It turns out that the numeric codes between the U and the M correlate to various sign companies. Suddenly, these little stickers took on a huge significance - If I could figure out which number indicated which sign shop, I could identify the makers of every sign that had one of these labels! Problem is, the Rosetta Stone keying the U-M numbers to their respective shops has yet to turn up. And many of the numbers have become too faded to read even with binoculars. For now, all I can say is that the great old P&G Bar sign and the J. Braun Liquor Store sign are both the work of shop no. 17, and shop no. 11 made both the Olympia Florist sign in Hamilton Heights and the S.M. Rose Chevrolet sign on Fordham Road in the Bronx. Does anyone out there know more? Meantime, I have thrown together this handy list of signs organized by their U-M codes.