"Mail Pouch Tobacco" means bright yellow letters on a barn whose red planks have weathered to dark brown against an Appalachain hillside. But Mail Pouch signs were also common sights in urban neighborhoods like Columbia Street in Utica. This sign is just down the block from The F.X. Matt Company's enormous West End Brewery, and its gigantic lettering is perhaps visible from the New York Central tracks a few hundred yards away.

In the 1870s the Bloch Brothers, whose name appears on the sign's masthead, had a small side business rolling stogies in Wheeling. At some point, they began bagging flavored stogie wrapper clippings as "scrap", or chewing tobacco, and sold them under the names of the stores who handled their product. Soon the brothers launched their own brand, "West Virginia Mail Pouch Tobacco". Although it is not specifically mentioned in the company's 75th anniversary history, for a time the product was also promoted for smoking.

In 1890, Mail Pouch took its first step to immortality when the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company started an outdoor advertising campaign. Farmers whose barns served as impromptu billboards were compensated in a variety of ways, including small cash payments, periodic repaintings, and free supplies of Mail Pouch. The inducements for city commercial property owners are less clear, but urban Mail Pouch signs often included the name of the business which occupied the building.

Mail Pouch Tobacco is still marketed. However, Highway Beautification Act restrictions and taxes on outdoor advertising displays became major obstacles to new roadside signs in the 1960s. The last Mail Pouch painter, Harley Warrick of Belmont, Ohio, retired in 1993, but continued to repaint signs and give demonstrations at folklife and craft festivals until his death in 2000. Mr. Warrick, who joined the Mail Pouch crew that painted his family's barn a few days after he returned from World War II, estimated that he had painted 20,000 "Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco" barn signs at an average of 6 hours each. Large wall signs were perhaps more challenging, but Mr. Warrick once won a steak dinner from a candystore owner by completing one in an afternoon. He began each sign with the "E" in the large-lettered word "CHEW", which is lacking on Columbia Street.

Compared with the color-filled, right-to-the-point style of later signs, the Columbia Street sign seems cluttered and nondescript. However, it is early enough that it still identifies the product as "West Virginia" Mail Pouch Tobacco and promises "Cool Sweet Smoke." It also lacks the imperative "CHEW" and "Treat Yourself To The Best" slogan, each of which became a classic Mail Pouch element. It would be interesting to examine this sign closely for a painter's monogram. On barns, painters often left initials on the sign border or under the roof overhang.

Perhaps the surest testimony to the Mail Pouch sign's power as an icon is that a number have been repainted as historic artifacts. One such restoration was the subject of a Chicago Tribune feature article this spring. Other noteworthy Internet sites include http://www.ohiobarns.com, which features a photographic catalog and documentation project for Mail Pouch signs, and http://www.thebarnjournal.org , which features reminiscences about Harley Warrick's painting career.