The splendid ad for Trenton industry, as seen in daytime.
|1911: 'Trenton Makes' history|
|The first thing any one has to understand about Trenton's most famous slogan is that it originated at a time when the city really did make things.
Trenton in 1911 made the the steel rope used to hold up the world's longest suspension bridges and the anvils used to forge the nation's iron. It made pottery and rubber and wall plaster and cars and farm tools and mattresses and watches and bricks and linoleum an cigars.
It even made the world's largest bathtub and shipped it to Washington so the president, William Howard Taft, could soak his 350-pound body.
With a line of products like that, the. town fathers were proud. So proud, in fact, that in 1911, they proclaimed their knack for industry with a sign hung from the trusses of the lower Delaware River bridge. Slightly changed, it's a phrase that still rings generations later:
'Trenton Makes, the World Takes."
Longer than a football field and made of glowing neon, the sign is like a welcome mat for everyone who gets to Trenton by crossing the river - and an electric monument to civic boosterism.
The sign has survived war, depression and energy crisis. it survives the inevitable snide jokes about how Trenton is no longer making anything and the world is no longer taking from it. It survives criticism like that of writer Paul Fussell, who called the slogan "an idiomatic disaster" and used it to illustrate America's culture of hucksterism in his 1991 book, "BAD."
"Takes?" wrote Fussell. "Is buys meant? Uses? Enjoys? But not takes, surely. Cuteness has caused that."
OK, OK, the rhyme is cute, the choice of verbs is wrong, the slogan is outdated. People in Trenton still love it.
"It's catchy and it's fun and it's a part of our past," said Sally Lane, director of the Trenton Visitors Bureau. "One thing I've found is people who are more recent arrivals in the Trenton area are kind of embarrassed by it. But people who are lifelong Trentonians take it for granted. It's their sign."
The sign that made Trenton famous originated from a 1910 Chamber of Commerce contest to Sum UP the Capital City's manufacturing virtues in a phrase.
The winner was S. Roy Heath, who would go on to become a state senator of the 1920s. But his primary interest was the family business, Heath Lumber. He had a talent for rhyming and promotion, and his company slogan, “If it’s in the woods, Heath can furnish the goods,” is still used today.
Heath’s wife, Janet, remembered the day he came home with the slogan that would win the contest (and the $25 prize, which he returned).
In a taped interview with local historian Harold Perry in 1976, a few years before she died at age 95, she said: "One Saturday afternoon, he came in where I was nursing a baby and said, 'The Chamber of Commerce would like to have a slogan for the city, and what would you think of one of these?
"And he read off three slogans, and I said right away, that second one is the one you should send in."
The winning phrase was not what we know today. It was actually "The World Takes – Trenton Makes." But it was still a lot better than any of the 1,476 losing entries in that contest, among them such blander ideas as "The Best Made: Trenton Made" and "Trenton Made Means Well Made."
In 1911, the R. C. Maxwell Sign Co. installed a wooden sign reading "The World Takes, Trenton Makes" on the cast iron bridge linking downtown Trenton with Morrisville, Pa. According to city historian Charles Webster, it was much smaller than today, and each painted letter glimmered with sequins.
The lower Delaware bridge was the ideal location to get people's attention. A bridge had stood on the same location for a hundred years, and it was parallel to the Pennsylvania Railroad crossing, used by thousands of rail travelers every day.
The sign itself, however, looked kind of tacky. And someone recognized that the slogan didn't have the right ring. Why should Trenton come after the world?
Some people still like "The World Takes, Trenton Makes." That's what the call letters of radio station WTTM stand for.
But when the time came for the wooden sign to be replaced with a modern electric one, the phrases were flip flopped - and "Trenton Makes, the World Takes" was born.
In 1917, the Chamber proclaimed the new slogan with a sign made from 2,400 electric light bulbs. Each letter stood 10 feet high; the first letter of every word was even taller. After the word "takes," an arrow pointed the way to Trenton; in the middle of the slogan, an electric American flag blinked.
Upon its dedication, the Trenton Daily State Gazette called it "the largest slogan sign in the world ... emblazoning the sky and casting picturesque shadows on the water."
The bridge, complete with sign, was taken down in 1928 and replaced with the current structure and its five, arched spans. By this time, the slogan was so familiar a part of the Trenton landscape that it had to be replaced, too, and in 1935, the Chamber of Commerce bought a new one -- this time made from neon tubes and red enamel.
The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor led to nighttime blackouts, and the sign shut down for the duration of the war. It was relighted with fanfare after V J Day, in time to serve as a beacon for returning G.I.s.
Howard Louderback remembers it well. It was the week before Christmas, 1945, and he was returning to his Lawrenceville home after officer training school in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The train was so crowded he never could get a seat, the weather was bitterly cold, and all the while he was thinking: "I want to see that sign."
" 'Trenton Makes, the World Takes' - oh, I remember it distinctly, and I knew I was home," said Louderback, who went on to become a banker and a general in the National Guard reserves. "It was like coming back to an old friend."
After the war, the sign began deteriorating with age. Neon tubes would periodically conk out and instant misspellings would result. Dorothy Palmer, the mother of current Mayor Doug Palmer, remembers how she was razzed by out of town friends on one train ride because the slogan read: "Trenton Makes, the World akes."
About that time, the unpredictability of the sign inspired a take off phrase: "Trenton Flickers, the World Snickers."
In 1973, the Arab oil boycott forced Americans to line up for gas and turn down their thermostats. "Trenton Makes" went dark. Then, when the Chamber tried to turn it back on, nothing happened.
For the rest of the 70s the letters were a deteriorating shambles - their neon tubes shattered, their surface coated with grime and cobwebs. The Chamber couldn't pay the cost for rebuilding them, much less the electric bill if it was ever turned back on.
However, in 1980, a brand-new set of letters - these in a thicker, sans serif font - went up. Local businesses footed the cost.
The letters -- eight feet high, 330 feet long -- were lit up again, and remain aglow between every sundown and midnight.
Last year, the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission mission spent a year a shoring up the bridge. Workers also replaced the neon tubes in the first "S" and the third "E."
Maintaining that big a sign isn't easy. There are frequent neon burnouts, and all last week, the "E" in Trenton didn't light up.
As for the message being conveyed, well, Trenton really doesn't make much anymore. The Roebling wire plant shut down 24 years ago. The car, anvil, tool, watch, cigar factories - all are gone. A few, scattered light manufacturing plants still carry on, but for the most part, the business of Trenton is in state government, health and other service industries.
Still, unlike the dark years of the'70s, no one dreams of taking the great sign down. In fact, the "Trenton Makes" bridge is so much a part of the landscape that it's been incorporated into the team logo of minor league hockey's Trenton Titans, who begin play in October 1999.
All of which is gratifying to the daughter of that man with the motto. Dartha Heath, who was born shortly after her father, S. Roy Heath, came up with "Trenton Makes," is now 84. She still lives in the city where she was born and considers herself Trenton made and Trenton-proud.
“I would say that slogan is still very fitting for us," Dartha Heath said. "Trenton is still making athletes, aren't we?"
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|
|* Trenton became the first city in New Jersey to adopt the five-person, non-partisan commission form of government. Elected mayor under the new system was Frederick Donnelly, who stayed in office until 1932 — a record 21 years.
* Fire struck the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City and killed 146 workers, almost all of them young immigrant women earning $1 a day in sweatshop conditions. The tragedy led to dramatic reforms in fire safety laws and labor regulation.
* A struggling saloon singer named Israel Baline wrote the year’s smash hit tune, "Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’’ As Irving Berlin, he became the most successful songwriter of the 20th Century.
* Revolution rocked China and overthrew the 400-year Manchu Dynasty. Sun Yat-Sen took over as the president.
* After a daring dash across the frozen wastes of Antarctica, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first person ever to set foot on the South Pole and beat his rival, Capt. Robert Scott, to the destination. Scott, who came a few weeks later, froze to death with all his men on the return journey.
* The first Indianapolis 500 race was held. The average speed of the winner: 74 mph.
|ALSO IN 1911|
|S. Roy Heath, sloganeer extraordinaire.|
|The sign gets a big fix in the late '70s.|