"WHY?" signs

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I've noticed that in many photos of San Francisco taken around 1906 large signs appear painted on buildings and fences reading simply "WHY?". Obviously these are from some sort of advertising campaign -- but for what? Any leads gratefully appreciated.

John Martini

-- John Martini (John_Martini@nps.gov), May 31, 1998


Would they possibly be related to the earthquake?

-- Ron Filion (rfilion@geocities.com), May 31, 1998.

Don't think the "WHY?" signs are related to the earthquake, since many signs are visible in photographs taken during the Fire! These were billboard-size signs, very professionally painted in stark white letters on a black background. Whoever ran the campaign had some bucks!


-- John Martini (John_Martini@nps.gov), June 03, 1998.

I was just informed by another researcher what the "WHY?" signs meant. They were an old advertising campaign by MJB Coffee. Kind of a turn-of-the-century equivalent of Apple's "Think Different."

Now if I could just figure out what the "WHY?" meant...


-- John Martini (John_Martini@nps.gov), June 07, 1998.

John: Morris J. Brandstein's daughter wrote a memoir about her father & his coffee company. It was informally published. I read a copy of it at the SF Richmond Branch Library years ago. I think she may have mentioned the "WHY?" campaign. I always assumed it meant "Why drink MJB?" or "Why drink antything else?".

- Joe Thompson

-- Joe Thompson (anonymous@anonymous.com), June 08, 1998.

It was indeed an advertising campaign for MJB Coffee, of the type that today are called "teaser campaigns." There's one currently appearing around San Francisco for a tequila brand (Herradura?) that uses the pale green from the bottle label and over a period of weeks or months adds pieces of information (including reference to "our teaser campaign") to create consumer interest in the brand (it obviously is only half successful, because I can't remember the brand name). A similar campaign currently running is the Exploratorium's, for their "Memory" show.

In the case of the MJB campaign, I've seen examples of the first part of it in old photos. It's something innocuous like "MJB makes the best coffee," which begs the question "Why?" Later on, probably after a print or maybe a broadcast campaign that enumerated all the reasons MJB made the best coffee, the outdoor campaign switched to the simple message "Why?" and people would relate that one word to MJB and the idea of "best coffee." The "Why?" may have been the last part of what must have been a successful campaign, since that's what we're left with after all these years. It's still causing double-takes; there's a famous photo of Allen Ginsberg in the 1950s, pointing prophetically at one of these MJB "Why?"s.

Roberto Landazuri San Francisco History Center San Francisco Public Library

-- Roberto Landazuri (rlandazuri@sfpl.lib.ca.us), July 05, 1998.

not necessaryily an answer but question to..isn't there a why? sign underneath thr furnitrue covered building on 6th and folsom or howard? Is this the same why sign as mentioned in this question answer or is it in reference only to that installation..which is what exactly by the way?

-- eunice lin (eunicelin@yahoo.com), November 16, 1998.

It was a common practice around the turn of the century --especially in the outer areas of the city--- to use the individual slats of picket fences as an early sort of billboard. You can see it in many old photos.

-- Chris Dichtel (cyberiad@earthlink.net), February 01, 1999.

There's a Why? sign on the North side of Clay just West of Stockton. Visible across the school yard.

-- christ verdant (verdant@hooked.net), December 22, 1999.

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