John Althouse and F.A. Geiger were two talented American artisans who made the decision to move to Sydney in the late 19th Century. As this story reveals, their arrival was to have an immediate and lasting impact on the signwriting industry in and beyond the city.
A meeting of minds
Although little is known of either of their family backgrounds, Althouse, originally from Pennsylvania, had worked in various cities throughout the United States before taking up a position in Philadelphia as a grainer and a marbler (someone who uses decorative painting techniques to create the illusion of wood grain and marble respectively).
Geiger, who was apprenticed at the same Philadelphia shop, became friends with Althouse, and the pair would spend their spare time sketching and painting. Geiger, a Philadelphia native, had been tutored by his grandfather, who had decorated many American churches, and his uncle, with whom he had spent several years working on large corporate projects.
Sydney’s new era of signwriting
When Althouse and Geiger first arrived in Sydney, in 1875, they wasted no time in procuring work through painter and decorator John Alfred (J.A.) Kean, a renowned grainer. The pair were also further developing their skills through courses held by the Sydney Art Society.
Within a year, the American duo had set up their own company, Althouse & Geiger, offering their services as signwriters, painters and decorators to the trade. They were soon working alongside Sydney’s leading painters and decorators on their most important work. This included top hotels and restaurants across the city.
During their time in Sydney, Althouse and Geiger made a lasting impression on the signwriting trade. The character of their artwork and their mastery of stunning decorative techniques, such as gilding on glass, brought a newfound appreciation of good sign work. Their signs, glass tablets, silvered mirrors and other works soon spread from Sydney to the rest of Australia and New Zealand.
The banner painting specialists
By 1908, the firm were advertising in the niche of banner painting, having earned a glowing reputation as accomplished painters of trade union and commemorative banners. From the Irish National League to the Seamen’s Union, many of Sydney’s various unions and associations had paraded examples of Althouse & Geiger’s craftsmanship. In fact, at one time, two out of three of the banners displayed in Sydney’s Trade Society processions had been painted by the firm.
Althouse & Geiger would exhibit their signs and banners at the Painters and Decorators Trades Exhibition at Sydney Town Hall, winning prizes and attracting rave reviews. Much of their stunning work has since made its way to the State Library of New South Wales.
The autumn years
Althouse and Geiger’s harmonious partnership lasted for over 40 years, and when Geiger died, in 1921, his share of the business was bought by John Althouse’s son Jack. The business then expanded their scope to include exhibition displays, point-of-sale displays, manufacturing and silk screen printing. Indenture agreements from this period highlight the breadth of education that Althouse & Geiger apprentices were exposed to, covering everything from house painting and paper hanging to burial vault repairs.
When Jack’s son Fred entered the firm, he would be the last of the original families to be involved with its running. The firm finally ceased trading after a respectable 106 years.
Throughout that time, they operated out of six different buildings in Sydney, five of them in the centre of the city. When property prices boomed, they relocated their shop to a new location just outside the city, along Parramatta Road. On entering the foyer, visitors would be greeted by the sight of an award-winning five foot square glass panel, perfectly showcasing Althouse & Geiger’s exquisite pictorial work and gilding.
Althouse and Geiger – and the company that bore their names – contributed so much to the evolution of signwriting in Sydney and Australia as a whole. Their historical importance should never be forgotten.
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