For most Trentonians, it is impossible to go a day without seeing the iconic Lower-Trenton Bridge spanning across the Delaware River and its glowing sign emphasizing the slogan, “Trenton Makes – The World Takes”. The sign, which has seen four renditions and multiple restorations, has become a recognizable landmark to thousands who cross the bridge on a daily basis.
The slogan, “Trenton Makes – The World Takes”, was not initially meant for the bridge. In 1910, The Trenton Chamber of Commerce conducted a slogan contest for the city’s residents in hopes of devising a phrase that would spread the fame of the capital’s industrial achievements. The contest, whose winner would receive $25, received 1,478 entries according to the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission.
A local lumberyard owner at the time, a S. Roy Heath, fabricated the winning slogan, which originally was backwards to how it is seen today reading, “The World Takes – Trenton Makes”. Heath, who happened to be a chamber member at the time, declined to accept his deserved prize money.
Before making its way to the bridge, the winning slogan was used for a numerous amount of advertisements. The Chamber of Commerce used the phrase for everything including print advertisements, roadway signs, stationery, buttons and shipping crates.
It was not until 1916, six years after the slogan’s creation, that former Trenton mayor, Frederick W. Donnelly, began working towards the idea of putting the slogan on the old, two-lane truss bridge that was owned and operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad at the time. It was Mayor Donnelly that rearranged the slogan into its current way of reading, “Trenton Makes – The World Takes”.
After a successful fundraising year, the bridge began to undertake its new branding in the spring and summer of 1917. On August 8, 1917, the final switch was turned on by the namesake owner of R.C. Maxwell billboard-advertising company, Robert Chester Maxwell, whose company built the sign.
According to an article by the Trenton Evening Times in 1917, this first was 420 feet long, 12 feet high and contained 2,500 incandescent lightbulbs. Originally this sign also incorporated an illuminated American flag at its center. However, the presence of the flag mistakenly confused passerby’s to believing Trenton manufactured flags. This called for the flag’s removal.
Over the last century, the sign has endured extensive makeovers and renovations. As advancements were made in the lighting industry, the fluorescent slogan was continuously receiving replacement bulbs, fresh enamel and structure repairs.
At one point, in the 1970s, the second installed sign began loosing illuminated letters and malfunctioned so often that jokes were sarcastically made. The town began to say phrases such as, “Trenton Flickers – The World Snickers”.
However, after the Trenton Sunday Times referred to the sign as an “eye sore” in the 1980’s, The Trenton Chamber of Commerce began a “Give Us a Sign” fundraiser which raised $42,000 for the installation of the bridge’s then third sign. This new sign, which differentiated itself from the old with all capital letters, was first illuminated on June 7, 1980.
Ironically, two days after the third sign’s lighting ceremony, the Trenton Times reported operational issues with the slogan’s new neon lighting. This issue quickly prompted the city to invest in other lighting options.
Only one year after the third installation of the slogan, in 1981, the Trenton Times and Chamber jointly began another fundraiser to install a wind-powered electric generator for the sign’s lights. They called the fundraiser “Give it a Whirl”.
The fundraiser was successful and the generator was installed on December 4, 1981. However, Ed Meara, the then Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Director labeled the generator a, “colossal flop” due to its inability to produce enough energy to cover even a $5 service charge.
In 1986, the sign became so unbearable and unreliable that the newspapers were even mocking it. The New York Times even wrote a satire article titled, “Mis_ing Lett_rs In N_w Jers_y Sign”.
In order to reclaim the once stunning sign, in 1994, the Trenton Chamber of Commerce, now called the Mercer County Chamber of Commerce, signed over the ownership and operating cost of the sign to the Bridge Commission.
On the fourth and final reconstruction, the commission replaced the old dysfunctional sign in 2005 to the current, iconic slogan seen today. The sign is now LED and was replaced a few years ago.
Although this sign has been through various ups and downs, it shines brightly today after over a century’s worth of stories. Today, its meaning and slogan remain legendary to the local Trentonian community.