The Farine Five Roses sign is unlikely to remain a feature of the Montréal skyline for much longer, even though it has been around in some form since 1948. In mid-July 2006, the sign was turned off – seemingly permanently – as a direct result of ADM’s sale of the Farine Five Roses brand to Smuckers. (Since ADM no longer owned the brand, the sign on the roof of its mill had become an irrelevance.)
In mid-August of that year, the sign was turned back on amid adverse media coverage and public outcry. Notably, the City of Montréal remains adamant that it will not interfere with ADM’s rumoured plan to remove the sign, which it claims will happen when the sign has deteriorated sufficiently for it to be a safety hazard. (The rumour persists that they won’t perform anything beyond basic maintenance because that would contravene Montréal’s sign laws – a claim one could certainly dispute, since the English wording (‘Five Roses’) is a brandname.)
It seems more important than ever to think about the sign’s incredible history, since its days are indeed numbered. In 1946, Ogilvie Flour Mills Co. Ltd. opened the New Royal Mill in Montréal. A photograph from 1948 shows the rooftop sign at the time of installation reading ‘FARINE OGILVIE FLOUR’ on three lines. After Ogilvie purchased Lake of the Wood Milling, in 1954, the sign was changed to ‘FARINE FIVE ROSES FLOUR’.
In 1993-1994, the entire business was bought by Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM). The Quiet Revolution resulted in sweeping legislation that established the primacy of the French language in all forms of public communication, including signage. This led directly to the removal of the word ‘FLOUR’ from the sign in 1977.
The sign currently consists of fifteen letters arranged in two rows, repeated on both sides of the sign: ‘FARINE / FIVE ROSES’. These letters are each about 15 ft. tall, supported by a huge open scaffold, such that the words stand out prominently against the night sky, especially when approaching the city from the South shore of the St. Lawrence River (eg driving over the Champlain Bridge). The words are currently outlined in white and in-filled with red. At night they are lit by red neon laid into the red parts; the first word ‘FARINE’ is described in outline, while more elaborate rows of red neon up to three lights wide describe the words ‘FIVE ROSES’. These words flash on and off in a slow rotation, such that one full cycle – lasting about 22 seconds – is as follows: top row on, bottom row on, both off; top row on, bottom row on, both off; top and bottom on, top and bottom off.