'Ghost Signs' Have Stories to Tell
August 19, 2017 12:10 PM   Subscribe

The faded advertisements on old brick buildings often go unnoticed, and they’re disappearing fast. Ghost signs have a special place in any city. Hand-painted signs were a popular form of advertising between the 1880s and the 1950s, before ads could be inexpensively mass produced, installed, and replaced. Their remnants offer a lens into a neighborhood’s past, reminding viewers about elements of commerce and life at certain points in history.
posted by adamcarson (32 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
There was a ghost sign near my home for an old dry-cleaning company. Faded white lettering on red brick and I always smiled every time I drove by it. Recently the building was restored/rebuilt as an apartment complex and they painted the exact sign with fresh lettering and while it looks quite nice, I'm quite upset by this. I'm not really certain why, but it makes me angry any time I drive by to see that fresh paint.
posted by Fizz at 12:12 PM on August 19, 2017 [1 favorite]


Spokane has a plethora of ghost signs. Some of them were made not from paint but from colored brick, actually built into the building when it was constructed. Others get refreshed from time to time (fresh paint just to piss off Fizz). Some are just there, and seem to have been there for generations.

I don't know why the old paint ones have survived for so long. Spokane has 4 pretty stark seasons and it seems like they should have weathered off ages ago.

I love seeing them. It gives a depth and texture to the city that comes from the past into the now.
posted by hippybear at 12:32 PM on August 19, 2017 [4 favorites]


I've always wished someone would preserve these, if only in photos. I'm so glad you've posted this. 40 years ago when I moved to St. Paul there were hundreds of these. Almost all gone, now.
posted by adam hominem at 12:45 PM on August 19, 2017 [1 favorite]


On the one hand, I'm here for this because I'm a graphic designer by trade, I love the aesthetic, and as a city boy born and bred I love the glimpses into history they provide. On the other hand, I imagine an artist in 2167 lovingly restoring old AOL disc mailers and it makes me laugh.
posted by ejs at 12:47 PM on August 19, 2017 [19 favorites]


We still see the "Mail Pouch Tobacco" barns when driving through the country. Farmers loved a free paint job on the barn.
posted by Marky at 12:54 PM on August 19, 2017


Ghost signs have a special place in any city.
Countryside too. (Jinx!)
posted by clew at 12:56 PM on August 19, 2017


I have no problem with someone fixing an old building and providing residence for people in my community. I just feel like it would have looked nicer with the older faded "ghost sign" in place. It gives it more personality and history. But I guess the developer of this property had a different vision and it probably had something to do with the fact that it would sell better with a fresh coat.
posted by Fizz at 1:13 PM on August 19, 2017


There was (is?) great one in Old Pasadena: "My people are the people of the dessert,’ said T.E. Lawrence picking up his fork."

Hunh. I just this moment learned that it wasn't a ghost advertisement for a sweet shop: it was part of a citywide mural project in the 1970s.
posted by notyou at 1:22 PM on August 19, 2017 [4 favorites]


Winnipeg has a fair bit of ghost signs, so I did a quick google figuring a local photographer would have a little gallery... turns out the Advertising Association of Manitoba has a pretty neat website devoted to them.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 1:25 PM on August 19, 2017 [2 favorites]


There is a huge ghost sign here in downtown NYC that reads:
"Beautify your building with paint, paper, paste, and push."
No one knows exactly what "push" is, maybe just motivation?

I wonder in what form they sold that? Benzedrine inhalers?
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:51 PM on August 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


This is what the digital revolution was all about!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:42 PM on August 19, 2017


James Lileks has been collecting these online for 15 years or more.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 3:40 PM on August 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


Is there a name for when a board from an old sign is reused as building material like this?
posted by lamp at 4:23 PM on August 19, 2017


Very cool. I'd like to add that hand-painted signs did not stop being created in the 1950s. There are many hand-lettered signs that are still around from the 1970s and later. They have a particular character and charm, and you can spot them if you look.

In the 1980s, a friend of mine was making hand-lettered signs for businesses. It was somewhat of a lost art already. (He had learned to do hand-lettering at art school. Old-school sign painters were tradesmen, and better at it than he was.)

Most of the ones being painted now are for fancy hipster establishments, but they are still being made.
posted by Vispa Teresa at 4:26 PM on August 19, 2017


> I don't know why the old paint ones have survived for so long. Spokane has 4 pretty stark seasons and it seems like they should have weathered off ages ago.

There are a few rules of thumb for signpainters and about the only one that I remember is to avoid painting the south side of a building, because that gets the most sun and will fade the fastest. (Or maybe, make an effort to paint the south side of a building to ensure return business.)

The exception that tests the rule: In Erie, PA there's an old factory building with a south-facing painting on one of the roof towers that's still advertising NuBone Corsets and I'd hedge my bets that it's around a century old. Erie's pretty notorious for its lack of sunny days.
posted by ardgedee at 4:27 PM on August 19, 2017


> We still see the "Mail Pouch Tobacco" barns when driving through the country. Farmers loved a free paint job on the barn.

The Wikipedia entry on Mail Pouch barns is pretty interesting. The barns not only got a free paint job but the owners were paid an annual stipend for it. And the campaign ended in 1992, far later than I had thought.
posted by ardgedee at 4:29 PM on August 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


I was recently charmed by a storefront advertising itself as a "Vacuum Cleaner Clinic." The real surprise came when I discovered said Vacuum Cleaner Clinic is still in business.
posted by Carouselle at 4:33 PM on August 19, 2017


Here in San Francisco, artist Kasey Smith has been documenting, mapping and giving wonderful tours of the ghost signs that first sprang up in the wake of the 1906 Earthquake.
posted by twsf at 4:46 PM on August 19, 2017 [2 favorites]


In SF there is one near downtown that has the word "WHY?" in giant letters, then some faded ad. But it is a question I ask myself often, so I want it to always be there.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 6:27 PM on August 19, 2017


We have a number of these in the downtown area here, in it's neat to look at them as a symbol of the past. Also, a few years back, a team of conservators restored one set of ghost signs, so they now look as they did when they were in their heyday.
posted by NoxAeternum at 6:27 PM on August 19, 2017


In the nearest city to the town where I grew up, there was a huge, abandoned storage silo for Robin Hood Flour. There was a huge vintage logo painted five stories high on the side of the building, complete with fancy lettering and a profile portrait of Robin Hood with orange hair and Lincoln green cap. We called it the Robin Hood Flour Tower. It was faded and flaked back then; I bet the picture is gone now if the building's still even there.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:37 PM on August 19, 2017


Here's one that I first saw when I was maybe 4 or 5 years old, and I've never forgotten it. What made it so memorable to me was the my reaction to it, as it was an odd combination - funny, curious, and also a bit unsettling.

Roger's FIREPROOF Hotel

At first, I didn't know what to make of it. It was about as goofy as seeing a billboard advertising "Hane's ABSOLUTELY NOT RADIOACTIVE Underwear." So I asked my parents about it, and they told me about how that it was a pretty big selling point, as hotel fires were common back then. This creeped me out a bit, as my cousin's house had recently burned down, and I spent the next hour or so wondering to myself if I should be worried about buildings that don't point out the fact that they are fireproof. This train of thought eventually made me laugh about the whole thing again, and later that day learned all about building codes and sprinkler systems.
posted by chambers at 6:44 PM on August 19, 2017 [7 favorites]


there's one in three rivers michigan that advertises 25c meals and 25c beds - it seems to have been repainted lately, though, and i'm not sure how genuine it is (meaning if the building was actually a hotel) or how long ago this would have been current
posted by pyramid termite at 7:19 PM on August 19, 2017


FLEXEES * LOVABLE * NEMO was near where I used to live, fickr link.
posted by ovvl at 7:32 PM on August 19, 2017




In SF there is one near downtown that has the word "WHY?" in giant letters, then some faded ad. But it is a question I ask myself often, so I want it to always be there.--GospelofWesleyWillis

Why?
posted by eye of newt at 11:29 PM on August 19, 2017




I watched a documentary on sign painters a while back, aptly called Sign Painters. May be of interest!
posted by batter_my_heart at 12:58 AM on August 20, 2017


DEPRESSION IS A FLAW IN CHEMISTRY NOT CHARACTER
posted by grobstein at 9:04 AM on August 20, 2017 [1 favorite]


I'm a big fan of this spooky fellow in Somerville MA
posted by es_de_bah at 6:08 PM on August 20, 2017


The Hart's Department Store warehouse sign in San Jose has a dark story behind it (story includes vigilante mob action and a double lynching).
posted by JDC8 at 7:45 PM on August 20, 2017


There's an impressive one of these on the side of a cliff in Harpers Ferry, WV*.

* (The sign itself is actually across the river in MD)
posted by doctornecessiter at 6:00 AM on August 21, 2017


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