Ghost Signs
October 8, 2003 12:01 AM   Subscribe

"Before the invention of modern billboards, sign painters used to paint advertisements and company names directly onto building walls. These gradually fading painted signs are known as ghost signs."
posted by dobbs (28 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
[this is good]
posted by quonsar at 12:29 AM on October 8, 2003

I love seeing these around the city. [via this excellent new book.] (Couldn't connect to the server right after I made the post.)
posted by dobbs at 12:49 AM on October 8, 2003

one of my favorite bars in northampton, ma has a "uneeda biscuit" ghost sign. it's cool. slightly related: some guy recently crashed his car through the joint and they're only operating at like 3/4 capacity (the sign, being on the other side of the building, survived). he reportedly burst three kegs, causing life-giving beer to spill everywhere.
posted by magikeye at 1:12 AM on October 8, 2003

wonderful! nice one, dobbs.

see also fading ad for more fading ads.

maybe it would be a good marketing trick to deliberately produce a ghost ad? i'm so immune to billboards (unless they're lingerie ads) because i know they're trying to sell me things, but i'd certainly take notice of a ghost ad. ah, but then that ruins the appeal of the original ghost ads, doesn't it? back to square one.

i've seen sign painters in china bridging the gap between old and new by handpainting huge billboards. what skill!
posted by nylon at 1:17 AM on October 8, 2003

dang, nylon beat me to it linking fading ad campaign. I love old adsigns, great link.
posted by dabitch at 2:38 AM on October 8, 2003

Great links all around!
posted by soundofsuburbia at 2:46 AM on October 8, 2003

Don't forget the Coca Cola signs painted on the rocks scattered round the Ganges.
[Background Link Here].
posted by seanyboy at 4:10 AM on October 8, 2003

maybe it would be a good marketing trick to deliberately produce a ghost ad?

No no no no no no no no. Do not give them ideas.
posted by hilatron at 5:03 AM on October 8, 2003

More links here. This is neat stuff.
posted by TedW at 5:05 AM on October 8, 2003

for you miswesterners and west virginians...

posted by kid_twist at 6:34 AM on October 8, 2003

We have some of these in the Denver Metro area, and I really like seeing them. Some of them are still faded, some have been restored, and some have disappeared as old buildings are converted to lofts. Great links!
posted by Eekacat at 6:56 AM on October 8, 2003

Hear, hear, Eekacat! Denver has some good ghost signs. So does Cheyenne, in their old downtown area.
posted by jazon at 7:37 AM on October 8, 2003

Good stuff, thanks dobbs.
posted by plep at 7:42 AM on October 8, 2003

Thanks, dobbs - [this is good] - and thanks, kid_twist, for getting on the MAIL POUCH tip - though they're more widely seen than that ("fading ad" has one from the PA/NY border). That page, which I'd never seen, is entertaining to me because on our family's trips from Philly to southwestern Ohio, I always watch for those, and they're getting fewer and fewer. I've taken a couple of photos, and remarked a couple years ago that I'm sure someone has already undertaken to devote a Web page to them. Good to see that was true.

And on a related note, here are some signs that are only partially ghost signs, "Phantoms," collected by Daniel Radosh.
posted by soyjoy at 7:43 AM on October 8, 2003

for you miswesterners and west virginians...

Um, I really liked the site but, um, the Carolinas? New York and New Jersey? California? England? These are parts of the Midwest or West Virginia?
posted by Pollomacho at 7:46 AM on October 8, 2003

There are signs like this all over the five boroughs of New York. Sometimes I like to wander around and see them and imagine them when they were new.
posted by jonmc at 8:21 AM on October 8, 2003

i've seen sign painters in china bridging the gap between old and new by handpainting huge billboards. what skill!

That's not just a China thing; I've seen people doing that here in Seattle too.

For a while I was trying to collect photos of these signs in hopes of putting together a similar website, or a coffee-table book perhaps; there are dozens of them scattered around on various walls downtown. Some are high up and faded, and you only notice them when the light is right...

There's a grand old building on 2nd & Lenora that used to be a public bath, got taken over by some Pentecostal church that butchered the architecture, and is now being turned into a high-rise apartment building. All they're keeping is the porcelain facade, and when they knocked down the rest of the building it revealed a couple of huge painted ads on the building next door - a little faded after eighty years, but far brighter than most of the painted ads that have been exposed to the weather.
posted by Mars Saxman at 8:27 AM on October 8, 2003

Funny, Mars, I was about to post that same thing. My office is directly across the alley from the hole that used to be that building. We took some photos of the ads through our windows (no place to post them though...) since it is so rare to see these old ads so well preserved.

I found it interesting searching for info on these companies: one is for Albers Rolled Oats, which was produced by Albers milling company in the NW, though now it's just a brand owned by some multinational corporation (Nestle?) The business school at Seattle University is named the Albers school, after a former trustee who was the daughter of the founder of Albers Milling Co.

Another is for a business called "Mr. Two Dollar", who did god knows what.

So ends your brief Seattle history lesson...
posted by pitchblende at 9:18 AM on October 8, 2003

excellent site(s)! harper's ferry, wv, features an ad for "mennen's borated talcum toilet powder," painted on the cliff-face of maryland heights, overlooking the confluence of the potomac and shenandoah rivers. after 90 or 100 years, the ad is actually getting more distinct, as it continues to eat into the rock (but I couldn't find a clearer picture, dammit.)
posted by steef at 9:20 AM on October 8, 2003

I love these things -- more for their uniqueness than the fact they are fading. While the ad itself may not be unique, its canvas, context and scale are. A lost art to the rigors of standardization, I wonder if someone could revive the art of custom signs by developing what would essentially be a giant inkjet printer (think digitally controlled spray guns on the end of a pettibone-like lift) and a program which can manipulate the ad given certain constraints: e.g. size and shape, ideal distance to audience, color and texture of wall etc.

Nice link.
posted by Dick Paris at 9:36 AM on October 8, 2003

Here's a start...
posted by Dick Paris at 9:40 AM on October 8, 2003

I've seen a modern Budweiser advertisement that was somehow applied onto the outside brick wall of a bar in downtown St. Louis. I haven't had the chance to look at it closely, but the ad is a photograph and it definitely looks painted onto the brick. Maybe such a giant inkjet printer does exist.
posted by zsazsa at 9:43 AM on October 8, 2003

I just passed guys hand-painting a giant BACARDI & COLA ad onto a building at 13th St and 4th Ave here in NYC -- it used to be a Foot Locker ad, IIRC. I was amazed at the fact that it's actually painted by real people -- not sprayed-on, not a vinyl applique, not a giant banner... craziness.
posted by logovisual at 12:06 PM on October 8, 2003

If there is anyone out there considering taking a photo of a really neat "ghost sign" but have been to lazy to do so thus far, please do it now. I missed to opportunity to have a visual reminder of Bunny Brown's Place.

This neighborhood bar and the friendly whisky drinking rabbitman painted on its exterior existed as far back as I can remember. It closed eventually, but was never developed.

Every time we'd come back to the suburbs from the city we'd see the sign and I'd say, "I've gotta take a picture of Bunny Brown's Place." Several people I know independently thought that it would be cool to reopen it.

Upon one trip back home, I saw that the building had been knocked down. I don't get nostalgic for much, but I feel like a shmoe for not having recorded the existence of this place.
posted by ArcAm at 12:34 PM on October 8, 2003

About six months ago, out of a fear that they would fade further and disappear, I photographed every wall-painted sign in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. I've watched these lighten and peel over the past decade, and it's a shame that they will (in all likelihood) be gone in another decade. I even went so far a few months ago as to propose to City Council that they provide reimbursements to propery owners who touch up these signs for preservations' sake.
posted by waldo at 12:47 PM on October 8, 2003

For a while I was trying to collect photos of these signs in hopes of putting together a similar website, or a coffee-table book perhaps

That's funny; I've been wanting to do the same thing, and since we're in the same city it would have been the same book. But I've never gotten around to it.

My great-grandfather was a sign painter for Foster and Kleiser. So he painted some of the Seattle-area ghost signs. But it killed him at the age of 29 -- lead poisoning from the paint.
posted by litlnemo at 3:05 PM on October 8, 2003

Really neat find, dobbs. And Mars Saxman, pitchblende, litlnemo, thank you for the added info. on Seattle.
posted by lobakgo at 5:18 PM on October 8, 2003

I pass this wheel alignment sign often. I like Dave Till's photography and his commentary. He has other cool photos of sidewalks and graffiti. I like seeing photographs of my neighbourhood. Thanks dobbs!
posted by philfromhavelock at 10:53 PM on October 8, 2003

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