Instead of looking down at your phone screen, why not “look up” and see what’s hidden in the flaked paint of that old building you are passing by. It may only be a building to you, but in that paint lies a history of times long ago, of businesses long gone, hints of the past. Telling a story of bygone times, the place where Grandpa stopped for an egg cream, or where Mom took you to buy your Buster Brown shoes.
A ghost sign (or faded ad) is an old hand-painted advertising sign that has been preserved on a building for an extended period of time. Painted on the sides of brick buildings, which are porous — adding in the lead paint of the time, it had great staying power.
“Ghost signs have lasted so long because the paint contained lead. Modern paints peel, rather than slowly fading away. Many of today’s restorations are painted in bright colors, but old paints were less vibrant, and the available palette was limited.”
Matt Cohen, a local copywriter and marketer in Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, Canada gives us a six-minute TEDx talk on how ghost signs evolved from promotion to persuasion.
[Editor’s Note: Be on the lookout for another post that ties old fashioned ghost ads into the present with technology]
Fading paint, beautiful lettering showcase typography of long ago and the skilled workers who used to be known as “wall dogs”. They were “artists and daredevils,” according to Frank Jump, author of 2011’s Fading Ads of New York City.
“The ability to paint recognizable images and text on such a large scale at such high altitudes requires a certain level of both grit and finesse.” It was a “well-respected working-class job” and many wall dogs came from families full of wall dogs.
[Animated] “Painting a Wall Sign”
When the typography signs are layered over one another, it is known as palimpsest. In textual studies, a palimpsest is a manuscript page, either from a scroll or a book, from which the text has been scraped or washed off so that the page can be reused for another document.
“By exploring the complex relationships that exist between the signs and those who commissioned, painted, viewed (and view) them, a deeper appreciation can be developed of wider historical, social and cultural movements. Ghost signs elicit a broad range of analytical responses: from investigations into modernity and everyday life, to explorations of lettering and the practicalities of painting styles and conservation techniques – and more recently, of digital placemaking and amateur archival practices.
Coca-Cola Featured photo in Demopolis, Alabama courtesy of Waymark
Want to Read More? Here are some LINKS:
3. Lyons, Martyn (2011). Books: A Living History. California: J. Paul Getty Museum. p. 215. ISBN 978-1-60606-083-4.↩
4. White, L, Schutt, S & Roberts, S (2016). “Uncovering Ghost Signs and their Meanings“. In Schutt, S, Roberts, S & White, L (eds), Advertising and Public Memory: Historical, Social and Cultural Perspectives on Ghost Signs. London: Routledge, pp. 1-14. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313823738_Uncovering_Ghost_Signs_and_their_Meanings