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Ghost Signs: The fading remains of painted advertising on walls – look up to see into the past

David Goran

A ghost sign is an old hand-painted advertising sign that has been preserved on a building for an extended period of time. The rise of printed billboards soon led to their decline, but many still survive, often faded, clinging to the walls that host them. The sign may be kept for its nostalgic appeal, or simply the indifference of the owner.

Photograph showing Nathan Handwerker pointing to Nathan’s Hot Dog sign. Library of Congress

Photograph showing Nathan Handwerker pointing to Nathan’s Hot Dog sign. Library of Congress

Ghost signs are found across the world with the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Canada having many surviving examples. Ghost signs are also called fading ads and brickads. In many cases, these are advertisements painted on brick that remained over time. Old painted advertisements are occasionally discovered upon demolition of later-built adjoining structures. Throughout rural areas, old barn advertisements continue to promote defunct brands and quaint roadside attractions.

Old Dr. Pepper mural on a building in the town of Hico in Hamilton County, Texas. Library of Congress

Old Dr. Pepper mural on a building in the town of Hico in Hamilton County, Texas. Library of Congress

Many ghost signs from the 1890’s to 1960’s are still visible. Such signs were most commonly used in the decades before the Great Depression.

Cambridge, Ohio. Joanna Poe/Flickr

Cambridge, Ohio. Joanna Poe/Flickr

“[The signs] evoke the exuberant period of American capitalism. Consumer cultures were really getting going and there weren’t many rules yet, no landmarks preservation commission or organized community saying: ‘Isn’t this awful? There’s a picture of a man chewing tobacco on the corner of my street.'” —Kathleen Hulser, New York Historical Society.

Factory building of the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company, on Wheeling Island, West Virginia. Library of Congress

Factory building of the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company, on Wheeling Island, West Virginia. Library of Congress

The painters of the signs were called “wall dogs”. As signage advertising formats changed, less durable signs appeared in the later 20th century, and ghost signs from that era are less common.

Ghost sign for Eddy's Bread, before 2012 restoration. source

Ghost sign for Eddy’s Bread, before 2012 restoration. Wikimedia Commons

Ghost sign for Eddy’s Bread, after restoration and artificial “aging“. Wikimedia Commons

Ghost sign for Eddy’s Bread, after restoration and artificial “aging“. Wikimedia Commons

Ghost signs were originally painted with oil-based house paints. The paint that has survived the test of time most likely contains lead, which keeps it strongly adhered to the masonry surface. Ghost signs were often preserved through repainting the entire sign since the colors often fade over time. When ownership changed, a new sign would be painted over the old one.

Part of an old Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco sign on a wall in downtown Grafton, West Virginia. Library of Congress

Part of an old Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco sign on a wall in downtown Grafton, West Virginia. Library of Congress

Conservators today are being asked to preserve the original signs rather than painting over them. New products for consolidation are available that structurally stabilize both the components of the paint and the masonry substrate. The website Preservation Science discusses research, pertinent to ghost signs, that went into the preserving of paint on the exterior of the Building Museum in Washington DC. The historic Old Town District in Fort Collins, Colorado recently undertook a ghost sign rehabilitation project that was very successful for the community.

Ghost sign for a defunct clothing store in Salem, Massachusetts. Wikimedia Commons

Ghost sign for a defunct clothing store in Salem, Massachusetts. Wikimedia Commons

A Coca-Cola sign from 1958 in Old Town was preserved and touched up to make it more legible. The conservation treatment saturated the original colors bringing back the intensity of the design. It also made the underlying signs more visible to the naked eye.

Ghost signs in Fort Dodge, Iowa. source

Ghost signs in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Wikimedia Commons

In 2013, conservators undertook an effort to preserve ghost signs in Philadelphia. In the city of Detroit, well-preserved ghost signs have been uncovered when an adjoining building is demolished as part of the city’s blight-fighting efforts.